As a die-hard college basketball fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this weekend’s Regional Finals, which each featured talented big men, quick guards, high energy and the usual dose of late-game drama. Even though I’ve felt a little empty with the lack of a true Cinderella team going deep in the brackets, the basketball played has been compelling and entertaining.
I think college hoops is entering a new “Golden Age”, especially with the NBA’ s new rule requiring high schoolers to wait one year before being draft eligible. This upcoming Final Four features a dizzying array of talent. Look at the rosters of each team, and there are at least three sure-fire NBA players on them. And the anticipation of Greg Oden facing Roy Hibbert, and then potentially, Joakim Noah and Al Horford? This could be a Final Four we remember for a long time. Which would be nice, considering this tourney has lacked the raw drama of many predecessors. As fans, it would be a sweet bonus.
Watching the Georgetown – North Carolina game yesterday brought back many memories. Can you believe it’s been twenty-five years since they met in that classic 1982 Final? I still remember watching that game with my parents (I was fifteen – full disclosure) and rooting like crazy for the Hoyas, since my father had trained me well as a Terp fan to despise all things Carolina. The two images I recall the best: Patrick Ewing (then a freshman) swatting the first four shots by Carolina, and even though each one was correctly called for goaltending, setting a tone for the rest of the night by intimidating the Tar Heels on the interior, and John Thompson Jr., the Hoyas’ head coach, consoling Fred Brown after he had made possibly the worst pass of all time at the end of the game (for those who are too young or don’t remember, G’Town had possession, down one point, with about fifteen seconds left, and Brown looked left, then turned right and, without hesitation, passed the ball directly to Carolina’s James Worthy, who raced upcourt and was eventually fouled). Brown’s pass remains, to this day, as monumental a blunder in any major sporting event you’ll ever watch. And yet, there was big JT Jr., with his trademark towel slung over his shoulder, hugging Brown as the game ended, with Brown’s face buried in his shoulder, no doubt weeping over his colossal error.
That moment always stayed with me. It made me believe in John Thompson Jr. as a man. He embodied, right then, what every coach should be: counselor, father figure, compassionate, fair-minded and most importantly, understanding. It was a moment I’ll never forget, a moment when I realized that I had never really played for a coach like him. And I wished I had.
Which brings me to Hoya Paranoia. The media coined this term during the heyday of Thompson Jr.’s reign at Georgetown. I always felt this term was a coy attempt by the press to denigrate the success of those teams. Whether it was fueled by Thompson’s reluctance to allow media access to his players or the fact that he had assembled an all-black team at a majority white university, I never could decide. But Thompson was behaving that way based on his principles; namely, these were young men, college students, and he was the boss who set the rules. And you know something? Thompson was right. He had recruited these men and during that process assured their families that if their sons went to Georgetown, they were going to abide by his teachings, and he was going to be responsible for their development, not just as basketball players but as students and representatives of their school. And you know what? It worked. There was never a time during those years when any off-court issues came to light, whether it was public misbehavior, run-ins with the law, or any of the myriad problems we so easily relate to big time college athletes today. Thompson’s influence on each of his players was undeniable.
Those teams were immensely talented (three Final Fours in four years, back-to-back Championship Game appearances, one National Championship) but also remarkably calm and disciplined. That was undeniably their coach’s trademark. Most importantly, they represented Georgetown with class and dignity. There were never any inflammatory quotes for their opponents, even after two gut-wrenching defeats in championship games, to Carolina and then Villanova. There were never any on-court antics such as taunting or stepping on their opponents’ heads (that means you, Christian Laettner). The Hoyas were close-knit and guarded, unwilling to let outsiders know anything about their operation, and they were hugely successful. Basically, the only shots the media could take were based on those details. So they tried, unsuccessfully, to cast all who were associated with the program under that ridiculous term of “Hoya Paranoia”.
Those teams were also deeply connected to Baltimore because of David Wingate and Reggie Williams, two of the finest players our city ever produced. Wingate and Williams were integral parts of the Hoyas success,
and I was proud to say they were from my hometown, and that Williams had once dunked on me (that’s a story for another blog). Yes, you read that correctly, I actually bragged about being dunked on, but hey, Reggie did that to lots of guys during his years at Dunbar. So I always rooted for them to win, regardless of what others thought. And you know what? People bought that image of paranoid players and coaches, without reservation. I was in college in Boston at the time, and even though nobody knew a damn thing about the program, because all they ever heard was “Hoya Paranoia”, they bought it! That’s when I realized that either the mainstream media was too influential or people in general were really gullible. Or, probably a little of both. But only those players and people directly associated with Georgetown’s basketball program knew the real truth. Just like John Thompson Jr. wanted.
Now don’t get me wrong: I certainly had my issues, as a fan, with some things that Thompson did. Especially Michael Graham, who had about as much business being admitted to Georgetown as I did. Certainly Thompson’s butchering of the U.S. Olympic basketball team at the 1988 Games killed amateur hoopsters ever playing for Olympic gold again, and ushered in the “Dream Team” era. He could be irritating, self-righteous and pompous with the press. But he guided that program with principle and dedication, and he was a shepherd of his players. Oh, one other thing: those guys went to Georgetown for four years (even Ewing!) and graduated. It makes one wonder why it took Georgetown so long to get back to basketball dominance. The administration clearly made the proper choice when they hired JT III to bring them back to glory. JT III not only had the benefit of lineage, but had been taught well under one of
basketball’s grand master at Princeton, Pete Carrill. If you watch this current edition of the Hoyas, you’ll see the influence of those men on the style they play.
So keep a sharp ear open this week for Hoya Paranoia, and see how hard that term is pushed by the media and bloggers to try and describe the current team. Because even if there was never any truth behind it —
if it was spoken enough — sooner or later, it becomes the truth, as sad and ridiculous as that seems.
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