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
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."
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?"
really.... We all just called him Pebbles. Everybody had a nickname, you know,
a name people called you by."
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.