When did I feel really accepted in Washington? Maybe eight years ago, the afternoon John Thompson Jr. chewed me out on the radio. I had said something about Allen Iverson that didn’t sit well with him, and suddenly the WTEM talk-show host morphed back into a less-genial “Coach,” the protective papa bear of his former Georgetown cub.
“Look, you know I’m not going to sit here and let you talk about Allen like that,” he said in that deep baritone as we went back and forth for a few spirited minutes. “That’s my prodigal son.”
For two hours a day the past 13 years, sometimes within the same 15-minute segment, he could be biased, socially conscious, whimsical, and — a shocker to some — downright humorous. The man a former small-minded editor of the Salt Lake Tribune once called “The Idi Amin of Big East basketball” actually had a funny bone. And he loved nostalgia.
If you remembered old D.C. — Petey Greene; Chuck Brown; even Elgin Baylor working his game at Turkey Thicket — Thompson transported you back. If not, “The John Thompson Show” was taking you there anyway.
Now it’s time to pop a top, this time for good.
Thompson signs off his local radio show for the last time today, and even an employee of the competing station in town needs to acknowledge the passing of a moment in Washington sports, 13 years after we found out there was so much more to the man than just the growl.
“Did I make a difference? I don’t know,” Thompson said Monday in Rockville between segments with co-host Rick “Doc” Walker, who will continue on with the show. “But I can say this: Thirteen years later, without trying to explain myself — because I don’t think you ever totally reveal yourself to anybody — I feel like people know better who I really am.
“People don’t know I laughed. They didn’t know I joked. They took sound bites out of my life and tried to define me. They didn’t think I sang songs. What the [expletive] did they think I was doing?”
Since March 3, 1999, Thompson has unknowingly acquitted himself of all the lazy characterizations heaped on him during 27 years as a Hall of Fame basketball coach, “including the notion that I don’t like white people,” Thompson said through a laugh.
Who knew, for instance, that America’s foremost black militant sports figure in the early 1980s — when Thompson was walking off the court at the start of a Georgetown game to protest standardized-test requirements he viewed as racially biased — actually has a special affinity for country music?
There was nothing digital about the show’s musical repertoire. All vinyl, baby: James Brown’s “Lickin’ Stick,” the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” and Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give It Up” would be curiously mixed in with George Strait, Alan Jackson and Charley Pride.
For a two hours every day, Motown met the Grand Ole Opry.
Where the show was headed on a daily basis no one knew. For instance, Charles Barkley would be on one line with Thompson and Iverson would call on the other, and for the next hour you would eavesdrop on a surreal conversation among the three of them. Bob Knight, bully that he can be, was once moved to tears weeks after 9/11. Ultra-private George Steinbrenner, Tiger Woods and Pat Riley would give Thompson time, and you could hear the respect and reverence coming through their voices.
The most impressive feat, of course, was fluently speaking two languages during the course of two hours: “English and profanity.” Entering his last show, it has been amazing he has been able to keep his second language off the airwaves. When the red light came on, just like that, it was right back to his native, FCC-approved tongue.
Red Auerbach came in studio for no one other than Thompson. Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Deacon Jones were once on for an hour without commercial break. Thompson always had a soft spot for the big guys, often discussing sausage sandwiches with connoisseur/coach Ralph Friedgen.
Till the last show, he never shied away from discussions of race, and it seems only apropos that his final broadcast marks the end of Black History Month.
“You know what black folks call Black History Month?” he said, teasing his audience. “‘Mess with White Folks Month.’”
He said his most memorable moment was when Justice Clarence Thomas called in on the listener line to comment on a topic, which said everything: As gold standard as the guest list once was, Thompson’s convictions about society and race trumped anything about sports he opined about.
“Much of sports radio is antagonistic and sometimes mean-spirited; that was never the object of ‘The John Thompson Show,’ ” said Chris Johnson, Thompson’s producer for the show’s first seven years. (Full disclosure: Johnson’s now the producer of the radio show I co-host on WJFK 106.7 FM.) “John was always much more interested in dealing with issues. That’s not to say that the show wasn’t critical of certain players, coaches or franchises. But it was always done in a way that considered the people he was talking about.”
Thompson said he’s not retiring, “because that’s when they stop paying you,” he reminds everyone. He’ll continue to call national college games, including this year’s men’s Final Four.
But an era definitely ends locally, one in which a Washington legend through and through was finally unplugged and revealed in full. When we finally got to experience the persona behind Hoya Paranoia, we found out he wasn’t paranoid at all; mostly, Thompson was just perceptive.
“I’m not here to offend anybody,” he said. “But if the truth offends them, I’m not going to apologize.”
Congratulations on a great run. It’s time to lay back, kick your toes in the air and enjoy a sausage sandwich — because it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, John.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.