Thursday, April 24, 2003
Darth Vader of G'Town
By Ralph Wiley Page 2 columnist
Admit it. In your all-time favorite moments of college basketball, John Thompson was there. Wasn't he?
Sure he was.
And in your worse nightmares, he was there.
John Thompson was the great Father Villain of the great Jesuit university of Georgetown. He turned a village of lawyers into Georgetown by John Thompson. As Evil Empires go, he made the Soviets look like the Smurfs.
He was Dark Vader. And some of you still can't admit to yourself the (to you) horrible truth. Amid the celebrations of when the villain was vanquished, one simple truth.
I'm your father, Luke ...
What was your moment, Luke? Was it 1982, when Michael Jordan became the Michael Jordan, by hitting that game-winner from the left wing to give Carolina and Dean Smith his first national title, in front of, what, over 62,000 fans, the most ever assembled for a college game?
Remember when you first heard it, in the late '70s, early '80s, when you heard the train coming ... bam-bam, bambambam, Let's Go Hoyas, bam-bam-bambambam, Let's Go Hoyas ... remember how it made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, remember how you almost panicked, then adapted it? Remember how it became Let's Go Redmen, Let's Go Wildcats, Let's Go Whoever?
Remember John Williams' theme for Darth Vader?
Remember how the pep band played it? Remember how well that fit John Thompson, Dark Vader, and his Imperial Storm Troopers applying their vise of full-court pressure?
Remember how completely you despised him and didn't care why or how or how many? Remember how he gave you a reason to care about a college basketball game?
Remember how a nothing college game and a nowhere fledgling basketball conference called the Big East took what Bird and Magic had started in 1979 and ran with it?
Remember how precious a victory over Georgetown was?
Unless you were with Georgetown.
Remember how it felt like your team (the team G'town was playing) was defending the honor of ancient Rome against Hannibal's elephants, named Ewing, Mourning, Mutombo?
Remember 1985, when the Big East dominated college basketball? Remember when Georgetown had won five of the first six Big East tournaments, until Thompson eased off on the tourniquet, let the blood flow to your brain?
Remember how you stopped thinking just to hate him?
Did you thank him for that later? No. You curse him still.
(So did I, sometimes.) Why? Fun, I guess.
John Thompson touched people, inside, like Robin Hood, like Malcolm X, like William Munny, like Muhammad Ali, and I went to see him about it, back then, because it seemed to me to be satisfying and profitable work. He yelled at me, the very first thing. He embraced his villany. "Why'd they send you? Because you're black?" "No," I said, "because I wanted to come." I neglected to add, "and everyone else was either too scared, too intimidated, or didn't want to."
The good villain makes you reach higher, deeper within.
Remember 1985, when the Big East sent three teams to the Final Four, and could've sent four? Ask Jim Boeheim, who just won his national championship. Ask who built the fire up under him in the first place. Ask Villanova what was its finest hour. Ask St. John's what they remember most. Ask yourself why you can't seem to work up a good hatred for Georgetown anymore. Ask yourself why that makes you just a little bit sad and nostalgic maybe. Oh, you want to keep up that good hatred for G'Town. Somehow, you can't, because He isn't there. What's "Star Wars" without Lord Vader? I'll tell you what. Not the same. Good. Episode IV, and all that. And still a great university. Just not the same.
Remember 1985? Is it not said to be the greatest "upset" in the history of college basketball, if not all sports history?
Why? Because of the players? Well, Ewing was a great college player, but he won no NBA titles. Reggie Williams was a superb college player, but he had no impact on the pros. Mike Jackson was a great kid, but only got a cup of coffee. David Wingate stayed around the league forever, but mostly as a spear carrier, practice fodder. For 'Nova, Eddie Pinckney and Harold Pressley and Dwayne McClain were all pro material, too, and Villanova had that limber jump shooter, that Harold Jensen, and that clownish point guard, Gary McLain, who had no game to speak of and who later bragged to SI that he was on yayo the whole time. Check this out. 'Nova shot 90 percent for the second half, nine of ten in the pre-shot clock era, 90 percent, and guess what? 'Nova won by two, 66-64. By two!
John Thompson, Dark Vader, architect of "Hoya Paranoia" and one of the great defensive traditions in all sports, let alone college basketball, was the Great Villain of Life.
The color component is in there, too. We didn't invent the dictionary. No, we just live by it. Look up "black." Look up "white." See what I mean? But it can work in many ways.
See, I know how John Thompson came to be a villain, and came to not care. I know it was another Father, a Catholic priest, who told the young black Catholic boy (whose family had to wait to take communion until the good "heroic" people were done), that he might grow up to be a murderer one day. I knew he had ducked his head in shame when the priest said that. I knew he had trouble reading. I knew his father couldn't get the white dust from the marble out of his hands, he worked so long and hard at the stone cutting business. I knew his mother had died too young, from overwork and not enough preventative health care. I know that John Thompson was a teacher of defense first, last and always, because he had heard time and time and time again back them, how black players were too lazy to play defense. Thompson told me these things himself, in time, once he learned that I didn't care if he was a villain or not. Villains have stories too. Sometimes they are as good as a hero's story. And I know for all the boos and catcalls and emotion and hatred -- nobody ever said anything about being lazy to John Thompson or any Georgetown team.
So the villain is the one who makes the drama work in the first place. There's no hero without him. John Thompson made more heroes out of other men than anybody else I can think of -- and, hell, you could make an argument that defense in hoop came into vogue behind the suffocating stance of the Let's Go Hoyas, when they shut down everybody, including Kentucky for nearly the entire second half in the Final Four semifinal en route to the NCAA title in 1984. Defense is still in vogue today. Quite so.
Rick Pitino first came into vogue, was first authenticated, because his Providence team beat John Thompson and the Hoyas in the 1987 NCAA tournament. Rick Pitino liked to play 11 too, like John Thompson. The Big East Conference, Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, James Worthy going "Gah!" when Fred Brown mysteriously threw him that ball, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Villanova, Harold Jensen, Eddie Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, Looie, Chris Mullin, Pete Gillen and Tyrone Hill at Xavier in '89, Arvydas Sabonis and Sharunus Marcheloinus and that Soviet Olympic basketball team that many red-blooded Americans (like you?) rooted for in the '88 Olympics, the last Olympics for the U.S. college-age kids in basketball, because they'd have no chance, not against men, as we first saw then. Maybe we rooted for Russia out of habit, because Russia was going against John Thompson. John Thompson was an even greater villain than Cold War Russia!
That's off the villain chart, right there. That's impressive.
How many heroes can dance on the head of one villain? How many heroes can one villain make?
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."