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Thompson's coaching system isn't much different from what other good coaches teach. He stresses fundamentals (take good shots, fill the lanes, look for the open man, don't stand around), intensity in practice (flare-ups between individuals aren't uncommon), tight defense. But Thompson's good record at Georgetown isn't based on his tactical skills. The keys are motivation, control, discipline.
"Sometimes one of my kids may look like he's doing a lot of freelancing, but he turns it loose that way when I want him to, in a way and at a time when I think it'll help. I know he has the talent. He understands that, and he understands what the role is, and so do the rest. Take Sleepy Floyd. [Eric Floyd has been the team's most notable gunner the past two seasons. He led the team in scoring last year with an 18.7-point average and was the MVP of the East Region tournament.] He wants to shoot, he wants to get his, but he doesn't get it by taking from other people on the team. If he couldn't play that role, he wouldn't help me, even with all his talent."
Thompson has had great success at recruiting this sort of basketball paragon from under the noses of rival coaches. For example, he found Floyd at a North Carolina high school where he was playing second banana to another player who was being avidly recruited by ACC schools—institutions that, for geographical reasons, are often Thompson's chief competitors for talent.
"Floyd was cocky and confident—he still is," Thompson says, "but he showed me some character. I thought that because of the situation he'd been in in high school, he might feel he had something to prove: that he could play with anybody, even though he hadn't had much ink. That's how it happened up here. He's worked his butt off."
Ed Spriggs, a 23-year-old Hoya junior and starting center, was an even more surprising find. Though he grew up in the District, he didn't play high school ball because, as Spriggs explains, "I was your basic 90-pound weakling." After high school he got a job in the Washington post office and began to grow. He is now a very strong 6'9", 240-pound center. Thompson found him playing in the city leagues. Spriggs says, "Mr. Thompson told me that if I was willing to work, he thought I could play college ball, and he said it was worth working for because the education I would get was worth $8,000 a year. It sounded like a good deal to me."
Thompson says he doesn't like to hang around with other coaches when he is sizing up high school talent because he feels that among coaches there is apt to be an emperor's-clothes syndrome. "We tout each other on and off kids. You'll be looking at a kid with a big reputation, all-state, All-America, that sort of thing. Your eyes tell you he's not all that good, but since he has the reputation everybody's afraid not to recruit him. It works the other way, too. A kid without much of a rep looks very good, but since nobody else is talking about him, coaches stay away from him. I'm not saying that all the big names are overrated and that I don't want any of them. It's just that I like to win or lose on the basis of my own judgment."
John Duren, a guard, and Craig Shelton, a power forward, were two main men on Thompson's 1979-80 team; his judgment about them as high school players was much the same as that of most of the other recruiters in the country. They were super blue-chippers and remained so. Last spring Duren was selected in the NBA draft by the Utah Jazz and Shelton by the Atlanta Hawks. Both rookies won spots on their teams' rosters.
"I'd known the two of them for a long time, both as basketball players and as people," says Thompson. Duren and Shelton were teammates at Washington's Dunbar High School, a basketball power. "I just told them the obvious things: that if they came here they would have to work like hell and do it my way, but that if they came here they could play together, their families and friends would be able to watch them, and they'd get a good education. They bought it. It wasn't a big recruiting battle."
Steve Martin, a 1979 Georgetown graduate, was a classic Thompson-type recruit and player. On a trip to New Orleans in 1975 to look at another prospect, Thompson mentioned to a high school coaching friend that his Georgetown guards were a bit small. The friend said he should take a look at Martin, who had been a big scorer at a smaller high school. Thompson went to see Martin and liked what he saw, in terms of both talent and character. "I asked Steve what he wanted to be, and he said, 'I'm going to be an accountant.' There were no 'maybes,' no 'I hopes,' no 'I don't knows.' I liked that."
In turn, Martin liked Thompson, Georgetown's academic reputation and the idea of heading north to play basketball. However, after arriving in Washington as an 18-year-old, he wasn't at all sure he had made the right decision. Now an accounting supervisor in Washington for the International Machinists Union, Martin says, "I was so lonely and scared. I'd never been away from home, and I didn't have any friends or relatives here. The basketball wasn't going very well, either. I'd never played with people as good as those at Georgetown, and I began doubting what I was able to do. It must have showed, because Mr. Thompson sat me down and talked to me very straight. He said he had shooters better than me who were going to do the shooting, but he said that if I wanted to pay the price I could play as a defensive specialist. If I didn't like that role, that was O.K., he'd get somebody who did." Martin accepted the part, and for most of the next four years spent his court time going against the opposition's most potent scorer. In his senior year he was the Georgetown captain and floor leader.