Hoyas' history lesson

Georgetown players know the school's legacy, but they are also committed to their own identity

Ncaa Tournament

March 15, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Gene Smith's stories about Georgetown basketball come in waves, like the waves of intimidating, blue-and-gray-clad defenders his Hoyas once ran at opponents during the program's 1980s glory days.

Smith, a defensive catalyst on the 1984 NCAA championship team, is talking and e-mailing about the notoriously rugged practices of coach John Thompson Jr. He's recalling the tenacity of center Patrick Ewing, whom he calls the defensive "anchor [who] sealed the deal."

It's not lost on Smith and his former teammates that the reason a reporter is contacting them now is because there's another Thompson coaching on the Hilltop - John Thompson III, the former coach's son. And because there's another Ewing - Patrick Ewing Jr., the former player's son who is practicing with the team and will be eligible next season after transferring from Indiana. And because Georgetown basketball has regained a measure of the swagger it once had.

"They've got a Thompson, a Ewing and a team on a roll," said Ralph Dalton, a 1985-86 team captain. "The buzz is back."

As it prepares for its NCAA tournament opener Friday against Northern Iowa, the school isn't inviting comparisons to 20 years ago, but it isn't discouraging them, either.

It's evident the 2006 Hoyas want to establish an identity free of the pressure that comes from associations to the 1980s teams that memorably played in three NCAA finals in four years. At the same time, the school knows its history is a powerful sales device for recruits and fans alike.

The current players are too young to have witnessed Ewing's college years, which ended in 1985 when Villanova shot 79 percent to beat the defending national champion Hoyas in the NCAA title game. But this year's players grew up watching Allen Iverson and had a vague sense that this was an important program. "As a youngster I always had Georgetown paraphernalia, oh yeah," said senior Darrel Owens, from Napoleonville, La. "We all knew about the legacy."

It's a legacy that is often on display in the imposing form of the elder Thompson, who frequently attends games - he was at the recent Big East tournament in which the Hoyas reached the semifinals - and provides a link to those Final Fours.

Players say he occasionally pulls up a chair at practices at tiny McDonough Gymnasium and watches drills. "He talks to us about everything, about life," said senior Brandon Bowman. "He says `Run the floor, run the floor!' He's still part of the program but he also lays back because he's not the coach."

With his continuing participation, Thompson seems to want to support his son without attracting too much attention to himself - sometimes a difficult task.

The balancing act is apparent in the former coach's choice of seats. He usually sits upstairs for home games at the Verizon Center (formerly MCI Center), where he is relatively obscure. "I prefer to sit up there because I'm out of the way," he says. And then he adds with a playful nudge: "And so I don't have to talk to [media] like you."

Thompson moved to more prominent seats downstairs during Georgetown's big regular-season wins over Duke and Syracuse because the games sold out and his upstairs seat was unavailable. At the final home contest against Syracuse, he sat with the media along the baseline. Nursing a bottled water, he stared intently at the game, his large hands clasped in front of him.

On one occasion earlier in the season, Thompson exercised a father's prerogative to get in his son's business. He talked on his radio show about his admiration for the way his son and daughter-in-law, Monica, were dealing with her breast cancer diagnosis and her subsequent chemotherapy treatments that began late last year.

Up to that point, the younger Thompson hadn't publicly disclosed his wife's illness, preferring to keep it out of the media.

The 40-year-old coach calls it "ironic" that "one of the most private people in the world" - his dad - would disclose a family secret.

But there is no edge in the coach's voice as he talks about the disclosure. He seems to understand his father had good intentions, which is what "Pops" has also said. "It's out there now, so it's nothing we're hiding from," Thompson III said.

He says he accepts that he's forever going to be asked what it's like to be the son of a famous father, who led the Hoyas to 596 wins and 20 NCAA tournament appearances before stepping down in 1999.

It's a blessing and a burden that he shares with Ewing Jr., a 6-8 forward who was primarily a reserve at Indiana. "I talk to him about it a lot," the coach says. "I say it's something he's had all his life. People are giving him a special eye because of who his dad is."

Thompson III, who knows all about that, jokes that he won't drape a towel over his shoulder during games because that was his father's trademark. "No, I didn't grab the towel," he says. "My mom said I look like a mess. She said, `You might want to grab one.' "

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