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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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That's a long time ago. Georgetown improved to a 13-13 record in Thompson's second season, got to the NCAAs in his third and has been a basketball force to be reckoned with ever since. By now the lady on the phone is certainly aware of who and what Thompson is, although there is no certainty that she—or other people who think the way she does—is any happier about it. One bit of gossip that has persisted is that Thompson cannot recruit good white players and doesn't want to coach them.

"I've heard that, too," says Thompson. "The first part, about recruiting, is true. Let me explain why. When I was at Providence College they had a pretty good hockey team, but the players were mostly Canadian. The hockey coach had a lot of trouble finding good American players. You understand what I'm saying? Basketball is a game that is taken more seriously in the black community, especially in the cities. Black kids play basketball like Canadian kids play hockey. They start playing it early, and they care about it a lot, generally more than suburban or rural white kids do. That's why they're so good at it. It's hard to find white kids with the same basketball background.

"About the second part—not wanting to coach white kids—that is just pure crap. If I can recruit a player who's going to help me, I'll coach him if he's purple and comes from Mars. I'll like and respect him as a man if he deserves it."

One whose opinion in this matter merits attention is Jeff Bullis, a 6'7" forward who is the most promising of the four white players on the current Georgetown team. Bullis, a junior, was an all-city high school player in the Baltimore area. He says he came to Georgetown because of its academic reputation (he's a government major) and because he thought Thompson was the best coach of those who tried to recruit him. That Thompson was black "was never a factor, never has been since I've been here." Pointedly, Bullis says, "On this team the black-white thing just doesn't come up until some reporter starts asking questions. It's hard to explain how close we are, but we're closer, I think, than any of the teams we've played. That's how Mr. Thompson wants it, and that's the kind of people Mr. Thompson recruits. We're like a military unit that has gone through a lot of fire together. Mr. Thompson is the fire. He's very tough, but if you can take it, he'll make a man out of you." ("Mr. Thompson" is how his players almost always refer to their coach. Occasionally, however, say after one of Mr. Thompson's grueling workouts, they may speak of him as "Pipehead"—for the pipe that he occasionally puffs on in his office.)

While Thompson's Georgetown teams have been predominantly black, basketball sophisticates have long been aware of a more significant characteristic: the team's on-court poise and its formidable, almost, as Bullis suggests, military discipline.

"I'm pleased with that reputation," says Thompson. "That's the kind of team and program I've tried to create. But you know what they say next, after they say we're disciplined? You know the code?"

"That you play like a white team?"

"That's it. Undisciplined, that means nigger. They're all big and fast and can leap like kangaroos and eat watermelon in the locker room, but they can't play as a team and they choke under pressure. It's the idea that a black man doesn't have the intelligence or the character to practice self-control. In basketball it's been a self-fulfilling prophecy. White men run the game. A white coach recruits a good black player. He knows the kid's got talent, but he also knows—or thinks he knows—that because he's black he's undisciplined. So he doesn't try to give the player any discipline. He puts him in the freelance, one-on-one, hot-dog role, and turns to the little white guard for discipline. Other black kids see this and they think this is how they are expected to play, and so the image is perpetuated.

"Another code word I like is 'deliberate.' A deliberate team means a team of big, heavy-legged whites. The idea is that they are deliberate because they are smart, but the real reason is they are too slow to be anything else.

"What I want," says Thompson, taking the conversational bit in his teeth, "is everything. I want the talent, a kid who can run and leap and shoot, but I want him to have enough intelligence, discipline, character, or whatever, so that he'll walk when I tell him to, run when I want him to, pass if that's what I want. Without talent, all the character in the world won't do it, but talent alone isn't enough. There are great individuals and teams with lots of talent who don't win. I tell the kids that it's as though we're putting on a play. I'm the director. I'm going to pick the script, and I'm going to give them their roles. They're the actors. Their job is to learn those roles—that's what practice is about. When we go out on the court, that's our stage. Out there they're supposed to perform as we practiced. I don't want anybody making up new lines, putting on their own act."

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