New Game Plan

Article excerpt

Former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson has left the Hoyas, but not his commitment to preparing student athletes for successful lives

A vocal opponent of freshman eligibility standards for college athletes since their inception, former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson once walked off the court to protest the implementation of the National Collegiate Athletics Association's Proposition 42 (see Evolution page26). The action was typical of a man who has never been afraid to speak his mindparticularly when he was speaking about educational opportunities for African American athletes.

Thompson's tenure at Georgetown began in 1972. In his 27-year tenure as head coach, 97 percent ofthe men's basketball players earned their degrees, according to the university. And Thompson achieved that graduation rate with students who many critics said didn't belong at Georgetown academically.

But basketball merely provided the sounding board from which Thompson could attack problems that chronically manifest themselves in higher education and continually permeate the national culture - the problems of race and equity. This achieve ment is even more remarkable when one considers the hostile environments and name-calling with which he and his players frequently had to contend - as was the case at his own alma mater in the early '80s, when Providence University fans displayed signs that insulted Patrick Ewing's intelligence in a dehumanizing manner.

And Thompson not only has worked relentlessly to increase educational access for young Black men, he has been just as diligent about imparting a sense of social responsibility to those under his charge and among the society at large.

Recently, during the first round of the NCAA's basketball championship tournament, Black Issues Publisher Frank Matthews and News Editor Eric St. John spoke with the former Georgetown coach in his new digs at WTEM-AM. Thompson hosts a morning sports-talk show at this Washington, D.C., station. Although the conversation like his show and his life-covered more than just college sports, the discussion revolved around minority access and academic standards.

As someone who was an early opponent of placing restrictions on freshmen participation in college sports based on standardized test scores, do you think you've been vindicated by the U.S. Third Circuit Court's decision to prevent the NCAA from continuing to use Proposition 48?

Not really...The way I look at it, it was quite obvious that I was correct. It didn't take a rocket scientist to understand that what I was saying was right because the Educational Testing Service came out, even at that time, and indicated that there was a misuse of an educational instrumentthe SAT. The SATs were good to use, but they weren't good to use in the manner in which the NCAA schools were using them.

I can be happy about what the judge did, but we can never go back and change the lives of those young people that that instrument was misused on. So it's not a time for me to gloat. I'm glad that they changed it, but I'm also upset with the fact that it took so long.

What Is the basic structure of the NCAA?

First of all, I think the most misleading thing about the NCAA is that we tend to think that the people out in Kansas City are the NCAA. What the NCAA actually turns out to be is the colleges and institutions [across] this country. They have the luxury of hiding because nobody ever finds out how an individual school votes. Nobody ever holds individuals accountable for their decisions. They all point towards the NCAA [offices] out in Kansas City.

But those people [out there] are an enforcement agency. That's like going after the police department for ma king the laws. The police department enforces the laws. The NCAA enforces laws that educational institutions make. So when you go through your committee systems-the presidents and ADs [athletics directors] and whateversystem-these are people who supposedly are academic people who are making a lot of this legislation.

I think what happens in athletics, though, is that [colleges and universities] delegate that authority-particularly as it pertains to athletics-to people who are involved in competing.

The NCAA's regulations seem to be aimed at improving graduation rates. You didn't seem to have a problem with that. What were you doing at Georgetown that maybe the NCAA could be looking at?

First of all,when you talk about improving graduation rates, you know and I know that you can play with statistics anyway you want to and show people that kids are graduating or that kids are not graduating based on the present and existing system.... So then they took the statistics and said that more Black kids are graduating, but they didn't say that even more are being prevented from coming in as a result of the [NCAA] rules.

In terms of what we did at Georgetown, it was just old-fashioned monitoring. I wish I could tell you a secret or formula that I could pass on to other people, but what happens is time consuming....

We had kids who were coming into practice late... and leaving early based on study sessions they had to make.... That was not something that I was willing to [allow]. That's why I hired an academic coordinator-because I wanted her to monitor me. I wanted her to monitor my competitive instincts because I didn't trust them...

So you have to have the checks and balances in your program with people that you are comfortable with and confident in.

You take people like Patrick Ewing [of the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks], who you knew was going to be a professional basketball player, and he still graduates and graduates on time. Why is graduation so Important?

I think it's almost like everything else. We like to tell people that it wasn't that fashionable to be stupid in our program. If somebody did what they were supposed to do, we praised them. You create an atmosphere where education is important....

This whole [NBA] lockout situation that was involved, I had tears in my eyes. I'd see a newsreel at night, and [former Hoyas] Dikembe Mutombo [of the Atlanta Hawks]..., Alonzo Morning[ofthe Miami Heat], and Patrick [were all] discussing and dealing with issues. And I was just as proud as I could be... It wasn't just the fact that they graduated from Georgetown, [but that] they applied their education. They understood,from their education, that it was important for them to participate in these [sort of] things because they were important to their profession.

In 1996, Allen Iverson, who now plays with the Philadelphia 76ers, became the first of your athletes to leave school early for the NBA. What did you say to him when he was making that decision?

Well, there wasn't much I could say to him. I think that it was the best decision for Allen. Anytime a problem presents itself, you've got to look at it from different perspectives...

I wanted Allen to stay in school. I wanted Allen to graduate because I was more concerned about emotionally and psychologically how he would be able to cope with the environment that he would be in.

But that does not mean to me that once a person leaves college in its traditional sense as we see it through the college athletic component that we have,that his educational process has to stop.You still can get in many informal situations and you hope and pray that you don't ruin your life before that happens.

