John Thompson III never had a chance to fully enjoy the new practice facility. | Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol
Family matters: JT3 on what was, what's next
BY BEN STANDIG | FEB. 25, 2018
Among the hints of the past in John Thompson III’s sixth-floor office in Northwest D.C. are a photograph of his legendary father leaving the basketball court in protest. Other sports memorabilia includes signed photos of Willie Mays and Joe Louis. A poster of Rosa Parks hangs on the wall to stake its claim among the athletic nods.
Thompson looks refreshed almost a year removed from coaching his last basketball game at Georgetown. He’s 51, about to turn 52 in early March, and doing television work for ESPN and CBS. The move to the studio is common for articulate, recognizable former coaches. The shift from stressed to relax often coincides with such job changes.
He says he’s not bitter that a place intertwined with his family name chose a change. Thompson made that clear during a recent lengthy interview with The Sports Capitol. However, he will remind you that he is no longer part of “we” on the Hilltop. The word is so pervasive there the university uses it as a marketing slogan, “We are Georgetown,” a phrase that could double as the Thompson family mantra.
But, when Thompson was lumped into a collective “you” during one question about Georgetown’s history of not often playing other prominent local teams, he stopped the query in pursuit of clarification.
“Let’s get our language straight: You said, ‘You guys’, to me,” Thompson said.
He smiled. “You guys” in Georgetown basketball terms may still include his father and brother. It just no longer includes him.
“Amen,” Thompson cracked. “Let’s get that straight.”
This Hoyas season is about Patrick Ewing’s success. But side conversations revolve around the Thompsons. Specifically, how do they remain publicly active with the men’s basketball program when one of their own is no longer part of the Georgetown collective after being fired?
Entrenched is John Thompson III’s history at the school. John Thompson Jr. raised his namesake right alongside Georgetown’s basketball program starting in 1972. No one had a better view of Georgetown shifting from downtrodden program to national champion and cultural touchstone than John Thompson III.
Six years after his father retired in 1999, Thompson revitalized the program and coached the Hoyas for 13 largely successful seasons.
Stunning NCAA Tournament losses and back-to-back losing seasons spurred anonymous voices connected to the program. They wondered about change.
Framed by a hyped start and down finish were Thompson’s 278 wins, Final Four appearance and ample Big East conference success. The decision to fire him last March shook the historically stable program.
“(The firing) was real tough, it was real tough,” said NBA veteran Jeff Green, the star player on Thompson’s lone Final Four team. “That was my coach. He’s like a father figure to me.”
“I think he did a great job when he was there,” said Rodney Pryor, the leading scorer during Thompson’s final season. “I wish we could have done a better job as a group to back him up.”
“I have some definite thoughts on the who, what, where, when, why,” Thompson said. “I really don’t want to go into… But there are some tangible things that led us to having a couple of bad years. Some could be controlled, some couldn’t. I’ve done an honest assessment of everything. I am not sitting here saying if I had to do it all over I would do it exactly the same, no, no. I think I know some factors that led to us sitting here having this conversation.”
The change made February different for the first time in decades. There isn’t another flight to catch, another recruit to chase, another gameplan to compile. Instead, Thompson works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and other outlets. He serves as an assistant coach for the USA Basketball team competing in the FIBA Americup. He is a member of the newly formed NCAA committee designed to help clean up the sport, a job that may make him a very busy man soon. He sees more games featuring his children than ever before. He connects with his former players. He smiles easily.
What he does not do is watch the team he grew up with, the team he coached. Though, on one occasion he had no choice. Taking his coaching work ethic into his analyst role, Thompson studies several games worth of film ahead of each broadcast. One team his crew had to cover recently played the Hoyas. So, he watched. Otherwise, he only takes in snippets, if that.
“I’ve got a bunch going on,” he said. “If I’m flipping through channels and it stops right there I’ll stop and watch.”
