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The Hoyas' travails are occurring at the same time a couple of other prominent basketball teams—the New York Knicks and UNLV—are going through rough patches. Taken together, these vicissitudes have caused rumors to sprout like rye grass after a spring rain. One tale has Thompson replacing the hapless Al Bianchi as general manager of the Knicks, thereby pacifying an unhappy Ewing and becoming the NBA power broker he showed no real aversion to becoming when he nearly accepted a five-year, 58 million offer from the Denver Nuggets last summer. "I'm not in the habit of trying to solicit anybody's job," Thompson says. "I resent it when I hear [the rumors]." Yet regarding the New York scenario, Thompson's agent, David Falk, has been quoted as saying, "It's too logical, and the NBA doesn't do logical things"—which isn't exactly a repudiation of its possibility.
The other scenario has Thompson taking over UNLV after Jerry Tarkanian, presumably with a second NCAA title and no more patience for the bloodhounds on his trail, decides to call it a career. Thompson owns land in Vegas and enjoys posting up a dollar slot machine and kibitzing with the blue-haired ladies.
Thompson has become increasingly fed up with the way some youngsters who have come into college sports have slacked off in the classroom. He also feels demeaned by having to kowtow to the top schoolboy prospects, yet he can't always depend on the leftovers he inevitably obtains. One reason he has gone overseas—to Canada and Yugoslavia as well as to Zaire—for players is that foreigners come to him as innocents. "Dikembe's biggest strength is that he didn't have any of that damned exposure," says Thompson, who has motivated Mutombo by playfully taping to his locker a one-way airplane ticket to Kinshasa. "As a result, he puts in a day's work."
Thompson turned the Nuggets down not because their offer wasn't intriguing and challenging, but because of the clumsy, public way the team courted him. The chance to become a part owner and general manager of an NBA team was perfectly suited to the man and the moment. And neither the man nor the moment has substantially changed since last summer.
"John wants to come out of this season nice and clean and make a neat exit," says Baker. "He wants to keep his position just exalted enough until the statue's ready. He doesn't care about winning championships anymore. He's hugging referees. When you're a legend, 17 or 18 wins is O.K., something that will allow for a smooth transition to a new job."
Another longtime Thompson watcher, erstwhile American University coach Ed Tapscott, isn't so sure. "If you were running an office pool last summer on whether he'd go or stay, I'd have thought he would go," Tapscott says. "But I wouldn't want to make a living off trying to predict what he'll do. If the conventional logic says he's been here 20 years and there's nothing left for him to accomplish, yet John didn't think it was time to move on, he'd stay. And if the conventional logic says he's hammered this program out of nothing, and by going somewhere else and failing he'd be putting all his success here at risk, yet he thought it wasn't time to stay, he'd move on."
Perhaps the lesson in all this is that when it comes to the Hoyas—and their coach—one should distrust anything that sounds too logical.