- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Georgetown’s John Thompson III personifies poise.

In the midst of a basketball season defined by personal tribulation and professional triumph, Thompson is the picture of composure, a man striding confidently through the storm.

Few stories have captivated the college hoops media over the past month like Georgetown’s return to national prominence under its second-year coach. Charged with resurrecting the program his Hall of Fame father forged into a perennial power in the ‘80s, Thompson’s appointment and first season on the Hilltop garnered significant attention.

But when Thompson’s charges toppled unbeaten and top-ranked Duke last month en route to a seven-game win streak that catapulted the Hoyas (17-5, 8-3 Big East) into the national rankings and into title contention in the most brutal basketball conference in the nation, it became clear Thompson’s tenure at Georgetown was going to be far more than an exercise in hopeful nepotism.

Simply put, the coach students and fans instantly dubbed “JTIII” has brought the goods — from his Princeton-based motion offense to his in-game acumen, teaching abilities and tireless work ethic.

Typical of this final attribute was a cell phone message Thompson left a reporter last summer, when a schedule that included attending “hundreds” of AAU games in search of recruits kept Thompson in perpetual professional motion.

“There are no summer vacations to the beach,” Thompson said, scoffing at his caller’s guess as to his whereabouts while he locked down the program’s highest profile signing class in a decade. “There are no breaks in this business.”

With the future secured in the form of two blue-chip forwards (Vernon Macklin of Portsmouth, Va., and DaJuan Summers of Baltimore) and a pair of big-name offspring (Jeremiah Rivers, son of Doc Rivers, and Indiana transfer Patrick Ewing Jr.), Thompson returned to the task at hand last fall. The top six contributors returned from a squad that finished 19-13 in his first season, leaving hopes high that the program would return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.

That’s when life stepped in, blindsiding the 39-year-old Thompson with the ultimate solid screen.

A day before Georgetown’s season opener at Navy, tests confirmed that his wife, Monica, had breast cancer. An intensely private man, Thompson told nobody outside of his family and his team. But the Monday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 28), his father revealed the illness during his radio show. The elder Thompson was so moved by his daughter-in-law’s strength on Thanksgiving Day, when she served the entire family and team dinner before retiring on the eve of her first surgery, that he felt compelled to pay her a public tribute.

“He didn’t tell anybody. And I didn’t think he should or she should have to bear that by themselves,” the elder Thompson told Bryant Gumbel in a segment on HBO’s Real Sports that originally aired Jan. 11. “I know what he’s going through. Just yesterday, the two of them were up early in the morning going for chemotherapy. Her mother died of cancer, and I’m pleading with him, ‘John, for God’s sakes, pull away [from basketball].’”

Thompson briefly considered taking a leave of absence from the program, but those who know Monica suspect she would not have permitted it.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s the women who are the hidden strength of that family,” said Pete Carril, Thompson’s coaching mentor at Princeton and currently an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. “You always worry about people you love, but John and Monica and those kids [Morgan, 7; John, 4; and Matthew, 2)] are in great hands. That’s a very close-knit family, and they’re very strong people.”

Thompson chooses not to discuss the subject, not out of avoidance but simply because he feels there’s little left to say.

“It’s tough,” Thompson said immediately after the revelation. “Everyone has been supportive and great, and I really appreciate that. But we must keep going.”

The stoic resolve of both the coach and his wife has been nothing short of inspirational for the Hoyas, engendering the kind of deep-seated respect and concern between players and coach that few teams can claim.

There are no disciplinary or academic issues on the Hoyas’ roster; players like fifth-year senior Darrel Owens simply won’t allow it.

“When we first heard the news, it was kind of a jaw-dropping thing,” Owens said. “But you know, he’s a strong man, and he has a strong family. And I know whatever they’re going through, they’re going to get through it. As his players, we’ve just got to do everything in our power to not put any more pressure on him than he’s already put on himself. Whether that be on the court or off the court, we’ve got to stay strong and do all the positive things that we need to do.”

The Hoyas have done just that, particularly over the last month. Despite Sunday night’s streak-ending 69-56 loss to No. 9 West Virginia, the Hoyas are ranked 17th in the nation and are virtual NCAA tournament locks heading into the five-game Big East stretch run that begins with a challenging pair of road tests against Marquette on Thursday and No. 4 Villanova on Sunday.

And thanks in large part to an efficient offense that ranks first in the Big East in field goal percentage (.480) and is among the national leaders in points per possession (1.13) and assists per field goal (.642), Thompson is on a short list for coach of the year honors.

“He’s clearly the coach of the year in the Big East,” ESPN analyst Andy Katz said yesterday. “And nationally, he’s right there with [Tennessee’s] Bruce Pearl. I think those two are clearly the favorites right now. I haven’t made up my mind yet. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Aside from the requisite success in the win column, Thompson’s coach of the year case undoubtedly would be built around the composure typically exhibited by the Hoyas, who have adopted the most obvious characteristic of their coach.

Unlike his father and many, if not most, coaches, Thompson is not a screamer. He does not berate officials, picking up only two technical fouls in nearly six full seasons as a head coach. And he rarely raises his voice when addressing his players. With a baritone softened by an omnipresent lemon-flavored cough drop, his matter-of-fact directives are normally delivered with the calm of a meticulous teacher. Though there is no question who wears the biggest hightops on the Hilltop, this respectful rapport has made him popular with his players without forcing him to compromise his hoops principles.

“John always got along beautifully with everyone. He doesn’t just understand basketball; he understands people,” Carril said. “And I think that’s what you’re seeing at Georgetown. He has the ability to know which buttons to push to get the most out of players, and that’s a powerful gift.”

The fruits of that gift are obvious.

In less than two seasons, Thompson has turned sophomore center Roy Hibbert from a 7-foot-2 project into a blossoming beast with an NBA future. He has converted senior Brandon Bowman from a flaky, freelancing forward into a player who appreciates the team concept on both ends of the floor and rarely forces up a dubious shot. He has taken a physically limited point guard in Jonathan Wallace and shaped him into a legitimate Big East playmaker. And he has convinced multitalented sophomore forward Jeff Green that victories and versatility are more important than gaudy statistics.

“John’s done an amazing job with that team,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last week. “His guys have totally bought in to his system, and they’re reaping the rewards of that right now.”

And watching Thompson calmly discuss his team’s loss to West Virginia, it’s easy to think the game was a mere hiccup rather than a momentum-crippler.

“We’re a better team than that,” Thompson said simply, the deeper meaning of the hightops he wore in honor of Coaches vs. Cancer weekend escaping nobody. “We have done a very good job of not dwelling on the past with our wins. And we must move on after this loss. We must move on. That’s the nature of this league.”

And it’s the nature of this coach.

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