FAMILY AFFAIR : For the Sons of John Thompson, Basketball Was Unifying Factor at Home, but They Took Different College Routes
Ronny Thompson needed to talk with his father, John, the basketball coach at Georgetown University.
“It was about this time last year,” recalled Ronny, whose skills as a 6-foot-4 guard for Flint Hill Academy had grabbed the attention of many college coaches. “It was after our last game and coaches were starting to call.”
“Dad, I have to start making my visits.”
“No, I’m serious. I want to make my visits and think about schools I’m going to.”
“You don’t have to do any of that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to come to Georgetown.”
“I thought he was kidding,” recalled Ronny, the second of three children -- John III is 6-4 and graduated last year from Princeton after playing guard there for four seasons, and Tiffany, a 13 year old, at 6-1, seems to have inherited most of her 47-year-old father’s 6-10 height.
“Ever since I was little,” Ronny said, “I’d wanted to come to Georgetown and play for him, but he was always like, ‘You’re never going to come play for me, so get that thought out of your mind.’ So, when he told me, ‘I want you to come here,’ I was like, ‘No, Dad. Be serious. I’m trying to be serious and get this college stuff out of the way because coaches are starting to call.’
“He said, ‘I am serious. I want you to come play with me. Give it some thought.’ ”
The choice was not as easy as it seems.
“Every other (Georgetown) player has an outlet,” John III said. “They can get fed up. It happens to anybody who plays collegiate athletics. You get to that point where you need a break. You need to go and curse the coach out. You need to go and fuss about everybody on the team. You need to just go and cry.
“If you’re going through the strain at school on the team and then have to come home and hear it more, it can get to be a problem. It can wear on you physically as well as mentally. Ronny realized that. Pops realized that.”
So did Gwendolyn Thompson, Pops’ wife, and Mary Fenlon, Pops’ academic coordinator at Georgetown.
Ronny said Mrs. Thompson was concerned mainly about the effect his matriculation at Georgetown would have on her family -- over which she has considerable influence. (“Moms is the boss of the house,” John III said. “That tough-guy image is all a facade. Gwendolyn Thompson runs this household. If he gets out of line, she’ll straighten him out.”)
Fenlon has equal influence on virtually all team affairs involving matters other than the technical aspects of the game. She does not talk to the media, but Ronny knows her concerns.
“I know it’s hard on my teammates with my being around,” Ronny said, “because a lot of times, they’ve had to censor what they say. And there are a lot of times when he’s on us hard and you want to go up to the locker room after practice and just say whatever you want to about him. Or, they might want to say something or do something outside, and they may hesitate because they think I’m going to go back and tell my dad.
“When I first got here, I could tell there was a lot of that going on. They would talk real quietly. But then when they got to know me better and know that I wasn’t his little reporter running around telling everything they did, that worked out.”
Senior guard Bobby Winston said mischievously: “Ronny is no angel. He does stuff that anyone else in college would do. If he goes back, we have people who will know the things he’s done, too. No problem there.”
Winston also said, “The coach gets on him as much as he gets on us.”
That’s where Gwendolyn Thompson’s concerns came in.
“I think she kind of wanted me to go away,” Ronny said. “I think she kind of thought that there were going to be problems. But so far everything has worked out fine.”
In part, that is because Ronny lives on campus.
“But that was always the threat,” he said with a laugh, “ ‘If you mess up, you’re going to come back home.’ ”
It’s funny now, but in the early 1970s -- too long ago for Ronny to remember -- there was a young man named Donald Washington. At the time, John Thompson was coaching at St. Anthony’s High School in Washington, D.C. Thompson had lured Washington to St. Anthony’s from Bertie Backus Junior High School. Two years later, in 1970, Washington’s mother died. Thompson became Washington’s legal guardian.
Washington was a terrific player. A 6-8 forward, he was two-time first-team All-Met and a high school all-American. He went on to attend North Carolina, where, as a sophomore, he averaged more than 21 points per game until he broke his foot. Grade trouble ensued and he went to Switzerland, where he played amateur basketball for a year before joining the ABA’s Denver Nuggets. He later returned to Europe and played out his pro career in France, where he still lives.
