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The Thompsons raised their children the same way the first John Robert Thompson raised John Jr. "I was trained what to want," Big John says of his own upbringing. "My father couldn't spell John Thompson, and we lived in public housing in almost every part of the District [of Columbia], yet I considered myself privileged—safe and fed and taught."
John III was introduced to the discipline of parochial school and eventually Gonzaga College High, a Jesuit school in the heart of the District. Gonzaga made enough of an impression that returning there to recruit a player a few years ago, John III could recite the Lord's Prayer in Latin when he ran into an old classics teacher. Teammate Byron (Snoop) Harper remembers his friend as athletically limited and smart enough to compensate: "John was a landlubber but very efficient below the rim."
With Thompson calling defensive signals in a morphing zone and directing the offense as a 6'3 1/2" forward, the Eagles went 24--6 his junior season, beating DeMatha Catholic and its star Danny Ferry one night as Pops' friend Dean Smith looked on. "That game epitomized why John is such a good coach," remembers Dick Myers, who was then Gonzaga's coach. "We were up six to eight points in the fourth with no shot clock and thought we'd work some clock in a spread offense. But during a timeout John said, 'We're doing so well, let's stay with what we're doing.' And we did. I got a very nice letter from Dean Smith afterward, and he said he was especially impressed that we kept running our stuff with the lead and didn't change tactics."
The one time Carril scouted him, Thompson regularly broke the press with a single pass. "He saw the floor," Carril recalls. Just the same, during Thompson's campus visit Carril spent most of an hour's conversation laying out his shortcomings. "He says if I don't do this and this and this, I'd play jayvee," John III recalls. "Part of me was wondering if he really wanted me to come. He reminded me a lot of my dad. One's a little white guy and one's a big black guy, but the pride, the caring, the commitment to their institutions—they're very similar."
Was it really his choice to go to Princeton?
"That's a good question," John III says. "I think so. I know my mom wanted me to go, but my dad, he's more, 'We'll let you make your own decisions till you make a wrong one.'"
"He talks as if he made the decision," says his father. "But I can tell you this: If I didn't want him to go, he wouldn't have gone."
For his first two seasons John III underwent Carril's hazing in practice. "If you were any good, your father would have taken you" was among the milder gibes. "Shut up," Pops told his son when he complained to him. "I'm dealing with other people's kids."
"I hated Coach Carril, and I love him to death right now," John III says. "Everyone who's played for him goes through the same thing. You make those calls home. And then you grow up."
UPON GRADUATION Thompson entered a dealer-training program with Ford. No one in the family even pretended it was his decision. "He needed to go into the world of work and see what it's about," Big John says. A few years later he edged his way back toward basketball, joining a sports-marketing firm near Philadelphia. But the high fives around a boardroom table after closing a deal rang hollow next to the real thing, and he jumped when Carril called in 1995 to say he had an opening for a volunteer assistant.