One of the earliest and most lasting images used to describe the focus of former Georgetown University coaching great John Thompson centered on the deflated basketball he kept on his desk.
Thompson, who died last week at the age of 78, was hired to win basketball games, and his teams won a bunch of them — nearly 600 during a 27-year stint at the Washington, D.C., school, including one national championship and two other close misses.
Thompson understood, however, that even though he was developing from scratch a program that would wind up sending a couple of dozen players to the NBA, most of his charges wouldn’t be able to make a living for long, if at all, playing basketball.
The deflated basketball was to constantly remind his players they needed a backup plan that included a college degree. Most of them listened. They stayed in school for their entire four years, and nearly all who did walked away with a diploma.
Georgetown, from which I graduated, is an academically demanding place. That’s not to say that all of the basketball players took the most rigorous courses. “Rocks for Jocks” was the on-campus nickname for the geology course that was popular with athletes.
But there aren’t enough easy courses for anyone to make it through Georgetown without studying. Thompson clearly instilled that habit in his players — and provided them the support of a hard-nosed female assistant to ride herd full time on their academic progress — so they wouldn’t wind up like the functionally illiterate student-athletes that so many big-name college sports programs shamelessly churn out.
When I arrived at Georgetown in 1976, Thompson was on the cusp of turning the Hoyas into a national phenomenon. They got close to making the Final Four in my senior year, losing a one-point heartbreaker to Iowa in a regional final.
Two years later, Thompson and Georgetown would get over the hump, thanks to highly prized recruit Patrick Ewing, the center who helped propel the school to the national championship game in three of his four seasons.
During their lone championship run in 1984, the game I most remember was not the victory over Houston in the national final, but the semifinal dismantling of Kentucky.
Ewing and an equally fierce teammate named Michael Graham, the type that Thompson’s defense-first teams attracted and developed, took apart the Wildcats’ celebrated “Twin Towers” of Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie in a stretch that should still give Wildcat fans nightmares. Down by 12 late in the first half, Georgetown limited Kentucky to 2 points over the next 13 minutes — a defensive stretch that may be unequaled in games of that magnitude — and went on to win by 13.
After Ewing finished his career, Thompson never made it back to the Final Four, although he got within one win of doing so three times. The adoption of the three-point shot in 1986 was not particularly conducive to the style of play he coached, which focused more on a big man in the middle and less on outside shooters.
Nor was he comfortable in going down the path that most of the upper-echelon programs pursued, recruiting players they knew would only be on campus for a year or two before entering the NBA draft.
On his right shoulder, Thompson wore his trademark white towel. On his left, there was a racial chip on which his detractors frequently focused. He took offense, for example, during that 1982 trip to New Orleans when reporters concentrated on his being the first Black coach to make the Final Four.
When Thompson’s critics accused him of being too radical or too racial, they tended to overlook some facts. The longtime assistant coach who replaced him, with Thompson’s blessing, was one of the few whites who had played for Georgetown during Thompson’s tenure. And that female academic assistant who sat on the bench at every game was also white.