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The Gospel According to John
Bil Gilbert
December 01, 1980
Georgetown basketball was white and wan before John Thompson came in to recruit blacks and to preach discipline and education
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December 01, 1980

The Gospel According To John

Georgetown basketball was white and wan before John Thompson came in to recruit blacks and to preach discipline and education

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The Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., the current Georgetown president, is more candid. "There is something about Washington, D.C. that has always reminded me of a cuckoo's nest," he says. "The local people make the nest. The cuckoos—the federal people and all their hangers-on—move into the nest. They fly in and out, but their main interests are elsewhere. They don't really care a lot about what they do in, or to, the nest. I think Georgetown has been, to an extent, one of the cuckoos. After the 1968 riots it became obvious that the university's position wasn't very smart or defensible—socially, intellectually, morally or empirically. We began making some changes, some statements to the local community that we were going to try to be at least more responsible and useful. I think it's fair to say that hiring John Thompson was one of those statements."

And no one said, "O.K., let's get us a big black coach to show we aren't segregationists, and maybe he'll bring in some big black players and we can win a few games"?

"We don't get things sorted out that well around here," Father Healy says cheerfully. "I think it's taking too much credit to claim that what happened came about because of a farsighted policy. What I think happened is that an intelligent black man, with a clear idea of what he wanted, has weaved in and out between a lot of confused honkies and has accomplished things that have benefited both parties."

"When I was hired," says Thompson, "I had a talk with the president [then the Rev. Robert Henle, S.J.]. All that Father Henle said about basketball was that he hoped I could take a team to the NIT every now and then. I thought to myself that I'd eat my hat if I couldn't do better than that. But I didn't say anything except 'Yes, sir, I'll try,' because you don't want to set yourself up."

Thompson was given no directives—racially, that is—on the kind of players he should recruit. However, certain changes had occurred shortly before he arrived that gave him more latitude in this area than previous coaches had had. Traditionally, Georgetown has favored students with high college-board scores from largely white secondary schools. As part of the anti-cuckoo campaign of which Father Healy spoke, some academic requirements were lowered for black students, particularly those from the District of Columbia. The university went after black students who would benefit from a Georgetown education and who in turn would benefit the school by making it more representative of the Washington community as a whole. Tutoring programs were set up to help some of these students adjust. Now there are about 400 black undergraduates at Georgetown.

As far as basketball is concerned, if Thompson recommends someone, he is accepted. "We, of course, look over the records," says Deacon, "and they, of course, have to meet at least our minimum standards. If there is any problem, we talk it over, but this seldom happens. It is John's responsibility to find young men who have a good chance of making it here academically. So far, he has done beautifully."

When Thompson took over the coaching job, it was spring and he didn't have time to do much recruiting. He did bring with him three players from his St. Anthony's team, as well as two other local players, all black. A few weeks into the 1973 season these five black freshmen were starting for Georgetown.

"I didn't think much about it, but the kids did," says Thompson. "They knew what Georgetown had been; everybody in the District did. Mostly, they were worried that I was going to get in trouble. I told them I didn't want to hear any more about that. If they won, people who cared about Georgetown were going to say great. Those who had something else to say had problems, and we didn't have time to worry about them."

The five freshmen did win, at least more than had been the custom, the team ending up 12-14, Thompson's only losing season. But the Georgetown tradition being what it had been, there was some mumbling about the change in complexion of the basketball team.

"I knew there was some of that going on, but for some reason hardly anybody ever comes up to me and talks directly about those matters," says Thompson blandly, and then lets out a characteristic rumbling laugh that seems to roll through his entire massive body. "There was one time the first year when a white lady phoned. She obviously didn't know anything about me, but she was very hot. The day before, there had been a photo in the paper of a couple of my big kids standing on each side of a little white kid. They looked like they were going to mash him. The lady said her father, maybe her brothers, had gone to Georgetown, and if I was the coach I ought to stop what was happening there—abnormal niggers bullying white students. I told her things were worse than she thought and that I was going to send her two tickets to our next game so she could come see for herself, that what she would see would make her blood run cold. I was very sorry that lady couldn't use those tickets. They were for seats right behind where I sit on the bench. I wanted her to get a look at the most abnormal nigger of them all."

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