Georgetown captured the imagination of this country -- particularly the Black community -during the early 1980s. In California, in Cincinnati, in South Carolina, you could see kids walking around with Georgetown paraphernalia. What was it about those early Georgetown teams that was different and made everybody gravitate towards them?

I think you hit it onthe head when you said that we were a little different. Here was this big Black man who was outspoken. Here's a team that's predominately Black. And here's a team that didn't a pologize for being what it was.And I think that all ofthose attributes were [part of it]. We were "in style" at that time-that was the thing.

And the th ing that was good about it is those kids left and became productive citizens. To me, I can't emphasize that enough. I think folks can talk about graduation rates and grade-point averages all you want to; but the truest measurement, in my opinion, of education existing in a person is how they function and how they use it. I see so many kids, particularly in college today,who can quote their gradepoint average, butare terrified once they get in the world of work and begin dealing with the real pressures in the world of work.

You've been on top, with national championships, and you've had some lean years. What's been the constant for you through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations?

I think that the thing that you get the most gratification out of... is the relationship with the players that you have.

If my phone rings late at night and it's Alonzo Mourning... or it's Patrick Ewing on the phone, ...those are things that are very importa nt to me, personally.

Certainly,l want to achieve like anybody else, I want to win ball games, I want kids to graduate-all those things that are open to the public. But there's got to be a gratification behind the scenes in the relationships that you have with people. I think that's the one thing that's been consistent with me.

Is that why you stepped away? Had that kind of faded for you?

Well, it hadn't faded. I couldn't give the kind of attention that I wanted to give to it in the present situation that I'm inbecause, as I told you, the key isti me. You have gotto put a lot of time into them...

So, it's a tremendous responsibility if you want to do it correctly. And if you feel that you can't do it correctly,then you move away from it.

Do you feel an obligation to help lead some of your star athletes to Black sports agents?

No... I feel an obligation to send my players to competency. That's what I feel. Then it is their decision, once they get in a position to understand and to judge who they choose and what they do.

It has been said that John Thompson, by virtue of being John Thompson, could get away with stuff that other coaches couldn't get away with. They say that your coaching merit is that you are the Godfather, so to speak, of Black college basketball coaches. How do you respond to those kinds of critics?

Well, I laugh and I tell them I'm glad that Rosa Parks didn't feel that way. If Rosa Parks had feIt that way, John Thompson would never have been in a position to get a job...

I think people make excuses for not taking positions...and thinking that you've got to reach a certain status or you have to wait until you're unemployed. Reverend Jesse Jackson paid me a compliment when I resigned and I never thought about it. He said to me, "I'm glad you took the positions you took while you were employed. That meant something to me. You didn't wait until you resigned before you spoke up and before you said things that you had." And that meant something. I don't think Jesse even knew at that time what that meant to me when he said that.

In terms of the entire collegiate environment, where are we in terms of racism? Is it worse? Is it better? Is it about the same as when you broke in?

It's hard for meto measure it....

When you have been discriminated against, when things have happened where you know that folks have consciously been deprived and kept from having an opportunity, how do you know they've stopped? They created the mark, they created the scar, they created the suspicion in your mind. So when you see other young people, who you know are very talented, who you see do not get an opportunity to get jobs, and then you see others come in, very quickly,and get jobs, you have to wonder what is going on. And you are going to move back towards your conditioned response and say, "Well, hey, is this stuff still going on?"

And,in fact, people are not comfortable, sometimes, in dealing with people who are different from them. The thing that Georgetown did for me is that it gave me a job and permitted me to be me. I didn't have to make an adjust menton what I was. I'm certain they didn't agree, and I know a lot of people didn't like what I said and what I did. But I still was able to be me and that was important to me.

There seems to be this big, raging debate now about affirmative action and standards. One side says, "If you don't meet a standard, regardless of how ridiculous or artificial the quantifiable standard, then you don't deserve a shot." You kind of exemplify the other side. Is your view that you don't have to have high SAT scores to make it?

Yes. You can give Allen Iverson a chance. Yes, Victor Page does deserve an opportunity to succeed or fail.And I don't know that I made a conscious effort to do that.

I just think that I was one of those peopie who was provided with an opportunity bya lot of people outside of athletics ata time in my life when I thought I was not going to be successful and other people thought I was not going to be successful. But teachers went out of their way to say, "Hey, you can do this. I'll push you," even though I didn't meet these standards.

So are people like Arthur Ashe, with whom you have disagreed on the importance of standards, missing the boat or is it just a background and experiential thing that won't allow them to have sympathy and empathy for these kids?

I talked with Arthur Ashe right around the time that I walked out on Proposition 42, and interestingly enough, he and I were very much philosophically aligned. He had the same feelings, the same sympathy, but we came from different experiences.

I think that people fail to realize, sometimes,that your color is not the thing that makes you what you are. I have many White friends who are very,very poor who are far more sympathetic tothe kinds of things that I am doing than a lot of Black people who came from money. [This is] because [some] Black folks become threatened the minute that you sta rt talking about helping other Black people, particularly when it pertains to academic standards. They think that they can't go to the house parties, or the tea parties, or they can't walk in their office and have the same status. [Then,] I can also go to a White person who has been poor and they'll say, "Yeah, he deserves help. I remember when I didn't have it." So, I think that it's not [about color]. We've made it [about] color in our society, but it's not necessarily color.

Arthur Ashe was very sym pathetic to a lot of things and did a lot of good things. I liked Arthur Ashe. Arthur Ashe liked me. But we didn't always agree as to the things that we felt should be done and who they should be done for.

But I don't have a problem with that [because] I don't believe two Black people have to think the same way.

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