It was about 30 minutes after Georgetown had defeated Houston for the 1984 NCAA championship. The postgame ceremonies and television interviews were over. By this time, I was waiting at the Hoyas' locker room door. Suddenly, I felt someone nudging me gently from behind. The familiar voice told the guard, "He's with me." The door opened, and I accompanied Coach John Thompson into the Hoyas' quiet locker room.
This was rare. Georgetown did not open its dressing room to the media until after Thompson spent 10 or 15 minutes with the team before beginning a postgame news conference. NCAA tournament policy varied slightly; the media was allowed to enter when he departed for the news conference. Thompson bent the rule that one time--at the pinnacle of his career--and he did it for me.
Once inside, Thompson walked past me, closing in on a priest standing in the entranceway of the huge room. "That's the game ball," said the Rev. Timothy Healy, the university president. He handed it to Thompson and they embraced, the 84-75 victory bringing Thompson the national title he had been chasing for 12 years.
You've seen locker room celebrations on television--the champagne baths, grown men making fools of themselves, etc. On the Richter scale, this one measured about a 2, barely a temblor.
Thompson walked to the center of the huge room.
"What do we have to do?" he said.
"Say a prayer," his players responded in unison, and Thompson led the team in reciting the 23rd Psalm.
"Now what do we say?" intoned the 6-foot-10, 270-pound coach, still holding a quart of milk in his hands.
"We are George-town," the players, coaches and managers shouted.
"We are George-town," they repeated.
"Say it again," Thompson shouted, his voice breaking up.
"We are George-town," came the reply.
Thompson then went around shaking hands and congratulating each player. But there was no more outward jubilation. Other than a longer locker room interview period mandated by the NCAA, nothing was to be different than a midseason game. Not even Mary Fenlon, Thompson's top noncoaching aide, urging players and managers to gather everything so they would be ready to depart the arena.
Before taking star center Patrick Ewing, among others, to the postgame news conference, Thompson warned the team to be disciplined in their interviews. "When you get depressed, you do foolish things," he told them. "When you get super happy, you do foolish things, too. Be careful what you say."
As they headed for the door, he turned to me and said, pointing toward the bathroom and showers, "You'd better wait in there until the [other media] come in."
I often wonder why Thompson chose this occasion to let me view him operate in the inner sanctum of his locker room. I had covered him since he was a high school coach at St. Anthony's and through his early struggles at Georgetown, before he was John Thompson.
I certainly was not in his best graces at this time. Nearly two weeks earlier, I had been invited to cover a party Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty, author of "The Exorcist," was hosting for the team at his home. I also agreed to help a local reporter by answering some questions he had about the Georgetown program, with the ground rule it was for background and not for attribution. Instead, he went ahead and used the material without framing it in context and attributed it to me. The very same morning the story was published, a Georgetown official called me in my hotel room, letting me know I had been uninvited to Blatty's party.
Throughout the years, I have come to expect the unexpected from Thompson.
I had a kidney-pancreas transplant in 1992, and Thompson was the first person I recall seeing when I awoke the next day in surgical intensive care at Georgetown Hospital. Even in my groggy state, I knew visitors were limited to immediate family.
"How did you get in?" I remember asking.
"I told them I was your older brother," Thompson replied.
Mark Asher has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1963.
CAPTION: Hoyas Coach John Thompson, celebrating 1984 title win with Patrick Ewing, visited reporter in hospital after his surgery.