Towering Enigma

In recent books, one sportswriter attempts to size up a complex coach, while another reveals some of the challenges of dealing with such athletic figures

THE necktie is loosened. The shirt is open at the neck. The suit coat is also open. So is the mouth. When John Thompson coaches a basketball game, it's always that way. The way of a man driven to succeed.

Pro basketball is a players' game. The average fan can name two full all-star teams worth of players before he can come up with half that many National Basketball Association coaches.

But in college basketball - John Thompson's basketball - the coach is bigger than the players. And Thompson, the 6 ft., 10 in., 270-pound centerpiece of this honest and clear-eyed biography, is as big as they come.

``Big Man on Campus: John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas'' is not merely a book about basketball, however, because Thompson is not just another successful coach. Yes, he's black, but there are now numerous black head coaches. Yes, he came from humble origins, but so have thousands of other sports figures.

What makes his story special is the marriage between this intense man and an academically elite, predominantly white, Roman Catholic university. Georgetown, like most other urban Catholic schools, has no football program; it's up to the basketball team to bring it glory. What the administration wanted when Thompson was hired was to bring national visibility to a program that had become a laughingstock.

He has provided that and much more.

It's tough to be objective about Thompson, but Leonard Shapiro tries. Shapiro's style is purposeful, not lyrical. But then basketball itself isn't lyrical - especially the relentless, in-your-face brand of basketball John Thompson teaches.

Basketball purists admire the highly disciplined work ethic of Thompson's teams. Georgetown fans love their record: 423 wins before the current season, including 16 consecutive post-season playoff trips and a national championship. Others - in as well as outside the black community - applaud his highly visible stands on behalf of the disadvantaged. His superiors are adamant in saying that he has been good for Georgetown.

Ah, but the critics! They are legion: rival coaches, referees, sportswriters, broadcasters, former players, people he has climbed over to get where he is, and the many others he has turned his back on. Without them there'd be no reason to write this book.

It is they who define the John Thompson the general public most often sees - the Thompson for whom a flagrant punch to the side of an opponent's head is perfectly defensible. Who screams at game officials, other teams' coaches, and even his own players. Whose 1988 United States Olympic squad brought home the silver medal because the ``pressure defense'' style of play he stubbornly insisted on using couldn't beat the Soviets. Who stocks his teams almost entirely with black players and then erects a wall of silence (known as ``Hoya paranoia'') between them and the outside world.

Throughout his life, John Thompson has been taken under the wing of influential whites. They've seen to much of his social, academic, and professional progress and helped make him wealthy. Yet, many of his critics seem convinced he's racist.

Shapiro isn't among them, and he has known Thompson for more than 20 years. An intimidator, yes, he writes. A man of contradictions, yes. But racist? ``Emphatically no ... he does not hate whites.''

Still, it's not hard to see why he might. Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to the incident at Georgetown in 1975 that seems to have been the turning point in Thompson's life. He was in his third season with the Hoyas, his contract had only one more year to run, and the team was losing regularly. Moments before a home game, someone draped a bedsheet inside the basketball arena on which was spray-painted ``THOMPSON, THE NIGGER FLOP, MUST GO.''

Within hours, the campus was in an uproar. Administrators, students, the school newspaper, and Thompson's players rallied to his defense. The issue quickly shifted from his competence to the university's social consciousness. The perpetrator never was caught. Meanwhile, Georgetown went on to win seven of its final eight games that season and has been a power ever since. It is a measure of the complexity of the story, however, that the word on the street in Washington was that some of Thompson's own friends in the black community hung the bedsheet to take the pressure off him.

Shapiro's Thompson is hypocritical, profane, and obsessed with money, power, and secrecy. But he is also a man sentimental enough to weep on graduation day for his first class of recruits at Georgetown. And a man who knows he has an image problem and either can't or won't do anything about it.

``I am not trying to be anything other than what I am,'' he told the author. ``And I'm really not certain what that is.''

``Big Man on Campus'' won't make you a John Thompson fan if you aren't one already. But as the latest in the genre of books about college basketball, it's a good read.

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