Saturday, January 09, 1999

John Thompson is who he is

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Thompson leaves us guessing, which is just like him. He is a huge man who has never quite conformed to your preconceived pigeonhole, a riddle wrapped in a mystery with a white towel draped over one shoulder.

        The most contradictory character in college basketball startled the sport Friday with his sudden resignation after 27 years at Georgetown University. His timing was curious, his motives were vague, and his capacity for intrigue remains unrivaled.

        “Basketball is a 24-hour job, a seven-day-a-week job,” Thompson said. “I do not have the ability at this time to address things in my personal life and to do my job.”

        What this means, of course, is conjecture. Long considered a candidate to coach in the National Basketball Association, Thompson's resignation dovetails rather neatly with the end of the NBA lockout. It occurs during marital difficulties and in the midst of a conference season in which the Hoyas are currently 0-4.

        It could be that Thompson, despite his denials, will resurface as the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. It could be that he simply needs a sabbatical after more than a quarter-century behind the same desk. It could be that he has something entirely different in mind that he isn't yet willing to share.

        Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe better.

Not good or bad
        From this distance, John Thompson has always appeared to be a moving target, changing his methods to fit his mood, adapting his convictions to suit his circumstances.

        “Usually, there is a good guy or a bad guy,” he said once. “I'm not interested in being the bad guy. Who is? But I don't know if I'm the good guy, either. I make mistakes. I get angry ... I am not trying to be anything other than what I am, and I'm really not certain what that is.”

        He is often high-minded and sanctimonious, and other times self-serving and hypocritical. He'd walk out of his own games in protest of NCAA policies he considered racist and punitive, but turn around and play the corporate stooge when Jesse Jackson and others urged a boycott of Nike. Sometimes, John Thompson would draw a line in the sand and let the tide of events wash it away.

        “I don't want to coach another student-athlete who doesn't graduate,” Thompson vowed in 1984, the year Georgetown won the NCAA championship. “An education is what these kids are here for.”

        To remind players of their long-term priorities, Thompson kept a deflated basketball on display in his office. Yet in order to maintain the competitive standards that were set during the Patrick Ewing era, Thompson's educational principles had to be pliable.

        He graduated a staggering 97 percent of those who lasted four years at Georgetown, but his high washout rate was worrisome and created friction with the admissions office. It raised questions about his priorities and his commitment to his institution's lofty academic standards.

Black, white and gray
        Because of his skin color and his politics and his confrontational style, Thompson was often seen in black and white terms. Probably, his life experience led him to be leery of outsiders. Possibly, there was an element of paranoia in his elaborate efforts to shield his players from the media. Plainly, he was never interested in popularity.

        Yet like most public men, there are more shades of gray to John Thompson than are readily perceived. He stands 6-foot-10, 300 pounds, and owns a booming voice and a unique talent for profanity. He can be enormously intimidating, and he uses that edge the way his old Celtics teammate, Bill Russell, used his elbows: Probing, testing, calculating.

        “I just think the world of him,” said Seton Hall Athletic Director Jeff Fogelson, whose tenure at Xavier was preceded by a Georgetown gig. “What he is, he is, and he's not changing for anybody. He's going to do things his way. You couldn't be involved with him in any situation without it creating conversation.

        “I think that's what a teacher does.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at

More on Thompson From Associated Press