John Thompson hasn't sounded so happy in 25 years. And it's not because he's being inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., today. The reason he's laughing, cackling, needling, cussin' and fussin' is, as far as I'm concerned, because he's finally a free man again. At least for the time being.
The biggest sports surprise of '99 for many in this town has been listening to Thompson in his incarnation as a radio sports talk show host. He's loose. He's funny. He's friendly. He's in heaven. The other day, he even was singing on the air. The private suddenly has been released in public. The Thompson who emerges on radio is so different from the towel-chewing moralist of the Hilltop that some can't grasp it's the same man. Oh, it is.
Even his jaunt to the Hall of Fame hasn't stood in the way of his air time. "I'm calling on the cell phone going from the airport to the [radio] station," said the deep voice yesterday. "The show starts in a few minutes."
Thompson hasn't had time to write a single word of his induction speech. "God knows what I'll say. Sometimes I've said things I wish I hadn't," he said. "Maybe I'll get out that blank sheet of paper tonight." John may not be prepared for the Hall of Fame, but you can bet he's prepped for his first radio guest of the day. Now that is close to his heart.
My new nickname for Thompson is Scoop. He uses his Coach Mystique and his enormous cajoling personality to get celebrity athletes to spill their guts. I hate when they do that. Doesn't he know that's my job?
Hal Sutton was in the Thompson confessional yesterday. Ever since the Ryder Cup ended Sunday, the press has been trying to get the U.S. team to answer all the shots about poor sportsmanship that have come from the European team. Good manners had prevailed, until Thompson arrived.
"What do you think of this ridiculous stuff they've said since you guys whipped their butts?" said Thompson, starting with a nice, neutral query.
"For four days, I've been apologizing for winning," said Sutton. "I'm tired of apologizing." So it all poured out, with Thompson stirring the pot.
"Being a coach, you know how, in the wake of defeat, we all make excuses," began Sutton. "Well, they were looking for every excuse."
"Oh, yeeeess," said Thompson.
"They didn't just get beaten. They got waxed," said Sutton. "They've made a lot of sour grapes [noises]. They didn't like the way our wives looked. . . . They talked ugly about our shirts. Well, those shirts had pictures of all the U.S. Ryder Cup teams that beat them. They symbolized winning."
"Try to throw one of those shirts away right now and see how much [money] you get for it," said Thompson, agitating.
"When you're defeated, you have a short memory," said Sutton. "They've forgotten their fans beating on the stands [in Europe] and cheering when we missed. When they clinched in Spain, they [celebrated] so long it took me 15 minutes to play my next shot."
Thompson couldn't stop saying how he had fallen in love with golf and had been yelling at his TV set as the United States made its comeback. This charming, trouble-stirring, almost roguish Thompson hasn't been on public display to this extent since the 1970s when he was still below the national radar screen. Nobody knew more scuttlebutt, talked more trash about opponents or had more colorful stories from the old neighborhood. And nobody laughed more.
One Sunday afternoon when he was still coaching at St. Anthony's High, Thompson was at the home of Father Ray Kemp. With one of his young children on each huge knee, Thompson recalled a boyhood friend who had become an enforcer for the mob and gone to jail after being arrested with hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs. But the point of the story was how much Thompson always liked the fellow and how the whole direction of a life can turn on some small quirk of fate--the right teacher, coach or priest.
Most anecdotes touched on one of Thompson's two passions--getting the better of somebody in sports or furthering social justice. An odd combination. But those were his twin obsessions, and they never changed.
Though his core never altered with the years, Thompson's demeanor certainly changed. When you got him alone, you could tease him until he reverted to his funnier, friendlier, younger nature. But it got a bit harder. He had become defensive by habit and weighed his words like a spy behind enemy lines. How would each phrase be taken? He seemed like a diver submerged under many fathoms of water. You'd think, "How many atmospheres of pressure are on top of him today?"
Being a famous, responsible adult is no day at the beach. Imagine the burden. Every kid you coach thinks you sit at the right hand of the Almighty. Every ethical issue in basketball and every topic that touches on race is brought to your doorstep for a statement. If Ted Koppel isn't interviewing you, then Dan Rather is on the phone for a chat. It is intoxicating stuff. But what a weight to have on your shoulders for decades at a time. Now, Thompson sounds light as air. Because, one day, he just up and quit.
There were plenty of partial explanations. He was going through a divorce. He couldn't focus as monomaniacally on Hoyas basketball as he had in the past, so he was failing to meet his own standards. Some wondered if his blood pressure and 300-plus pounds were a factor. Finally, of course, many assumed he was just sifting offers, waiting for that perfect NBA deal--a chunk of equity as team president, a corner office and one job description: Make Something Good Happen.
Thompson still may end up in that corner office, dialing for deals and dollars. But, at least for now, let's hope not. He's done everything you can do in college basketball. He's fought every good fight. In fact, by retiring, he protected his reputation as a coach and thereby added to his longevity as a social critic. Any coach who has a few losing years and gets fired suddenly starts to look like an anachronism. Then your views don't seem so trenchant.
Nobody knows what Thompson's future holds. However, for some of us who have known him a very long time, it's nice to see an excellent man enter the Hall of Fame at a time in his life when he's back in his best and happiest form. Now, if he'd just stop scooping us all, everything would be perfect.