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But he'll talk expansively of his influences. "Pops, Coach, my mom, Marv," he says. "I hope you see a little of all of them when you see me."
A brief cast of characters: Pops is Georgetown's Hall of Fame patriarch, who was as devoted to the grand gesture as his son is to the tiny increment. Coach is Carril, another Hall of Famer and the fussbudget for whom John III played and later apprenticed at Princeton and of whom he says, "There aren't too many days I don't hear his voice in my head." Mom is Gwen Thompson, whom friends and family agree young John most takes after. (Gwen and John Jr. were divorced in 1999.) And Marv is Marvin Bressler, a world-weary sociology professor, now retired, and longtime faculty adviser to the Princeton basketball team. Which is to say, John III is two parts Thompson and two parts Tiger.
That probably accounts for why he's so different from his famous father. Pops never would have asked an end-of-the-bencher as they walked off at halftime what he thinks the team might do differently, or let a reportorial nostril anywhere near the scented candle that today burns in the office of the Georgetown coach. "John weighs things," says his father. "When he says, 'Uh-huh,' it means he's heard you, not that he agrees with you. When I say, 'Uh-huh,' I got my mind made up."
"He got along with everybody," remembers Carril, which couldn't have been said of him or Pops. "He gets along with officials too." (Some people think that this helps account for his teams' success in close games.)
As a hoops pedagogue, John III is most like Carril. The father's teams were primarily about defense played offensively; the son's are—and Carril's were—more about offense played defensively. When he arrived at Georgetown, John III knocked down a couple of walls in the basketball office to create a common space where coaches could swap ideas, as the staff did at Princeton.
Consider too one of the favorite maxims of the old Princeton coach, a riposte Carril delivered whenever someone suggested that students working toward an Ivy League degree couldn't also play basketball at an elite level: "Nothing is more important than what you're doing when you're doing it." It gets John III's approach precisely.
It would be a mistake to regard his twin influences as somehow debilitating. "Every second-level Freudian is trying to stick him with a double Oedipus for being the son of one Hall of Fame coach and playing for another," says Bressler. "I don't think that's troubled him for more than 30 seconds. He looked at both of them as resources. He accepted what he wanted and discarded the rest.
"John wants to win basketball games but not to 'vanquish the foe.' He wants to confirm that his analytical observations are correct. His intelligence is not a strategic intelligence. He believes in tactics, both within a game and over the course of a season. You win Friday. You win Saturday. If there are enough Fridays and Saturdays, lo and behold, you win the championship."
If this habitation of each moment leads to an obliviousness of the big picture, John III pleads guilty. He even says as much, remarking in early February, "We'll pick our heads up at the end of the Big East season and see where we are." Keep your head down, and any difficulty can be managed, even the diagnosis of breast cancer that John III's wife, Monica, then 38, received in November 2005, convulsing their lives for a year.
JOHN THOMPSON JR. was off on a road trip as a reserve center with the Boston Celtics on the day in 1966 that his first child was born. It was his wife's birthday, March 11, and Gwen drove herself to the hospital.