I think of black
writers, of the usual way literary history, literary critics treat us. We are
inserted into a framework of white models. Acceptability rests on how well we
approximate, imitate these models. Black divergence from the models is seen not
as originality, uniqueness, but as outlaw behavior, deviance. The notion of
reshuffling the framework, redefining quality with black examples as part of
the matrix, seldom, if ever, occurs.
It turns out that
Thompson has three kids—two boys, 18 and 15, and a girl, 9, about the same ages
as my two boys and my girl. He consciously keeps his family out of the public's
eye. For him, part of the challenge of celebrity is taking advantage of his
public persona without sacrificing his privacy. He wants to rule his fame, not
allow it to rule him. He sits back deep in his wooden-armed office chair, knees
steepled, his long arms spread wide. Slowly he brings his hands together. One
fist represents the finished product media people create in their stories. The
other is the man Thompson knows himself to be, a work in progress, neither
saint nor sinner, a skeptical, pragmatic, self-aware man whose abiding
imperative is to not let himself become too comfortable with himself.
"The truth is
not to let them become the same thing." Thompson's smiling at me but his
voice is serious. He stares at his hands, close but not touching, large hands,
yet not overly big for a man 6'10". The long, horizontal dimple high in his
"I know the
person they're writing about is not me. Most of the time I don't have any
trouble with what they say. I even tell the team, 'Hey. Watch out. I'm going to
be John Thompson today.' It's fun sometimes to play John Thompson. The big, bad
bear who's mad all the time, surly with reporters, keeping his players locked
up." Only an inch or two separates his hands, then he flings them apart.
"They write nice things, too. Made me a saint because I put my arm around
Freddy Brown after he threw away the pass and we lost the NCAA championship to
North Carolina two years ago. Shucks, man. What was I supposed to do? Chop off
his head? Sure, I was mad, hurt. We'd all worked too hard to give it away like
that. But Freddy had worked as hard as anybody. And everybody had made mistakes
that evening. They just weren't showcased like his in the final seconds. So I
did what I felt. I couldn't tell you why. But the press made me a saint behind
it. That's when you really have to be careful. The you out there and the you
inside can get too close. If they become one, pow!, it's all over.
tell anybody in a minute what my goals are. I want to be a winner. I want my
players to graduate, and I want to get rich. That's right. I want to prove you
don't have to be an awful guy to get rich. And if I don't prove it, I still
want to be rich. People don't want to hear the part about making lots of money.
It's not polite to say out loud. But that's me. You hear all your life about
pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. About the rewards. Well, I want mine.
The nuns used to say the good deeds you receive credit for in heaven are the
ones nobody back down on earth knows about. And that's probably true, but I
want some rewards here, too. I want to be paid well for what I do well. I'm
never going to apologize for being a human being.
have to be very, very careful you don't let the private and public become the
return to the wooden arms of the chair. He is rich, by ordinary standards. He
is said to earn $65,000 a year from Georgetown, has a lucrative contract to
endorse a brand of basketball shoe and runs a profitable summer camp.
Georgetown gave him a beautiful house not far from campus. I ask if he's ever
been in Wilt Chamberlain's house. I've read that it's built to the scale of a
7-footer. No, he hasn't. But he'd like to see it. As he grows older he's more
aware of his size. Maneuvering in and out of chairs. The leverage he needs to
raise the bulk of his 300-pound body. He mentions his mother. How illness
limited her movements as she aged. "But, hell, I could pick her up and set
her where she wanted to go," he says. We both smile at the unspoken joke,
the preposterousness of somebody lifting Thompson out of one chair and placing
him in another.
"In a way I
don't care what the media says. No. That's not what I mean. My mother never
liked me to say I didn't care. What I mean is, I have 15 kids I'm responsible
for. Other people's kids. That's my first duty. Then I can deal with the press
and the rest of what comes with my job."
his younger son, Ronnie, a T shirt which bears more or less this message: If it
weren't for basketball, I wouldn't be in school. The shirt is a private joke
between father and son. The message clearly mocks the elder Thompson's
oft-stated commitment to education. But that's part of the fun: unsettling
those who would judge him too quickly, too simply. The school where Ronnie
sports this shirt was chosen by Thompson because the priests who run it
emphasize order and accountability. Order and accountability are what Thompson
hopes will balance those tendencies in the son that are so much like the
father's, the son who insists on doing things his way, the son whose love of
hoops leaves little time for other considerations.
professional life—he uses his hands again to illustrate, to dramatize opposing
forces—there's a special person who assists Thompson in fine-tuning the balance
between conflicting responsibilities. This time one hand is teacher and the
other coach. The danger is coach will consume the other, gentler, allegedly
better, half. Mary Fenlon makes sure the teacher is in the battle, pushing for
academic accountability, for a mix of athletics and studying that imposes
accountability and order on the lives of Georgetown basketball players. She's
Thompson's alter ego. Even when Fenlon doesn't say a word, her point of view is
an implicit element in the ideas the coach formulates. And this kind of
internalized dialogue has broadened the perspective of both people. The
academic coordinator understands the importance of winning and losing. When I
comment on the internal dialogue, I'm told it becomes loudly, vociferously
external at times. Fenlon chasing kids out of the gym; Thompson demanding just
a few more minutes, one more screening of a game tape. Thompson calls her his
conscience. He's proud that his first appointment when he arrived at Georgetown
was an academic coordinator. He's happy the coordinator turned out to be a
friend he could fight with, question, respect, an equal who can chide him when
he goes too far, when the two hands start thinking they're one. But he's also
proud that he runs a major Division I basketball program, and runs it
successfully, strictly, with accountability and order. Critics argue that
Thompson not only intimidates his players but also reinforces their distrust of
others, particularly the enemies in the press. But he doesn't care. His bottom
line is that 44 of the 46 young men who have played four years for him at
Georgetown have left school with their degrees.