Father Remains A Figure

By Mike Wise
Updated: March 21, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C. — John Thompson Jr. and John Thompson III trudged through the airport with friends on Sunday night. About the moment they reached Gate C 24, a well-meaning man excitedly approached Georgetown’s former coach.

“Congratulations on that victory,” he told Big John, who retired in 1999 and, in point of fact, did not coach the team that had upset Ohio State hours earlier to secure the Hoyas’ first round-of-16 appearance in five years.

Thompson, laughing, finally pointed to his son and said: “This is the coach of Georgetown. Right here.’”

They all felt for that embarrassed soul. But, in a larger scheme, the father said: “That stuff has never bothered John. He just rolls with it. He’s strong enough as a man to know: I don’t want to lose my right to meddle with my child.

“Now, that would frustrate the hell out of me.”

John Thompson III taking over his old man’s store two years ago seemed more rife with peril than hope. The program had not been truly relevant for a few years, and there was always the danger of being compared to the university’s iconic figure, who happens to be his Pops.

Walking in your father’s footsteps is one thing. But who on earth would want to coach in Big John’s shoes?

Two years later, their relationship — coupled with JTIII’s success — has become one of college basketball most endearing stories. The young coach is secure, completely unthreatened by his father’s presence or influence. In fact, he made the team plane wait for Big John on Sunday night after the Hoyas’ historic win. Figuring his son might be hungry, Big John grabbed him a double cheeseburger at Wendy’s before climbing aboard.

“He’s never made me feel like the door is closed,” Big John said. “That’s always important to an old man.”

They sat next to one another on the way back home. JTIII watched a movie. Big John listened to his oldies music. A few times his mammoth right hand reached over and patted his son on the knee and whispered: “You did a good job. You did a good job.” The son smiled back affectionately.

“I like the little stuff where he comes home and kisses me on the forehead and says, ‘I’m getting ready to go,’ ” Big John said. “I want to be cared about by my children.”

The public softening of Thompson has been a spectacle to witness from afar. His son’s players hug him like a grandfather. For the Westwood One radio network, he will go to Minneapolis and announce his son’s game against Florida on Friday night — knowing he has no real chance at objectivity.

“I think it’s stupid or a lie for anybody to think you’re going to be objective about your own child,” he said. “If you can’t be biased about the people you love, what’s the point of living?”

Crazy, no? Old, big, bad G-Town has become the Field of Dreams of the hardwood.

It’s not clear how the Georgetown program — once referred to as Hoya Paranoia — instantly morphed into Joytown. Or whether comparing John Thompson’s national championship era and his son’s second year at Georgetown is even fair or right.

After all, they still tape the doors on campus to make sure no one watches practice through the cracks. Interviews with the players during the regular season are monitored more heavily than most national elections. And the coach is still named Thompson. If he doesn’t want outsiders trying to bring his program down, he’s much more covert about it than his old man.

Hoya Paranoia came about because of the intimidation Big John and his program exuded. The term was assumed to be the demons crawling inside Thompson’s head, which made the large, in-charge, baritone-voiced coach of Georgetown believe most people wanted his team to either lose by 30 or be incarcerated. The will of one man built Georgetown basketball, and crossing that man became the wrong thing to do during the Hoyas’ heyday.

Georgetown in the 1980s was viewed in the most ethnocentric way as Twelve Angry Men. If we’re being blunt, 12 angry black men. They had a cadre of intimidating players, who happened to be African American. Such as Michael Graham and Alonzo Mourning, who dunked ferociously and rarely seemed to smile. The greatest player in school history was a scowling center who didn’t merely block shots; Patrick Ewing slapped them into Row C and made his foes look foolish trying to finger-roll one past him. They were the Raiders of college basketball, everybody’s favorite school to root against. And their gruff, overprotective, bear of a coach became their symbol.

Of course, much of it was fictionalized and borne out of racial stereotypes of the time. For example, it was oft-reported Thompson made the Hoyas stay more than an hour away from Seattle or in Canada when they won the national title in 1984. In reality, they stayed across the street from the airport, less than a half-hour out of town. There were other embellishments that lent credence to Thompson’s us-against-our-detractors world.

“The whole bit about the racial thing always bothered me,” Thompson said. “I had more white friends in my life probably than I had black. But all of a sudden, I didn’t like white people. Most of the people running around talking about, ‘The man is a racist,’ well, the only person they knew who was black was the janitor. But they would look at certain characteristics about me and attempt to define me.

“That whole Hoya Paranoia stuff, it just kept growing and I never understood it. I wasn’t going to defend every false accusation. You have to create an environment that’s conducive for you to teach. That’s what I did. The essential ingredient for being able to teach anybody is to have time with them.”

Still, what happened to the man who made people quake when he spoke, the omnipotent coach who peered down at his inquisitors and critics like ants about to have their existence ended by his humongous dress shoe?

“I don’t have the same occupation,” Thompson said after he finished his drive-time show on WTEM (980 AM) in Rockville. “Everybody changes. When I was a social worker and worked with kids who came out of prison, I had to get them oriented to society again, adapted to jobs. You adapt to what you’re doing. People see me laughing and smiling. I’m in the entertainment business now. I am not protecting 12 kids anymore. That’s a different kind of responsibility.

“Now,” he said, a baritone laugh emerging from his belly, “I can become a bastard again if the occasion merits it.”

Big John also allows that Georgetown’s environment may seem different because of who his son is or who he was not during his tenure.

“It wasn’t just my size; I was outspoken,” he said. “He’s wiser than I am. I was more reactionary. I would react, say things. I love that about John. He weighs things. I know he is so strong. He’s different than I am in that way.”

The father, whom the son includes in everything Georgetown, is asked if that’s a good thing.

“I don’t want to see another me running around,” John Thompson Jr. said. “My mother and father meddled in my life. My father meddled in my life until the day he died. And I didn’t realize how much joy they got out of it until I started messing with his life.”