Schoolwork Comes First at Georgetown : Despite Success, John Thompson Isn't Running a Basketball Factory

Denver Post

The tall young man approaches on the street of the nation's capital. Frantic, he looks at his watch. He might be wearing something with "Georgetown" on it, or simply Georgetown's colors in athletic casual.

Can you help me out? I'm running late for practice, and if I'm not there on time, Coach Thompson will give me all sorts of. . . .

Heck, everyone knows John Thompson--and the Jesuit order--run a tight operation. So every once in a while, with the most gullible, the sting works. The man on the street obligingly hands over cab fare to someone who never has been hit with Thompson's stinging words:

Run the play.

Play defense.

Hit the boards.

And hit the books. Go to Mary Fenlon, the ex-nun and academic adviser, for help if and when you need it. Keep in mind she is watching. Sluff off, show a cavalier attitude toward the classroom, and you're gone.

So as senior center Patrick Ewing was leading the Hoyas through the undefeated streak that St. John's ended at 29 games, Michael Graham--the potential superstar with the attention-drawing shaved head and aggressive, even dirty, on-the-floor manner--reportedly was planning to enroll elsewhere than Georgetown.

At Georgetown, it is a byproduct of the university's upward-bound policy of giving inner-city, underprivileged and previously underachieving students at least a chance; but since the program began shortly after Thompson's arrival as Georgetown's coach in 1972, it has been easy to target the program as a means to build a powerful basketball team. Some of his players over the years could have gotten into some of the most prestigious schools in the country; a few needed the loosened guidelines.

Thompson and the flexible admissions standards might get someone enrolled, but after that the student had better get serious.

Or get out.

Forty-four of Thompson's 46 seniors have graduated.

"They tell us what we have to do," said starting guard David Wingate, a junior from Baltimore and a pre-dentistry major. "We have to set our goals to graduate."

Charles Deacon, the school's director of undergraduate admissions, has said, "This is not a basketball factory. If it were, we'd just keep the kids eligible for four years and then dump them. Look at what John's kids who aren't in pro basketball are doing for a living today. They're doctors, lawyers, ministers. They aren't on the streets, or playing minor-league basketball somewhere."

This marriage between the private, expensive, predominantly white, urban Catholic university and Thompson's basketball program seems far from pre-ordained.

Georgetown itself is the oldest area of Washington, D.C., and it overlooks the Potomac River, about two miles northwest of the White House and the Mall. In fact, the school was founded in 1789--long before the White House or the Capitol were built.

As at Notre Dame, or Boston College, or DePaul, it is hard to pretend not to notice that this is, above all, a school run by the Catholic church--an institution with which John Thompson didn't always get along.

He was raised in Northeast Washington--across town, and in another world, from Georgetown. His father was a farmer who turned mechanic when he moved into the city; his mother, a rural teacher who became a maid because her certificate wasn't accepted in Washington. John went to the Washington Senators' games at Griffith Stadium, but he didn't like the Senators. Even after the segregation line had been broken, all their players in the early 1950s were white. He rooted for the opposition, especially the Cleveland Indians, who at the time had Larry Doby, Luke Easter and Suitcase Simpson.

When he was a child, he asked why blacks had to sit in back of the Catholic church and take communion only after the whites were finished.

Thompson's first experiences with Catholic education--his grade school years--were jarring. His grades were poor, and he couldn't read. The nuns didn't like him, and it was mutual. He was expelled in fifth grade. Send John to a school for retarded children, school officials told his parents.

No thanks, said Anna Thompson. She sent John to public school. By the time he was entering high school, he could read, he was 6-foot-10, and the Catholic school system wanted another chance.

An alumnus of Archbishop John Carroll High offered to pay his tuition at the school. It was illegal recruiting, but everyone looked the other way, and four years later, when the colleges came offering scholarships, Providence--a Catholic university run by the Dominican order--won out.

At Providence, he found some friends: A white walk-on, Bill Stein; an older Jewish couple, Harold and Marty Furash; and Providence assistant coach Dave Gavitt.

Harold Furash was a real estate agent and a basketball fan who, says Thompson, taught him about "the white world." When Thompson was lonely, which was often, he would go over to the Furash home for, among other things, friendly, few-holds-barred debate.

After Providence came a short-lived NBA career that ended after two years, when Thompson was claimed by Chicago in the expansion draft. He retired to teach at Federal City College, and a priest talked him into coaching the St. Anthony parish high school basketball team. It was a hobby, but the beginning of a career.

