Patrick Ewing told John Thompson not to cry, but restraint had no chance Friday night. "I can't help it," he said. "This is not my image, but who the hell cares about image today?"
John Thompson has never put much stock in individual awards. "Popularity contests," he says, have never meant anything to him. The work is the reward, more than MVP or coach of the year. Achievement should never need further amplification. But the Hall of Fame? That's different. It's the validation of a career, the place where the folks who truly mean something to the history and culture of basketball are celebrated forever.
"This is important to me," Thompson said Friday, the morning of his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. "It's like being buried in Arlington Cemetery. I drive by Arlington Cemetery and I envy the guys who have accomplished the honor worthy of being buried there."
It was a wonderfully emotional evening for Thompson, and therefore Georgetown University, on an evening full of tears and hugs and dearly felt thank-yous for a lifetime of achievement. It was evident early in the day Thompson would not make it through his induction speech without getting his cheeks wet. The man who has never cared much for ceremony or pomp walked up to the stage with "my beloved friend," former Georgetown athletic director Frank Rienzo, and was received by his mentor, Red Auerbach, then two of the men he mentored, Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo. "This," Thompson said, "is something that I've always wanted."
It was appropriate that the ultimate honor was bestowed on Thompson here in this New England manufacturing town, 75 miles or so west of Providence, R.I., where Thompson went to college. It's also 100 miles or so southwest of Boston, where as a member of the Celtics, he set himself on a course that would influence the course of college basketball and impact his home town, the nation's capital.
Basketball's grand night is much less hyped than the ceremonies honoring the greatest of the great in baseball and football. But the inductees are no less impressive. The Basketball Hall of Fame welcomed Billie Moore, the women's basketball coach who led UCLA and Cal State Fullerton to national championships; Kevin McHale, who along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish was part of the greatest front court in NBA history; Fred Zollner, the founder of the Fort Wayne/Detroit Pistons; Wayne Embry, the massive man of great intellect and accomplishment who with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated one of the keen eyes for talent the league has ever seen.
It was easy to get nostalgic in such a setting, and fortunately for all of us, Thompson was in such a mood Friday. All we needed was a campfire and some marshmallows.
"My Celtic life," Thompson said, "has more significance to me than to others. That's because I didn't play much. I talked to Russell about three times this week, mostly fussing at him for something he wasn't doing that I wanted him to do. But he told me he has this picture of him, me and Willie Naulls on the court at the same time. I told him, 'I know that picture is a collector's item because I never got on the court.' I said, 'Russ, I wonder what the score of that game was.'
"Really," Thompson said, "it was the relationships with guys from being a Celtic which affected me. We had a lot of bright people in that locker room."
And once inside that dressing room, he found a cauldron of riveting conversation and exchange. "The level of intelligence in that room was amazing," he said. "I can remember Satch Sanders in the whirlpool, reading a book for hours. His entire body was submerged; he was totally covered except for his hands and the book."
If coaching were all that was under consideration, Thompson would have been in the Hall of Fame before now. But it's tough for a man who can be as combative as Thompson to win those popularity contests. He knows that, too. He believes his public stances delayed his enshrinement and he is not alone in that belief. Hopefully, too, he knows it's those very public stances that irritated so many but also have cemented who he is, and made his induction here an obsession for so many people whose lives he influenced.
Name another coach whose positions on educational issues are as well known as Thompson's. His opposition to Proposition 48 endeared him to black folk, poor folk and those impassioned about opportunity through education in a way winning a basketball game never could. "My standards were as high as anybody's if you take into account the number of kids I asked to leave," he said. "It was always ridiculous to suggest I wasn't for tough standards. What I said was, 'The misuse of standardized testing will hurt poor kids.' Even they have come back to say it now, that they misused the document."
Of course there's heavy irony in the fact that the man who earned his way into the Hall of Fame as a coach is now a broadcaster. A "jouuuurnalist," Thompson likes to say, drawing out the word. He does miss coaching. He misses the gym, the teaching and, of course, the games. It came as a shock to me that he says he even misses the recruiting. "There's one thing I don't miss: pushing kids to the point of graduation," he said. "Monitoring, fussing, cussin', insisting, making sure the things they need available are available. That's the hard, consuming part of coaching I do not miss. If you are concerned about helping kids move along toward graduation, it's a heavy, heavy burden. [A coach] is held more responsible than the kid's own parents. That's a tough, difficult responsibility."
But because he negotiated the most difficult responsibilities with unswerving toughness, imagination, common sense and, ultimately, great results, John Thompson the basketball coach has arrived here at the Hall of Fame--a place he always wanted to be, a place where young coaches will drive by and envy the men who have accomplished the honors worthy of being there.