For 18 seasons at Georgetown, John Thompson has won primarily with kids who obey him faithfully. Often blindly. The program and system are bigger than Patrick Ewing, bigger than Alonzo Mourning, bigger than anybody. "I'm not running any democracy here," he has often said. Of the kids who aspire to play big-time college basketball, probably 90 percent of them are better off having the kind of strict discipline Thompson imposes.

But once in a while along comes a David Robinson, a young man who wants to know why the coach says do it this way, a kid for whom strictness is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. A player who isn't about to obey anybody faithfully or blindly, not Thompson, or Bob Knight or Dean Smith.

People who knew Thompson and Robinson in the summer of 1988 were fairly certain there'd be some friction when Ensign Robinson of the U.S. Navy reported for a tour of duty with Thompson's Olympic team. For the longest time, there were rumors that Robinson was unhappy with Thompson's one-way approach. But for the longest time, Robinson kept up his guard publicly and said he loved playing for Thompson.

Now, three years later, in a profile of Robinson in the current issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly, he let down that guard with writer Pat Jordan. "Thompson was a dictator," Robinson told Jordan. "You had to go his way. It was always his gym, his team, his this . . . He wants you scared of him. He degrades you. He told me I couldn't play. I said, 'Okay, that's fine. I can't play.' He didn't understand I could be devoted to the game and still have other interests. He was used to having kids for whom basketball's everything. He gets into your mentality with the mind games he plays."

Robinson, now a two-time all-star with the San Antonio Spurs, suggested that his asking why didn't sit well with Thompson. "He just wanted guys to run through a brick wall for him," Robinson said. "I analyzed things. I had to because the game was still new to me."

Thompson said Wednesday night he'd rather not get into a public discussion, but he did tell GQ: "All I'll say is it wasn't his role to agree with me. I don't permit people to question me, or else they're not on my team . . . "

What we have here, more than one being wrong and the other right, is a night-and-day difference in philosophy. Robinson doesn't say Thompson is wrong; he just didn't like being treated that way. And if you listen closely, Thompson confirms some of what Robinson says. He doesn't want some kid -- Robinson was 23 years old, but to Thompson that's still a kid -- analyzing, then questioning what he's trying to implement.

A dictator? Much of the time, yes. You have to go his way? Absolutely. His gym, his team? Correct again. That's the basis for much of the criticism of Thompson over the years and was repeated in a recently published book about Thompson by Washington Post columnist Leonard Shapiro.

So much of what coaches do is meant to make you give yourself over totally to them. Ranting and screaming vulgarities and telling great players they can't play is part of the deal. Ewing was told virtually the same thing by Knight at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. And Ewing did not enjoy the experience.

Most players, even great ones, have learned since the age of six to receive the message and ignore the tone. Robinson came to basketball late. His parents, Ambrose and Freda, weren't into making David do things as much as they were appealing to his intellect.

Robinson, even when he was at Navy, never understood why coaches had to act like madmen on the sideline, which is a reasonable thought. Robinson said in the GQ interview, "{Paul} Evans was playing these mind games {at Navy} to motivate me. Yelling at me to get me mad. That may work with one-dimensional guys but not me. I just got mad at him. I told him, 'Hey man, you're being a jerk. Just tell me what you want me to do.' "

If you're John Thompson and you've won 75 percent of the games you've coached, you've been to three Final Fours and won one NCAA title and been at the top of your profession for a decade, do you scrap what has worked for you to accommodate one exceptional kid during a summer in which you've got about six weeks to prepare for the Olympics?

No. But if you're David Robinson, who wants to ask why, it's perfectly understandable that you don't come away feeling great about how you spent your Olympic summer.

This is what you have to know about Thompson, Knight and Smith. They are extraordinary and they are larger than any single player. Not everyone can play for them, particularly Thompson and Knight. It's no coincidence each has had a number of players transfer. If you don't want to do it exactly the way they want it done, it's best to go. Of course, Robinson didn't have that luxury; he wanted to play for the U.S. Olympic team and Thompson was the coach.

Back during the Olympic Games in Seoul, I asked Robinson about the rumors that he didn't like Thompson, that there had been some dissension. Robinson said he could listen to Thompson's stories forever, that he found Thompson to be one of the most engaging teachers and admirable men he had ever met. Robinson is very precise with the language. He avoided addressing his player-coach relationship with Thompson.

Robinson is not the first, nor will he be the last player to object to Thompson's way of doing things. Ralph Dalton, Ron Blaylock, Gene Smith and Michael Jackson come to mind as particularly bright, expressive kids who flourished in Thompson's system.

Hopefully, Robinson's going public with his feelings won't create a deep rift between the two away from basketball because the irony is that if more coaches were like Thompson, there'd be more kids who turn out like Robinson.