Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo likes to say that you must beat the Hoyas, seeing as they're not going to beat themselves. That may be so. But it's just as likely that they're not going to beat you, either, because of their poor shooting. As Thompson says exasperatedly, "What the hell offense you gonna run to get a guy open who's wide open?"
The seeds of some of Georgetown's struggles may lie in the team's most glorious moment of the season, a 79-74 defeat of Duke on Dec. 5. Mourning, who starts at forward and occasionally spells Mutombo at center, saved that game with a blocked shot in the final seconds, only to strain the arch of his left foot when coming down. He sat out most of the next six weeks, ceding responsibilities in the middle entirely to Mutombo, the team captain from Zaire.
Mutombo, who speaks five languages, asserted himself impressively over the next six weeks, routinely turning in double doubles in points and rebounds. By January he was scoring regularly on a baby turnaround jumper and an awkward but effective hook that zings down at the basket, shots he had barely developed at the beginning of the 1990-91 season.
While Mutombo has lived up to his surname—in one of central Africa's many languages it means "one who works hard for the future"—everything accomplished by Mourning, who arrived at Georgetown in 1988 as the most-heralded high school center in the land, seems diminished somehow, because it is judged in relation to the breathy hyperbole of reputation. Ever since Mourning rejoined the team in a 56-49 victory at Boston College on Jan. 19, the fortunes of the two young men have seemingly passed each other, with Mutombo's in ascent and Mourning's in decline. Meanwhile, the team has just muddled through. Between a Jan. 14 loss at Villanova and the win over Connecticut, Georgetown won only six of 12 games and fell to 16-9.
There's a reason that Mutombo consistently outpoints, outrebounds and out-blocks Mourning. Mourning isn't a natural power forward, yet he has been exiled to a spot on the floor far from the basket, where his big feet and limited lateral movement are liabilities. As a result, he's less confident today as an offensive player than he was as a freshman. As much as Thompson understands the problem—"The thumb is the strongest finger on your hand," he says, "but if you had two of them, your hand wouldn't be as functional"—he believes he's doing Mourning a favor. "In the long run it'll help Alonzo's career in the NBA immensely," he says.
It was Auerbach who suggested to Thompson, over dinner before the start of last season, that he consider playing Mutombo and Mourning together, even if that meant scrapping the full-court pressure that has given Georgetown its terrifying identity. No surprise, then, that Auberbach thinks the Hoyas' difficulties come from the backcourt. But not every basketball observer agrees.
"I really feel sorry for Mourning," says Paul Baker, a former college coach who's writing a book on the history of Hoya basketball. "He's floundering something awful. Mutombo is a monstrous Tinkertoy who makes everyone else dance to his tune and throws them all out of kilter. I understand how John admires Mutombo as a person, how he admires his work ethic. But John's stubbornness is ruling the day."
There's more to what's happening in D.C. this season than monstrous Tinker-toys, strained arches and clanged shots. Forget for a moment everything you have ever known, guessed or suspected about the Georgetown program. The tenor of Hoya basketball is mellower, its edge dulled. Whereas Patrick Ewing and Michael Graham would square off with anyone who looked at them the wrong way, a month ago Mourning was seen laughing while helping Syracuse's Billy Owens up from the floor. Mourning, once one of the most churlish players in the game, actually shakes hands with his opposite number around the pregame center circle. The only Hoya who elbows and submarines is Kelly, and he is conspicuous—less because he's a white guy than because his style is a couple of years out-of-date.
Georgetown's new reserve is a symptom of the personal metamorphosis of Thompson, whose team has always been an extension of his considerable self. He's 49 now, and half a dozen years have passed since, in full view of his horrified players, Thompson had to be carried off an airliner because of exhaustion and dehydration. Magazine profiles describe a man who seems like some sort of Zen master, who walks on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day and subsists on fruit. Indeed, Thompson's recent postgame commentaries to his longstanding adversaries, members of the media, could be collected and released on the Wyndham Hill label.
Much of Thompson's new approach can be attributed to the disappointing, bronze-medal performance of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team he coached, an occurrence that profoundly humbled him. "I have always," he said after the Games—and has demonstrated since—"reacted better to my failures than to my successes." Three seasons of working with the indefatigable Mutombo, who blocks shots with even' body part north of his sternum, has further disarmed him. Besides, few challenges are left for a college coach who has won an NCAA championship. Thompson calls his 1984 title "the period that ends all sentences." Which, of course, raises the question: Does he consider the years since an ellipsis?