Games coaches play aren't always for human beings

MIKE LITTWIN

February 03, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Coaches like to think of themselves as teachers. In fact, it is not unusual to hear college coaches suggest they be treated in the same manner as professors, if not paid in quite the same manner. I have even heard coaches say they should be tenured.

Of course, the coach who would be a tenured professor of basketball instruction would also be available for shoe-endorsement contracts worth, in some cases, a hundred thousand dollars and more in a year.

That is not the only difference between coaches and professors. Professors rarely use whistles in the classroom, for example, and very few coaches end up on "Jeopardy," although some get their own show.

Which brings us to John Thompson, who is, in many ways, the ultimate college coach. To the athletes he recruits, Thompson is teacher, surrogate father, adviser, disciplinarian, big brother and IN CHARGE OF EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN HIS LIFE. This is Thompson: He was the coach, who, when he heard that some of his players were hanging around a drug dealer, directly confronted the alleged dealer, telling him to keep the hell away from Georgetown players. He didn't call in the cops. He didn't have to. He was John Thompson, larger than life.

So it may come as a surprise to some to hear a dissenting view on Thompson, which is, actually, a dissenting view on coaches, of which Thompson is only typical, if larger.

The voice belongs to David Robinson, of some basketball fame, who played for Thompson during the 1988 Olympics. He told his story to Pat Jordan, a writer of some fame, in the current issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly.

"Thompson was a dictator," Robinson said. "You had to go his way. It was always his gym, his team, his this. . . . He wants you

scared of him. He degrades you. He told me I couldn't play. I said, 'OK, that's fine. I can't play.' He didn't understand I could be devoted to the game and still have other interests. He was used to having kids for whom basketball's everything. He gets into your mentality with the mind games he plays."

Robinson is unusual for an athlete, not because he is bright but because he has a developed intelligence. He's not a machine. He is a thinking person responsible for himself and who would, as many of us surely would, resent working for Thompson.

But it isn't just Thompson. Try fitting Bob Knight's name in wherever you see John Thompson's, and what would be different? And they're just the ones we know.

These are teachers? In molding a basketball team or football team, they yell and scream and intimidate and take young kids, )) as young as 17 or 18, and try to break them down to rebuild them into efficient athletes. I wonder how long an English professor would last if he tried to break students psychologically so they could write a better paper on the enduring symbolism of the Miller's tale.

Let's take another look at Robinson's comments on Thompson. He wants you scared of him. He degrades you. He's a dictator. He plays mind games.

I remember a story that one of Bob Knight's assistant coaches told me. He said Knight would walk into practice, and as he entered the door, he'd be telling a joke. But once he hit the floor, he was as abusive as a boot-camp sergeant, only to leave a few minutes later, and, as he walked out the door, resume the joke he was telling when he walked in.

A best-selling book was written about Knight's abuse of the young kids who are put in his trust. Knight believes he's a general, and so does Thompson. It's funny, but if you watch the real generals march before our TV cameras with their maps and pointers and four-star camouflage fatigues, you can't help but think of them as football coaches gone to war.

But coaches aren't generals, and athletes aren't soldiers. They don't need to be abused. They should be there to have fun. Discipline, today's catchword, is assumed to be needed in sports, and maybe it is. But no one benefits from that kind of psychological warfare. I think Dean Smith's teams are as disciplined as you could require, and yet I've never heard that he tried to scare his athletes or degrade them. I think David Robinson could have played for Smith quite happily.

In the professional basketball game, where the players are the stars, coaches can't intimidate with impunity. In the college game, where the players leave every few years, coaches are the stars. And, in some cases, they are elevated by fans and, yes, by the media into demigods or greater. Finally, many of these coaches come to believe their own press clippings.

Young athletes have little recourse. They have carefully guarded access to the media, and, in any case, a complaining athlete is a traitor and, worse, one who no longer plays. The relationship is biased completely toward the coach, who, too often, takes complete advantage. Coaches aren't all like that, but many of them are.

Occasionally, someone like Robinson speaks up, and maybe somebody listens. That it's Thompson is important only because he's famous. It could have been many other coaches, who, instead of settling for teaching their players the intricacies of the man-to-man defense, scare and degrade them. They're dictators. And, somewhere along the line, they got it all wrong.

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