Thompson is not the first former coach to not watch the program he used to lead. It’s a logical decision. Who makes time to keep up with places that no longer wanted your services?
The choice seems plainly logical. Except, perhaps, in this case.
Other Thompsons remain part of the “we” at Georgetown. “Big John” still casts a literal and figurative shadow over the program, whether the 76-year-old attends practices or plunks his imposing 6-foot-10 frame into a courtside seat near the Hoyas bench.
John’s younger brother, Ron, holds a key though not publicly defined role with the current program. The team is now coached by Ewing. The Basketball Hall of Fame member is not a Thompson by blood, but was John Thompson Jr.’s most famous player and centerpiece of the title team. They are the current “we.”
This work-family dynamic appears strange from the outside. Think of awkward family dinners. Now think of this one, especially in the weeks after the firing, when the patriarch’s eldest son is replaced by a beloved player and the other son is helping with the transition and beyond.
Some from the Thompson clan recognize the circumstance looks odd when viewed externally. John Thompson III defined the family dynamics as “fine,” but that coldish response is mostly about not revealing much to the curious. The brothers have conversations about life and still talk trash to each other. The family bond never broke. Their father is going nowhere. His older son is fine with that. The basketball program is simply their legacy. It always will be, with or without him dressed in Georgetown gray.
Thompson takes a direct shot at another point: He understands why the university decided it was time for a change. The program had not suffered consecutive losing campaigns since the early 1970s. Then, substandard work in 2016 and 2017 came.
“I can’t sit here and say, ‘Ooh, I was shocked,” Thompson said. “We had a couple of difficult years. We didn’t win and they decided to make a change and go in a different direction. That’s part of this business. That’s part of this industry at all levels.”
The school took away his job. It took away the full chance to deploy the state-of-the-art on-campus practice facility named for his father. The 144,000-square building with a basketball court larger than some airport hangars opened just 18 months before his firing. During a tour of the building days before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Thompson proudly overlooked his favorite part of the facility he helped create. “It’s this room right here. It’s the court.”
The day he talked in his office, Georgetown was in Providence for a Big East game. Thompson was aware of the schedule and how some of the players he recruited were performing this season. He just isn’t about looking back. Despite the public breakup, he reveals no anger.
“I’m good,” Thompson said. “Spiritually, emotionally, physically, I’m doing fine. I think I said in the press release that day, on to the next chapter. Not to get overly religious, but God has a plan. I’m fine, my family is fine. I’m enjoying this next chapter so far. Life is good.”
Among Thompson’s stored life lessons is understanding that outsiders are eternally curious about his family. It’s part of the legacy of Georgetown basketball, so public, yet so introverted, like the school itself. The school, his father, the program, all the layers that made his hiring and dismissal compelling — at the time and now — are almost rote to Thompson.
“That’s my life,” Thompson said. “That’s fine. I’m OK with that. I think everybody else wants to start comparing and contrasting. This is me. This has always been me. That’s not going to change.”
The connection has trailed him since college. Instead of “JT3,” teammates at Princeton referred to him by another moniker: “Son of.” As in “John is the son of legendary Hoyas coach John Thompson.”
Therein is another chance for John Thompson III to complain. He had the benefit of a father who became an historical figure, and a tussle with that fact when establishing himself as his own man. But, like the personnel change at Georgetown, he harbors no animosity.
“I’m John Thompson’s child. I wouldn’t want any other dad.”
He said he might return to head coaching “if the right opportunity presents itself” without offering many crumbs as to that ideal scenario. If he returns to the bench, “without a doubt there would be a different approach. That’s one of the benefits of having sat in on 20-plus different practices. One of the benefits of spending two months just talking hoops… It’s good to grow. However long this has been, I’ve grown.”
Thompson is also fine with broadcasting and spending more time with his wife and three children. While he moves on, he accepts that his family members remain with the Georgetown men’s basketball program. This is what they do, this is their life. It’s just no longer his.
Secondary photos courtesy Evan Chvotkin