Those who refuse to bend to the world as they find it usually end up in one of two ways. The world breaks them. Or they bend the world to them.
John Thompson, who was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame yesterday, had a 27-year argument with college basketball and the American society it at least partially reflected. In the end, it was the world that bent and was the better for it.
For more than a quarter-century, with his booming laugh and passionate opinions, Thompson was one of the most disagreeable people in this country. Agreement bored him. Debate invigorated him. Everything he disliked he discussed, with bouquets of exclamation points attached. In a sports arena awash in happy cliches, he left the easy compliments to others.
A cheerful consensus on any issue -- especially one that involved race, class, money, education or basketball -- raised his suspicions. To quote P.G. Wodehouse, "If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."
Thompson's strength was not the freshness of his perspective or the depth of his insight. He just believed college sports should live up to the code that the country claimed it lived by. Others asked. He demanded. If that meant walking off the court in protest of Prop 42 issues, so be it.
What Thompson brought to his bully Hilltop pulpit was intense conviction and a street-wise, book-polished way of making his point with a sports anecdote that often hid a parable at its core. Even the deflated basketball in his office was a metaphor.
For example, a few months ago, he told a story about two of his famous grads -- Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning -- having a heated argument in his office about the issues in the NBA lockout. What made him "so proud" was the high level of the discussion and the way both men were involved firsthand in the labor talks. They were educated, concerned with the issues that touched their lives and committed to defending their ideas.
One of Thompson's longtime friends, Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, recently said, "You should live a life with as few negatives as possible -- without acquiescing." Contrary to what some thought, Thompson seldom went looking for a fight. But "acquiescing" to what he saw as evil was not in him. When a Georgetown player was consorting with a notorious D.C. drug lord (now in jail for life), Thompson called a face-to-face meeting to hash things out.
Who was that player? The same Mourning, raised in a foster home with 35 children, who was recently second in the NBA's most valuable player voting.
Despite his 1984 NCAA championship, his three Final Four visits and his 24 postseason appearances, Thompson had his enemies and detractors. Yet they seldom incited him to foolish overreaction. Perhaps the world didn't break either his reputation or his pleasure in life because, being an athlete, he wanted to win, not simply be a martyr.
In sports, the road to victory is always pragmatic with plenty of oblique paths and deferred rewards. There's no such thing as an idealistic jump shot -- just those that go in the basket and those that clank. Thompson's brand of sports-politics was reality tested. He spent his energy where it showed results.
Thompson also made it clear he spent his energy on people who showed results. Recruits were told they'd be given two years to show they could put a GU education to good lifelong use -- and not just in basketball. Otherwise, they'd be gone. One reason 97 percent of GU's four-year players have graduated is that those who weren't doing honest battle with the books in those first two years were invited to make other arrangements.
Thompson's tough love methods with his players came from his own parents, teachers and coaches. Yesterday, he recalled his sixth-grade teacher and a junior high coach. The first flunked him because he was a poor reader. The second took his transcript for Carroll High and, without asking his permission, crossed out "general studies" and put down "academic track." John was going to go to college whether he wanted to or not.
The lesson, for Thompson, was that, in many important life-changing situations, adults needed to take responsibility for children. Mutual discussion is nice. But demanding discipline and setting high standards are essential.
Thinking back on his own youth, Thompson said, "I would have taken the easy way." But adults who cared about him wouldn't allow it.
"Humility sometimes makes me want to vomit. I don't feel humble today," said Thompson yesterday. "We tried to do it the way we felt. We weren't concerned with blaming anybody or comparing ourselves with anybody. That was extremely important to me. We didn't say the rest of the world should do things the way we were doing 'em. Now the people in this game say we belong in the Hall of Fame and I'm pretty damn proud of that."
If Thompson's use of "we" sounds like royalty, perhaps it isn't meant to be. When Thompson got the phone call telling him he'd gotten in the Hall, he was in the GU cafeteria with academic advisor Mary Fenlon, current GU coach Craig Esherick, assistants Mike Riley and Ronnie Thompson (his son), strength coach Ed Spriggs and office manager Trina Bowman. These six have been with Thompson for nearly 150 years combined.
John gave them the thumbs up. "I was with the people who put me in the Hall of Fame," Thompson said. "That was special."
Fittingly, Thompson wasn't voted into the Hall in his first year of eligibility as such giants as -- is this a hoot? -- Kevin McHale, Wayne Embry and Billie Moore were. If Thompson got straight in, maybe that would mean he hadn't raised enough cain with the system. And we know he did.
But, the wait is over. The prize well earned. How are you going to celebrate, Big John?
"Not a sip, not a swallow," said Thompson. "I want the whole bottle."