- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

The song was improbable, the voice even more so.
During a segment on his local radio talk show, former Georgetown University men's basketball coach John Thompson sang along to the accompanying music. On air. Through a live microphone. With obvious glee.
And the tune in question? It wasn't one of the program's standard, Motown-issue jammin' oldies.
It was "The Cowboy Rides Away," a twangy, heartsick number performed by country crooner George Strait.
"I like country music," the 59-year-old Thompson later said with a laugh. "But people are surprised when they find out."
When it comes to surprising people, Thompson's affinity for country is just the beginning. Almost three years after his abrupt resignation from Georgetown, the iconic former coach has immersed himself in an unlikely new career: hosting a sports talk radio program on Rockville-based station WTEM-980.
Broadcast on weekday afternoons, the two-hour show is something of a revelation, and not simply because it features the occasional Thompson sing-a-long.
On the air, Thompson comes across as warm and engaging. He cracks jokes. He teases his co-hosts. He chuckles heartily.
In short, he's everything one would expect from a radio host and nothing like the imposing, larger-than-life figure who coached Georgetown for 26-1/2 years, sparring with the press and the college basketball establishment while making "Hoya Paranoia" a household term.
"I listen to the show every chance I get," said current Georgetown coach Craig Esherick, a player and longtime assistant under Thompson. "The funniest thing about it is that people come up to me and say, 'Gee, I really like the show, but I didn't know [Thompson] was like that.'
"And I say, 'Well, I knew. And the reason I did was because I played for him.' This is him. He's not pretending to be somebody else."

Lively and on air
At the start of a recent broadcast, Thompson sat at a large square desk in a smallish WTEM studio, his bulky, 6-foot-10 frame dwarfing both the room and the industrial-size headphones wrapped around his ears.
Surrounding Thompson were the tools of his current trade: newspapers, bottled water, a microphone, a computer terminal. And a juicy, inch-thick steak.
Part of a promotional giveaway held in conjunction with a local steakhouse, the gargantuan slab of beef quickly became fodder for on-air discussion, particularly after co-host Rick "Doc" Walker asked if Thompson and co-host "Smokin'" Al Koken planned to enjoy similar in-studio fare the next day.
"Are you leaving tomorrow?" Thompson asked.
"Yes," replied Walker, adding that he was about to take a vacation.
"Then we're having it," Thompson said.
With that, all three men broke into laughter. It was a typical yuk-filled moment for the show one of dozens that take place every day, all of them leading to a single question:
Who knew? Or, to put it another way: Who knew Thompson?
"Most people don't know you," Thompson said. "They try to judge you based on sound bites out of your life. I've never been one to let people know much about me as a person, and [at Georgetown,] it wasn't necessary. We didn't have doors open. We had the windows taped up."
Indeed, Thompson's tenure at Georgetown was remarkable for two things: winning and secrecy. And not necessarily in that order.
In nearly three decades of coaching, Thompson led the Hoyas to one national title, three Final Four appearances and 596 wins. Over the same period, Georgetown set a new standard for inaccessibility shielding players from the press, closing practices and, in fact, papering over the small windows that border the school's practice court at McDonough Gymnasium.
Couple that with Thompson's intimidating sideline demeanor prickly, combative, a mirror image of his trademark pressure defense and it's no wonder his radio personality comes as a surprise to many.
"I covered a lot of Georgetown games when they were really good, with [Patrick] Ewing, and I didn't like John Thompson," said Andy Pollin, sports director at WTEM. "He was tough on the media, and access was limited. I thought he was bullying. I didn't like his approach.
"But he can be very warm and charming. I think he used his size to intimidate people on purpose. He understands how people perceive him. He's got a very good sense of himself."
In the broadcast booth, Thompson uses that sense to maximum comic effect. Now a card-carrying member of the media, he delights in the irony of the situation, dropping one-liners and poking fun at his own image:
Thompson on Utah Jazz center Olden Polynice, who was accused of assaulting a man on a golf course: "You're playing with Olden, you better have some armor on."
On a fire alarm that forced Thompson and Koken to briefly leave the building: "If you want to see a big black guy and a little white guy run, Al and I led the fast break."
On the announcement that the Washington Wizards will play their season opener at Madison Square Garden: "Just like you have erasers on pencils, all of these people have erasers on the schedule if Michael [Jordan] doesn't come back."
On golfer Ian Woosnam's caddie, who cost him a two-stroke penalty at the British Open by failing to count the clubs in his bag: "Woosnam's caddy couldn't have passed the SATs. I like him. He couldn't count. I would've taken him."
On Hoya Paranoia: "When I came to Georgetown, we didn't get any [media coverage]. The minute I put barriers up, everybody jumped to the other side. I played [those] jokers like a piano."
"This isn't anything new for me," Thompson said. "I've always been in the entertainment business. Singing on the air? I sang in practice. [Heck], I danced in practice. I bet I had more fun in my practices than any other coach in the country."

