mother died of lung cancer, says she's now "cancer-free." She consults
for her alma mater and is the executive director of the John Thompson III
Foundation, whose beneficiaries include the Capital Breast Care Center.
"Looking back, I don't know how we got through it," she says.
"Well, I do know—we were given a support system of family, friends and
The run to the
Final Four last spring served as a Thompson family catharsis. For John III and
Monica, says Ronny, "it was really the first time there was nothing major
they were dealing with." The emotions rattling inside Big John, whose own
father had died before Georgetown reached its three NCAA title games in four
years during the early 1980s, left him speechless during the overtime win
against North Carolina, even though Westwood One was paying him to do the game
as a radio analyst.
AS OFTEN as not,
Big John, 66, may be found on winter afternoons in McDonough Arena. His son
leaves a chair out for him. The father is usually in sweats, sometimes shrouded
by a hoodie; and he's usually silent, a condition he so rarely submitted to
during his coaching career. If he has any piece to say, he has unburdened
himself of much of it earlier in the afternoon as cohost of his sports radio
notice," he says, in reference to his son, "he coaches without a
whistle?" Big John had used three whistles—different tones to signal
Simply by hanging
around he can do himself a great pleasure, which he calls "meddling."
This does not entail pelting his boy with X's and O's. A few weeks ago John III
told Pops that he was headed off to watch a recruit. "You need to get home
and get some rest," came the reply. "And there's reports of black ice
John III went to
the game anyway. "He's wrapped up in basketball, and I enjoy fussing,"
Big John says. "That's why I meddle. Now, he just has to keep from seeing
me as seeing him as my little boy."
From his seat in
McDonough, the elder Thompson sometimes reaches for the clipboard and pen that
John III has hung on the wall beside the chair, so he might make a note to
share. Sometimes he nods off to sleep. If he were to look up to his right, he
could see where, during a game in his third season, in 1975, someone unfurled a
bedsheet emblazoned with THOMPSON, THE N----- FLOP, MUST GO.
Growing up, John
III saw his father bring home from the office a bag of hate mail every few
months. "Wackos," as John III calls them, phoned and sometimes showed
up at the family home. A sportswriter in Utah called his father "the Idi
Amin of college basketball," while opposing fans greeted one of his dad's
players, Patrick Ewing, with banana peels and signs alleging that he couldn't
read. "For every positive John Thompson story there was a negative
one," his son recalls. Given all that, what son, if he were to hold the
same position at the same school as his father did, wouldn't burrow himself
into each moment?
John III is not
apolitical—his senior thesis was on Black Separatists and Nationalists in the
1980s—and one day he may be ready to pick a battle or two, but where exactly is
the advantage now? Especially when there's a pass out there, waiting to be
Of course, all
the father's trailblazing made the son's blinkered focus possible. You can get
lost if you wander—and Papa was a rolling stone, wading into issue after issue
in a way his own father never could, for the first John Thompson had been
yanked from school as a child to work the fields of southern Maryland. John Jr.
pinned green ribbons on his players' uniforms in 1981 to raise awareness of the
Atlanta child murders; he walked off the court in '89 to signal the injustice
he saw in the NCAA's Proposition 42; and a year later he met with Rayful
Edmonds III, the most notorious drug dealer in D.C., to tell him to stay away
from his players. "I don't feel I was ever in a position where I could just
be a basketball coach," he says. "If I were in a meeting or in public,
I felt an obligation to speak up. People criticize Michael Jordan for not doing
more in the public sphere. But Bill Russell and Jim Brown did what they did so
Michael Jordan wouldn't have to."