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LISTEN TO THE DRUM
John Wideman
November 26, 1984
A celebrated author indulges an obsession to separate the facts from the fictions he has heard about Georgetown coach John Thompson
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November 26, 1984

Listen To The Drum

A celebrated author indulges an obsession to separate the facts from the fictions he has heard about Georgetown coach John Thompson

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On April 3, 1984, coach John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas won the NCAA basketball championship. This event prompted Tony Brown, the syndicated columnist and PBS TV commentator, to anoint Thompson as "the most beautiful black man in America." Georgetown's triumph was met with less enthusiasm in other quarters. In a society accustomed to assigning race as a reason for both the successes and failures of its citizens, the blackness of Thompson and his team could not be treated as incidental to their achievement. The young athletes from Georgetown and the huge man who guided them through their championship season quickly became symbols. What they were made to symbolize told me a lot about the vexed relationship between whites and blacks in America but also obscured what was unique, fascinating about Thompson and his team.

Some of the coverage of the Hoyas' season, the snide remarks I'd overhear in the gym, locker room and halls of the university at which I teach, disturbed me. I didn't want to depend on someone else's account of what was happening at Georgetown, so I decided to see for myself. Spurring my curiosity was a series of affinities. John Thompson was 43 years old; I was 43. We'd both been poor kids, raised in cities: Thompson in Washington; I in Pittsburgh. Thompson had won the No. 1 prize for college basketball in 1984; later in the spring I'd been presented the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, an honor which marooned me for a few sweet moments at the top of my profession. Though I'd chosen a career in writing and teaching, basketball, which I'd played well enough to twice earn all-Ivy status at Penn, remained close to my heart. So I shared a passion with Thompson, an obsession perhaps, because there was no sensible reason for me to continue trotting out my protesting body year after year to do combat on hardwood. What I'd heard about Thompson suggested he was a teacher as well as a coach. And yes, yes, we were both black men, black men in the public eye, black men who'd been required to decode and interpret for a lifetime the contradictory messages our country sent to us concerning that manhood.

I'm standing with Thompson and Brig Owens, an athletes' agent who once played safety for the Washington Redskins, outside Houston Hall, a Howard University annex where the D.C. Pigskin Club holds its monthly meetings. The Pigskin Club was founded 47 years ago, partly because blacks weren't welcome in Washington's white social organizations like the Touchdown Club. The Pigskin Club became an institution, a creative response to the segregation whites imposed. If segregation has become less stark and pervasive, its relaxation hasn't removed the need for the Pigskin Club. The members share a common history and style; they preserve an angle of vision, memories, a heritage that excites Thompson: "That's my idea of fun. Sitting around listening to a bunch of older guys talking. I can just sit back and laugh and get into it. They're the drum. Just like the drum in the jungle. They know the truth and they tell it. I'm not a party man. Don't remember the last party I've been to. I'm a private person but I love to talk to people. That sounds like a contradictory statement but it isn't. I enjoy talking to people, but I also enjoy selecting who I talk to."

It's 9:30 p.m., and the meeting is winding down. A long table laden with food and drink has been almost unburdened, but talk is still proliferating: tall tales, gossip, teasing, boasting, predictable set pieces punctuated by the call-and-response rhythms, the pulpit oratorical style of black people feeling good.

The crowd begins to filter outside. The night is warm but breezy. Small groups of Pigskin Club members file past Thompson and Owens, the guests who had addressed their meeting, and me, who'd come along to observe the festivities. Most members can't resist one more chance to press the flesh of the coach who'd won it all. You are big, ain't you, boy, I knew your father well. Your mamma and daddy good people. You were lucky to have fine folks like that behind you. It's clear Thompson could spend the rest of the night swapping stories, shaking hands. He's animated. Cuts no one off. Inserts life into an exchange about a favorite local character with his question: "Do you know why they called him Pebbles?"

An elderly man answers: "Pebbles was one of three brothers. They lived over there with the rest of us. All along 34th Street. Before they knocked down the houses and put university buildings in there. We couldn't do nothing but carry water in those days. Wasn't no going to the university for none of us back then, except sometimes they'd let us play on the fields. Pebbles and his brothers could all play ball. Any kind of ball. Raymond. Raymond Medley was Pebbles' real name. Had these long fingers stretch clear round a baseball. He'd rear back like this with those long fingers wrapped around the ball and fire it a mile. Same with a football. It was round then for kicking. You couldn't spiral it every time, the way they do now. But Pebbles had these long hands and he would throw a football further than anybody I ever seen."

"That's Pebbles," says Thompson. "Everybody still talks about what a great athlete he was. We have an award now I named after him. But, sir, do you know why they called him Pebbles?"

"No, not really.... We all just called him Pebbles. Everybody had a nickname, you know, a name people called you by."

Thompson shakes the old man's hand. At 78 he's still broad-shouldered, still rock hard. When he grips my hand I'm caught off guard; it's like being clamped in a vise.

"Let me tell you why he was called Pebbles." I'm listening to Thompson, but my eyes are fixed on the old man as he moves across the darkness of the parking lot. I'm thinking, yes. Those are the kind of shoulders that a man could stand on. That's the strength that allows us to be where we are now, another generation, a championship coach, a novelist, attempting to define another plateau so the ones behind us can climb up a little higher.

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