From sideline to air time
Another surprise: Thompson never planned on becoming a radio personality. In fact, it was't even his idea.
Following Georgetown's victory over University of Texas at El Paso in the 1993 National Invitation Tournament, Pollin watched a relaxed, easygoing Thompson hold court with a group of reporters for nearly an hour.
As Thompson joked and bantered, even chiding himself for missing the NCAA tournament, Pollin made a mental note.
"I noticed a good give-and-take," Pollin said. "And I thought, here's a guy that's controversial, very intelligent, has a lot to say. He might be very successful at this."
In the wake of Thompson's surprise resignation in January 1999 Thompson cited personal issues and an ongoing divorce Pollin pitched his idea to WTEM Vice President-General Manager Bennet Zier. In turn, Zier contacted Thompson's agent, David Falk, and proposed a one-month trial run during the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Intrigued, Thompson agreed to give it a shot. With two conditions.
"When they first hired me, they told me I could talk about whatever I wanted to," Thompson said. "Period. Bennet said that. I didn't have to just talk about sports.
"And I didn't want to just be interviewed. In the beginning, I thought that the plan was to have these two guys find out all the untold secrets of John Thompson."
Originally drawn up as a one-hour interlude during Koken and Walker's morning show, "Timeout With Thompson" expanded rapidly. The station received positive feedback from listeners, ratings doubled, and Thompson's segments began stretching well past their allotted hour.
"What quickly became apparent to me was that talking NCAA basketball was just a tiny drop in the ocean," Koken said. "There was much more that we could talk about, have fun with. That's where the show evolved."
Sure enough, some of Thompson's best shows have had little to do with sports. During his first month on the air, he conducted a passionate, searching interview with Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, a Washington shock jock who had been fired after playing a song by hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill, then stating, "No wonder people drag [blacks] behind trucks."
Koken, a longtime radio veteran, later called it the most powerful two hours of radio he had ever been a part of.
"That was a difficult thing," Thompson said. "The man didn't have to come on the show. He didn't have to consent to an interview. I wasn't trying to attack him. But you had to ask certain questions."
Though Thompson was never the type to duck controversy as a coach his two-game boycott in protest of the NCAA's Proposition 48 remains memorable there are some subjects he won't discuss on air.
When former player and close friend Patrick Ewing recently testified in the Gold Club trial, a high-profile case involving a number of professional athletes receiving sexual favors at an Atlanta strip club, Thompson told listeners that he would not comment on the topic.
"People identified with me for not wanting to talk about Patrick," Thompson said. "I think they respected me more for that than getting on the air and dissecting what he did." Thompson laughed. "I think [Clinton] showed us that."
A fan of television hosts Charlie Rose and Larry King, Thompson also refuses to belittle his guests. It's a quality that separates him from many of his sports talk radio peers and one drawn from Thompson's own experience.
"I don't want to be a part of something that's a circus," he said. "If you get Tiger Woods on the air, people want to hear what he's going to say. They don't want you to ask something embarrassing and then run around with your chest stuck out. I always resented that as a coach.
"There's a lot of guys in this business who think that in order to be successful you have to destroy someone. But all of us have things in our lives that we can be destroyed with. We all know that, and that's not what I'm in search of. I'm in search of finding out your opinion and letting the public judge."

Bigger and better?
Next to Thompson himself, the strength of the show lies in its guests. Despite its local nature, the program has featured a series of high-profile names, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Spike Lee, John McEnroe and Don King. Thompson even managed to cajole former Baltimore Orioles slugger Albert Belle then in the middle of a media boycott into making an appearance.
"I don't know of anybody on radio that has been able to get the kind of guests he can," Esherick said. "He had Tiger Woods, Tiger's father and Tiger's mother. Who else can do that?"
Thompson's secret? It's mostly, well, being John Thompson. When Minnesota Vikings star Randy Moss stopped by McDonough to play in a private basketball game with Jordan, Thompson just happened to be there.
A day later, the program had an exclusive interview one that made headlines across the country.
"Doc called me, and I told him who was in the gym," Thompson said. "He stopped me in my tracks, saying, 'We've got to get Randy Moss.' And I'm like, 'For what?' I didn't know why. I was just among my people."
Joking aside, Thompson doesn't take his new career lightly. After most broadcasts, he listens to a tape of the show while driving home. Along the way, he breaks down the good and bad of his performance the same way he used to break down the Hoyas' game film.
"This place reminds me in some ways of Georgetown when I first got there," Thompson said. "They wanted to go to the NIT periodically. I laughed. I'm not an NIT person. I want to win, and win it all."
Ultimately, Thompson said, winning it all would mean taking his show to a national audience.
"It's competition like anything else," he said. "We're in the regionals now, and I want to get in the Big Dance. I've never been satisfied with just being in the regionals. If they let us go, I bet we can compete against anybody in the country."
Should that possibility arise, however, Thompson will face a major obstacle: himself. Since his retirement, he has eyed a return to basketball this time at the professional level and stayed close to the game by working as an NBA analyst on cable television.
"I'd still love to get back into basketball," said Thompson, who over the last three years has been linked to NBA job openings in New Jersey and Los Angeles.
"That's what I am. If the opportunity ever came about, I'd have to make a choice, and that choice is very easy. I'm out of here unless this show becomes bigger. Then it would be a harder choice."
In the meantime, Thompson continues to ride the airwaves, a karaoke cowboy on a most unlikely trip.
"I think he thought he might be back in basketball by now," Pollin said.
"And maybe someday he will be. But right now, this is his life."

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