Thompson came to Georgetown in 1972. The president of the school at the time, Rev. Robert J. Henle, said he was hoping for a decent team and intermittent National Invitational Tournament berths.

John Thompson walked in and took over. "He hasn't changed at all since then," said Stein, who served as Thompson's chief recruiter and assistant coach before becoming athletic director at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., last year. "The first thing he told me was all our kids were going to graduate. He met with the players who already where there, and that's just what he told them."

Like it or not, the university got more than a low-profile NIT program. Maybe even more than they wanted. The current president, Rev. Timothy J. Healy, is president of the American Council on Education, and has publicly criticized the NCAA ("a classic example of the fox in the henhouse"); varsity eligibility for freshmen; and the length of football and basketball seasons ("ridiculous").

Healy probably couldn't have stemmed the growth of the Georgetown basketball program, even if he had tried. On the one hand, there is the Hoyas' success on the floor. On the other hand, there is the criticism and the signs that the basketball program hasn't been embraced with collegiate zeal by the campus and the community.

And then there is the criticism from the media and other observers: Thompson, it has been said, encourages his players to think it is them against the world. That feeling might have been understandable on the day in Providence, in 1983, when fans held up a sign, saying, "Ewing can't read this." Thompson threatened to pull his team off the floor, then later said he would send his players into the stands in response to future demeaning signs.

Since all his players are black, Thompson has been called a racist. He scoffs at that. His former teammate and recruiter, Stein, gets an ironic kick out of that.

"There are teams in the country that are all-white, and no one says anything about that," said Stein. "White coaches have all-black teams, and they're humanitarians. Look, when we started out, we had some tough times. We'd get a couple of Washington, D.C., kids and coaches would tell kids, 'Hey, don't go to Georgetown, they only want Washington, D.C., kids.'

"We'd be recruiting white players, and coaches would say, 'Don't go there, he won't play you.' It always was something like that.

"And then when we got good, he even has been given the credit of being a good coach. The main reason is he's black. I don't care what anyone else says; that's the reason. No matter who we had as players, everyone said our talent was better than anyone else's. Sure: Look at our '82 team, the one that lost to North Carolina (in the NCAA final). Ed Spriggs never played high school ball. Eric Smith had one other basketball offer. Michael Hancock had one. Gene Smith had one, from a Division 2 school. Eric Floyd wasn't good enough to play in the SEC. That's the team everyone said had more talent than anyone else.

"Last year, against SMU in the national tournament, he held the ball (and won 37-36). Other coaches hold the ball for 12 minutes, and it's a great move. The thing is, John could recognize talent, bring it out. Now that the program has gotten to where it is, he gets the all-Americans. I say good for him, he deserves it."

This year's team has only three seniors--Ewing, forward Bill Martin and backup center Ralph Dalton. His four varsity freshmen have come from all over--center Grady Mateen from Akron, Ohio; forward Ronnie Highsmith from Robersonville, N.C., and four years in the U.S. Army; guard Kevin Floyd from Los Angeles; and guard-forward Perry McDonald from New Orleans.

"I feel very good about winning the championship last season," said Thompson. "But I'm beginning to find out it's just as much of a challenge trying to win another one. There is a greater danger in winning than losing because victory lulls. When you reach a goal, you think that's the end, but you find out that your competitive instincts keep churning and you find another challenge."

Finally, the press criticizes the shield Thompson has erected around himself and his players. Before, it seemed arrogant, and even his players at times gave the impression they were being overprotected. But, now, with the Hoyas so nationally prominent (ranked No. 2), the members of the media are stumbling all over themselves to get at the Hoyas, and the protectiveness seems a little more prudent and reasonable.

Thompson has gone on record as saying that one of the reasons athletes' graduation rate isn't higher "is because college coaches don't provide them with enough time to study. My responsibility is to my players--not the media, the alumni or the public."

There have been some who even go so far as to say Thompson's protectiveness is a means--deliberate or otherwise--by which he will receive an inordinate amount of the attention and credit. Out of the success, he has gotten, among other things, a gift of a $300,000 house from an alum; a lucrative shoe contract with Nike; a television show; and a successful camp.

But he also takes the heat.

Thompson told John Feinstein of The Washington Post: "When I criticize things in white society, people say I hate white society. That isn't true. But when I get angry at a racist sign or stand up and say something people don't want to hear, I am perceived as a bitter black man. I'm not bitter, but my position has given me a platform."

Thompson maintains he is resented because of a perception. "I'm not grateful for my success," he said. "Whites are intimidated by non-smiling blacks.

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