A recent caller to "The John Thompson Show" said he had met the former Georgetown coach and his star player Patrick Ewing in the early 1980s as a young boy. "You two were so tall, you were bigger than life to me," the caller said.
"Well, uh, well I just hope I didn't curse too much in front of you," Thompson said. "I used to do that a lot." A laugh rose up from his belly in the Rockville studios of WTEM radio.
Georgetown basketball celebrates its centennial anniversary today, but much of the Jesuit institution's hoops history began the day John Thompson Jr. was hired to take over a 3-23 team in 1972.
Thompson did not merely turn around a program in the nation's capital; he became the first African American coach to win an NCAA Division I men's basketball championship. In the District, where he grew up and starred at Archbishop Carroll High School, he grew into an iconic figure. Nationally, his domineering teams became part of the zeitgeist -- a rebellious, empowering symbol for the black community.
In the early 1980s, the Hoyas largely were viewed outside of Washington as 12 angry black men who scowled their way to the Final Four. None seemed bigger and angrier than their 6-foot-10, 270-pound coach, policing that sideline with a white, terry-cloth towel dangling from his shoulder.
"If I saw someone coming at me the wrong way, I went back at 'em," said Thompson, 65. "I was supposed to be grateful because I one was one of the first African Americans coaching. I was supposed to sit there and say, 'Oh, thank you Mr. White Man for giving me a job.' God made me human and equal. Now I'm supposed to be grateful because you're treating me equal and treating me as a human being? No."
Today, the "Idi Amin" of college sports, which a Utah columnist tabbed Thompson 25 years ago in reference to the notorious Ugandan dictator, is an avuncular talk-show host. Guests on the program often hear an affectionate "Hey buddy" from the genteel voice they know as "Coach."
In his spare time, Thompson, who put the "p" in profanity, now asks soulful questions to siphon tears out of the eyes of hardened multimillionaires, such as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, on TNT's NBA telecasts. Those who bought into the gruff portrait of the past, the godfather of "Hoya Paranoia," wonder what gives. Who's this John Thompson?
"I don't think I've changed at all," he said. "What I have done is adjusted to the environment in which I exist."
The growling-bear persona, he added, was an "occupational personality," employed for the job of resurrecting Georgetown and later protecting his deep, emotional investment.
"But there's no need to get up here in this radio station or go to a board meeting at Nike and act the way I did on the basketball court."
'He had a voice'
It wasn't always that way, said Wil Jones, one of Thompson's contemporaries and oldest friends. Jones coached UDC to the 1982 Division II national title and recently had his number retired at American University. He played alongside Big John on the city's scorching asphalt courts.
"John was very, very studious," Jones remembered in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. "He was so concerned about education. This was branded on his chest more than anything. He saw that as a way out for blacks -- not basketball.
"I think at some point he changed his philosophy and become more tough and assertive. He got harder and harder as he grew more successful. He felt like he had a voice and he was going to use it."
Doing so brought Thompson both notoriety and gratitude.
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Your dad stood up for this,' " said Ronny Thompson, who played for his father at Georgetown and now is the head coach at Ball State. "It wasn't until I got older that I understood the impact he had, how he used basketball as a tool for something bigger."
Ronny said that thought was crystallized during a town meeting in Southeast in the late 1980s as the city's drug wars were escalating.
"Everyone who spoke talked about how kids were bad, kids were changing," he said. "My dad got up and said: 'Hold on. We're all saying it's the kids' fault. What options do they have? What boys' clubs can they go to?' The whole thought process changed. He put into words what they were thinking and feeling."
Those words carried weight because they were backed up by actions. Thompson's seminal watchdog moment came in 1989, when a young, impressionable Alonzo Mourning was befriended by the notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III.
"This is a fast city," said John Duren, one of Thompson's first important players in the late 1970s along with Craig Shelton. "When a young kid comes in this city and he's a star -- [Allen] Iverson, Ewing, Alonzo -- the top ballplayer is going to meet the thug, the top drug dealer. They shopped for clothes at the same store and ate at the same restaurant, the old Houston's up on Wisconsin [Avenue]. It was just inevitable."
