Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr. lived in Arlington at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He lived in Alexandria. This version has been corrected.
Ten years later, John Thompson Jr. remembers how his stubbornness almost cost him his life — and how a mystery kid on the other end of the line unknowingly helped save it.
“You know how I was in them days: I needed to be in Las Vegas for a friend’s birthday party on September 13, and no way no how was I going to fly to L.A. on September 12 and take a chance on missing it or somethin’ going wrong,” Big John said. “I told the producer I had to come out on the 11th” — on American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles.
Ten years later, Bruce Boudreau remembers being told to come to Los Angeles a day early by Andy Murray, then the coach of the Los Angeles Kings.
“He wanted to have a coach’s meeting for everybody in the organization,” said Boudreau, then a minor league coach in Manchester, N.H., six years from taking over as coach of Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.
“So about five days before I was supposed to leave, I changed my flight, to September 10 instead of September 11,” which meant he no longer held a seat on United Flight 175 out of Boston.
Ten years later, two coaches very much a part of the District’s sports landscape — from vastly disparate backgrounds, sports and generations — share the greatest life-affirming commonality imaginable: By God, fate or some other unknown force of the universe, Big John and Gabby never got on those flights.
Thompson could not remember why he was told not to come out Sept. 11. But he vividly recalls a series of back-and-forth conversations with the television-show booker.
“I told him, ‘Under no circumstances do I want to fly that day. I want to come out on the 11th.’ He said, ‘Please. I will get you in and out of the studio as quick as possible, get you back to the airport and I promise I’ll get you to Vegas by the night of the 12th.”
Big John wasn’t as gruff or uncompromising as he was when guiding Georgetown to a national title all those years ago. But if you pushed back too hard or he thought you were pulling something over on him, the growl and the claws returned.
“If that guy had not been that persuasive,” he admitted, “if we had come at each the wrong way, I would have said, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to do it; I need to go the 11th.’ Damn sure I would’ve said that.”
Boudreau was at a wedding in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he got word from Murray that he needed to get to L.A. a day early. Kings pro scouting director Ace Bailey, at the same wedding, wanted to reschedule his flight too so he could travel with Boudreau, his good friend.
“But it was going to cost about $750, and he didn’t want to hit the Kings up for that,” Boudreau recalled.
On Sept. 11, at 6 a.m. West Coast time, Crystal Boudreau called her husband and told him to turn on the television. From his hotel room, he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Only later that afternoon did he realize it was the flight that he originally had been scheduled on — and that Bailey and Kings scout Mark Bavis had boarded.
“You don’t how to feel,” he said by phone late Thursday afternoon. “You’re totally numb. You don’t know how to react. On one hand, I was so lucky Andy Murray had made me change my flight. On the other, I had just lost a good friend, a person I had just spent the weekend together with at a wedding. Ace was some guy.”
Thompson actually felt the Pentagon crash miles away in Alexandria, where he was living in a condominium on Seminary Road. He remembers Mary Fenlon, his longtime assistant, explaining to him later on the phone, “That’s the flight you were [supposed to be] on.”
“And I said, ‘Oh, [expletive].’ I felt like the elevator in my stomach went down. I went out on the balcony, lit a cigar and thought, ‘Damn. Damn. That’s right. That was the plane I was on. Oh my God.’ Everything at that point was confusing to everybody. I had not conceptualized that that was the [flight] I was on.”
Ten years later, Boudreau has kept his feelings buried as much as he can. But he acknowledges that’s been impossible lately.
“It’s hard not to think about, because there has been so much media coverage,” he said. “I try not to dwell on it. Maybe I’m too naive to have gone through all the reasoning, but I don’t want to try and think back. I feel it’s almost selfish because I know I was the lucky one.
“I guess what it comes down to is, I guess there’s a time for everybody. And my time isn’t up yet.”
Ten years later, Thompson said he still has one “frightening as hell” thought: “What if I had stayed stuck in what I wanted to do?
“You’re afraid as hell,” Thompson said. “You’re angry and feel terrible for what happened to everyone else, and you’re thankful at the same time.”
He added that he saved his flight itinerary for Sept. 12, 2001, which he keeps in plastic somewhere at home to remind him of the flight he was talked out of taking by a persistent young man he never met.
Big John said it helps remind him, “But for the grace of God, there go me.”