This is a new experience, actually liking a Georgetown basketball team — liking the way it plays, the way it conducts itself on the court. You could appreciate the teams of John Thompson the Elder, their muscle and hustle, but they were hard to embrace. Indeed, they always gave the impression they didn’t want to be loved, wouldn’t know what to do with love, weren’t all that familiar with love.
It was a pose, a lot of it — a silly pose, really, this us-against-the-world, Hoya Paranoia nonsense. But it was the program’s persona nonetheless, and it served Georgetown quite well for quite some time, especially when it was going to three Final Fours in four years in the ‘80s. Hoyas basketball in those days was the hoops equivalent of Shock and Awe; John Thompson would roll out his bound-for-the NBA centers — Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning — the way Hannibal rolled out his elephants … and then trample the opposition.
Before long, Georgetown became the favored team of America’s Young Gangstas, who made Hoyas gear their official uniform. Georgetown’s chip on its shoulder, its defiance, its physicality — all resonated in the angry, might-makes-right world of the inner city. No one could have anticipated such a consequence, of course, but it was the last thing the image-challenged program needed. The Georgetown Hoyas: Rayful Edmonds’ team. Talk about a good cause turned bad.
Happily, the current Hoyas are none of those things, which is kind of amazing when you think about it. After all, their coach, John Thompson III, comes from the same gene pool. But as we’ve been reminded time and again the past three years, the son bears only a passing resemblance to the father. In fact, it’s as if JT3 inherited all of his dad’s best traits (smarts, determination, the ability to teach and/or “persuade”) and dodged the worst ones (mistrustfulness, stupefying stubbornness, the tendency to bully).
But then, not much has been denied Thompson the Younger in life. He grew up in affluence in Northwest D.C. and went to — and coached at — Princeton, where he was converted to the Church of Pete Carril. JT3 also didn’t grow to be 6-10, 270 pounds, so he doesn’t have his father’s big-man view of life. Basketball, to him, is as much about precision and finesse as power.
Whereas the background music of his dad’s teams was the pounding of a base drum, the background music of JT3’s teams is more like a jazz quartet. Whereas the symbol of the Ewing/Mutombo/Mourning Hoyas was an iron fist, the symbol of the Roy Hibbert/Jeff Green Hoyas is more like a velvet hammer. The offense is spread, not packed in around the paint. There’s passing, cutting, thunder and lightning — basketball as Dr. Naismith intended it to be.
To Thompson the Elder, it was all about out-toughing the other guy, breaking his will. The son doesn’t see the game so simply; to him, it’s also about outwitting your adversary, beating him with your brain as well as your body.
Which isn’t to say this year’s Georgetown team isn’t as gritty as his father’s grittiest. You don’t rally from eight points down in Round 2 of the NCAAs, 13 down in the Sweet 16 and 10 down — with just 6:20 left — against North Carolina in the Elite Eight unless you’re an extremely plucky bunch.
Better still, the current Hoyas come across in media sessions as Actual Individuals. When JT2 was in charge, the players often seemed cowed by their coach, fearful that any attempt to reveal their true personalities would be punished by a vengeful God. The son’s hand is firmly on the wheel, make no mistake, but he’s not the martinet the Old Man was.
All of which makes this Georgetown club, headed to the Final Four for the first time in 22 years, infinitely more appealing. It’s not just about winning; it’s how you win. Why, these Hoyas can even make free throws. The ‘84 championship club shot less than 50 percent from the line twice during its tournament run. The Kid’s team, by contrast, hit 10 of 11 down the stretch Sunday, most of the attempts touching nothing but nylon.
It’s a new era on the Hilltop, all right. The name’s the same, but so much else has changed. One of these days, I’m firmly convinced, JT3 will recruit a white All-American; it just makes sense, given the nature of the Princeton offense.
And then the transformation will be complete.
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