In any case, being a great basketball player for John Thompson while living in his house was no easy task.
“You see, Donald was a star, and you’re always on the star to do better,” said Aaron Long, a teammate of Washington’s for three years at St. Anthony’s who later was Thompson’s first recruit when Thompson left St. Anthony’s for Georgetown. “Ronny’s not being depended on to be the star. But Donald was the star. And I think, at times, the pressure at times got to Donald.”
Said Coach Thompson: “Donald’s situation was a little bit different because he lived in the house. He had to hear about boxing out in the gym, at the dinner table and everywhere else.
“Ronny doesn’t have to hear that. It’s not the way people feel that it is because he lives on the campus. If he lived at home, it would be a little bit different. Plus, I got a little bit familiar with what (coaching a son) would be like. That experience is not a new experience for me. But I feel good about what has happened. It’s worked out much better than I thought it would.”
“At first I thought there were going to be problems,” he said, “but I feel everything has pretty much worked out. I can talk to him just like any son can talk to his father. I mean there is that balance between coach and father. There’s a separation between the two. And that’s worked out pretty well.”
So have things on the court. Going into the Hoyas’ NCAA tournament East regional semifinal against North Carolina State on Friday night in East Rutherford, N.J., Ronny has played in 26 of Georgetown’s 32 games. He has averaged only 1.8 points and 5.5 minutes per game, but when senior guard Charles Smith missed the March 5 game at Syracuse, Ronny played 18 minutes and scored 11 points, nine in the first half.
“I’ve always been confident in my ability,” Ronny said. “But to be honest, I didn’t think that I would do as well as I’m doing now.”
At first, Ronny didn’t even know whether to address John as “Coach” or “Dad.”
“I asked him that just before practice was going to begin back in October,” Ronny said, “He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘I can’t believe you even asked me that question. I’m your dad first. You should always call me that. I’ll always be your father.’ That was comforting.”
Naturally, Ronny’s teammates joined in the fun.
“They used to tease me,” Ronny said. “A lot. Something would happen and they would go, ‘Aaawww, dad. Aaawww, dad.’ They still tease me about that off and on. If I have a problem, they say, ‘Go see daddy. Go see daddy.”
For most of his life, it was a problem John III wanted to have.
“Growing up in Washington, growing up in the same house, I grew up with Georgetown basketball,” said John III, who now works in a Ford Motor Co. dealer training program. “Most of my life I could say that I wanted to go to Georgetown. That was the fantasy. That was the dream. But as you get older and you start to look at college with regard to where it will take you, I just thought for me, personally, it was best to go to Princeton.
“I wanted to get away from home, to go somewhere else,” said John III, who visited one school other than Princeton -- North Carolina. “But at the same time, basketball is an important part of my life and Princeton has a very good basketball program. I went to Princeton because I got a chance to go to a very good school that has a very good basketball program with a very good coach.”
Coach Pete Carril reminded John III of home.
“I think that the similarities between Coach Carril and Pops are, uh, well, they’re incredible,” John III said. “You would never realize that by looking at the type of game that both teams play. But what they demand, what they expect, what they require and how they treat their players is very similar. What players can get out of both programs is comparable also.”
Asked if the similarity between Carril and his father was a reason he chose Princeton, John III replied, “It definitely was.”
“Coach Carril’s very honest,” John III said. “He has no problems telling you what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, regardless of how it’s going to hurt your feelings. You know where you stand. There’s no pacifying of players, no telling you what you want to hear. He treats you as men and expects you to act like men. It definitely takes time getting used to, just like playing for Pops take time getting used to.”
Being John Thompson III is easy by comparison.
“The fact that he’s a public figure and I’m his namesake, it’s keyed right there,” John III said. “But there have been a lot of things I’ve received and been blessed with because I’m his son. At the same time, there were some rough situations and some things I didn’t get because I was his son. But it balances out, and that’s my dad. I’ve been John Thompson III all my life and I wouldn’t trade it with anybody.”