Thompson invited Edmond to his office and lit into him. He told the drug dealer to stay away from his players or suffer the consequences. Edmond, it was said, never associated with a Georgetown player again. Soon after, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Emphasis on education
The same players Thompson fiercely protected were held to a high standard. Dikembe Mutombo, a veteran NBA center and former Georgetown standout, said the only day he ever missed a class at Georgetown, he later showed up to practice to find a one-way airline ticket in his basketball locker. Mutombo was very alarmed to learn he was being sent back to his native Congo that evening.
"He said, 'I'm sending you back to your father in Kinshasa, Zaire,' " Mutombo said, referring to the capital and the country's former name. "Big John said, 'Go back home so you can work in [former president] Mobutu's army.'
"I could not believe it. I said: 'I had a horrible toothache and got my tooth removed. That is why I missed school.' He told me I should have scheduled time around school to take care of my tooth. It was chaos in my life. I thought it was the end of my education. I told the advisers, 'Why is he doing this?' One day I miss. Can you imagine?"
Mutombo never missed another day of school in four years. He returned to the Congo many times during an NBA career that is now in the midst of a renaissance at age 40. Mutombo soon will open a hospital there.
"Big John's teaching was very powerful," Mutombo said. "He always emphasized education and life. Sometimes we would be at the gym for four or five hours. But three of those were him asking questions about life, questions about school, the direction he wanted us to go when we leave the university, how we should interact in business relationships."
Mutombo was one of 27 Thompson players chosen in the NBA draft and one of eight taken in the first round. More impressively, he is one of 76, out of 78, who stayed four years and received their degrees from Georgetown -- a 97 percent graduation rate.
Still, when Thompson twice walked off the Capital Centre court to protest the use of standardized test scores to determine freshman athletic eligibility, critics dismissed his position as an effort to ensure his ability to liberally recruit from the inner city.
"Everything I said or did, people interpreted it was for an athletic reason," Thompson said. "Sometimes they were right, but a hell of a lot of times they were not. Every breath I took -- as the song said, 'Every Move I Make' -- didn't relate to winning a basketball game. Or my life would have been very shallow."
In December, during a kickoff dinner for the 100th anniversary of Georgetown basketball at the Great Falls home of Georgetown alumnus and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, Thompson thanked the university for having his back when it was unpopular to have a socially conscious, loud and large black man as its coach.
'Big John didn't change'
Certainly no one is asking Thompson today to be anything other than what he is, though some speculate on how much, if at all, that person has changed. Ronny Thompson, for one, does not view his father as a suddenly mellowed man.
"I think we as a society have become more accepting of some things, where someone like my dad may be more tolerated than before," Ronny said.
Said Mutombo: "Maybe you think Big John has softened up. I don't know, Big John is still Big John. Generations changed; Big John didn't change."
The question was posed earlier this week to his drive-time talk-show co-hosts, Al Koken and Rick "Doc" Walker.
"Are you kidding?" Koken said. "He keeps us hostage for three hours a day in here."
"His players only had to deal with him for four years," Walker said. "Ask any of those guys if they want to do a double? Hell no, he hasn't changed."
From the balcony of his opulent Arlington townhouse across the Potomac River, Thompson can see McDonough Gymnasium, where he still keeps an office. It's a physical manifestation of the long shadow he still casts over the athletic department on the Hilltop. But when asked about his role in the 2004 firing of his replacement and longtime assistant Craig Esherick and subsequent hiring of his son as the team's head coach, Thompson's engaging contemporary demeanor is quickly replaced by the defiance of old.
"I wish they could stop giving black people this mythical power," Thompson said. "Give me some real power. Then I'll show him my influence. They'll feel me.
"That is more of an insult to John and what he's accomplished. John had won Ivy League championships [as coach of Princeton]. Now, I was Georgetown University's former coach. Don't you think they'd be pretty stupid not to ask my opinion on matters that pertain to basketball? But I would love to have had half of the power people said I had because I would have used that power in much different ways than they thought I did."
Thompson expresses similar amazement with the people who now define him by "sound-byting my life."
"I was probably big and I was probably angry and I was definitely black, but I never put my hand on anybody's child," he said. "And I never allowed anyone to put their hands on mine."
He leaned back in his chair during a commercial break, clasped his hands together and breathed deeply.
"All of a sudden people see me laughing on the radio, hear me talking and cracking jokes, they say, 'Damn, I didn't know he was that way,' " John Thompson Jr. said.
"Yeah, you didn't know me."