Tag Archives: basketball

Exit JTIII

26 Mar

On Thursday, the axe came down on John Thompson III, the head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team for the past 13 seasons. He took the Hoyas to a Final Four in 2007, won three Big East regular season titles, and brought a program a heap of thrillers against top tier competition. It was time for him to go, however, and I was mildly surprised that the university had the guts to lay Thompson’s tenure to rest.

I missed the good years. JTIII’s downfall began with a long string of losses to double-digit seeds that coincided with my first interest in Hoya hoops. (In 2008, as a high school senior with hopes of heading to the Hilltop, I watched them lose in the NCAA Tournament to unheralded Davidson and this Stephen Curry kid who came out of nowhere to have a huge game. I wonder what ever happened to him?) The Davidson loss set off a string of can-you-top-this losses to double-digit Tournament seeds: Ohio (no, not Ohio State, Ohio), Virginia Commonwealth (hello there, Shaka Smart), North Carolina State (at least they’re a power conference program…?), and Florida Gulf Coast (the last and worst). But lately, those years when they gave talented young coaches the breaks they needed to land more prestigious jobs are a happy memory. With just one Tournament appearance in the last four seasons, with transfers out and decommitments and with the same obnoxious shortcomings, it was certainly time to bid JTIII farewell.

JTIII’s dismissal has to be among the most pained firings in sports history, as evidenced by Georgetown President Jack DeGioia’s glowing retrospective in the announcement. (DeGioia, a Georgetown man through and through, named his own kid J.T.) And for good reason: despite the underperformance on the court, JTIII has done nothing but represent the program with dignity and class, and the 2007 Final Four run will forever be a proud moment, and one that restored pride to a program that had been on a downhill slide. JTIII fit the Georgetown ethos well: a blueblooded coach carrying forward a legacy, and doing it with cool composure, high standards off the court, and a somewhat antiquated but largely successful (for a while, anyway) Princeton offense built on pretty cuts.

But, enough beating around the six-foot-ten elephant in the room: the proud old Princeton Tiger’s firing was momentous because of what his name means to this program. His father, John Thompson Jr., built Georgetown up from nothing. He did it in brash and memorable ways, and in ways that went far beyond the court. He made Georgetown Big Man U, with names like Ewing, Mourning, and Mutombo all rolling through, plus a little Allen Iverson, too. He was an early pioneer among black coaches, withstanding abuse to blaze trails. John Thompson was such a larger-than-life figure that he could confront and intimidate the most dangerous of D.C.’s druglords at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. With five years from longtime assistant Craig Esherick wedged between the two Thompsons and a continued presence around everything Georgetown basketball eighteen years after his retirement, his son’s dismissal is a sudden shock to the system.

The Hoyas now head out into the great unknown. The decision to name former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (an alumnus and Board of Directors member) co-chair of the search committee would seem to suggest the Hoyas are ready to play big league. It’s tough to guess what sort of interest the program will draw, given that it’s basically been in one family for 45 years. The Hoyas are a big name in basketball, with an NBA home arena and a sparkling new practice facility, but the cupboard is also pretty bare at the moment, and Georgetown has some quirks that could drive people away, including its high academic standards, the lack of a big state school’s huge following, and the very long shadow of John Thompson Jr. As with any other major program with an opening in recent years, Shaka Smart’s name is getting tossed around. More realistic, really, is Danny Hurley, who has done a very nice job with Rhode Island and comes from a famous basketball family that will give him some added credibility. Tommy Amaker at Harvard fits the academic pedigree this program would like, but his track record is fairly meh. Tom Crean, freshly dismissed from Indiana, has won at a high level; Notre Dame’s Mike Brey has local ties and a relatively small paycheck from the Golden Domers. Even Minnesota’s Richard Pitino is getting some serious mentions. (Hey, he already knows how to lose to a double-digit seed in the first round.) Whatever course Georgetown takes, it will be a clean break from a long tradition.

Unless, of course, they go with an alumnus who is incredibly loyal to the Thompsons, and has been biding his time as an NBA assistant for the past 14 years. A man by the name of Patrick Ewing. There are reasons to question Ewing as Georgetown coach; the NBA game is different from college, and he will certainly need to find himself some assistants who can give him a quick education in the recruiting game. At 54, he’s at a point where the kids who would play for him have no memory of him as a dominant player. It’s no secret he’s been angling for an NBA job, too; does he really want to go all in on a college program?

But I’m a sucker for tradition and continuity, so if everyone wants it to happen, I’m on the bandwagon. He’s a loyal man who will honor the brand. The program is at the point where it could use the buzz of celebrity, instead of the moderately successful mid-major coach this program is likely to command at this point in time. His return would, presumably, come with the blessing of John Thompson Jr., and spare the program any fallout there. Sure, there are risks, but there is also incredible potential. Bring the big man home.

A Charles Barkley Appreciation

7 Apr

“Sometimes that light at the end of a tunnel is a train.”

                                                                —Charles Barkley

When I was in college in DC, my housemates and I played trivia at a local bar every week. We finished second an absurd number of times, but we never missed the last question of the regular round. This was because that question never changed, and it was always a ridiculous quote preceded by the line “Which former NBA player and current basketball announcer said this?” The answer, of course, was always Charles Barkley.

“You got to believe in yourself. Hell, I believe I’m the best-looking guy in the world and I might be right.”

A lot of people like Sir Charles for his entertainment value, which is considerable. This shouldn’t hide the fact that he is also one of the best studio analysts out there. I haven’t watched a ton of this year’s NCAA Tournament, but every time I have, he’s picked the winner correctly, and concisely given the reason. (He’s pretty much the only reason I’m bothering to watch tonight’s championship game between two programs for which I have little respect.) He knows his basketball as well as anyone. He is blunt, arrogant, and pushes the limits of what’s allowed on television. He’s brilliant.

“I don’t hate anyone, at least not for more than 48 minutes, barring overtime.”

I understand why some people don’t like him. His act would probably get tiresome after a while, and he’s offended plenty of people over the years. He’s gotten into some fights, and wastes a ton of money gambling. He is anything but politically correct. He’s not quiet about his political views, and seriously considered a run for Governor of Alabama this year. (He once identified as a Republican, but no longer, and would have run as an independent.) It’s hard to know how deep his political knowledge goes, and he would probably alienate a lot of allies pretty quickly. But at the same time, he certainly wouldn’t take any crap from anyone, and whether one agrees with him or not, he had some clear views on where government should direct its focus. People have been elected to political office with less.

“My initial response was to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized that I had no character.”

One of Chuck’s more famous moments was a Nike shoe commercial in which he said quite bluntly, “I am not a role model.” A cynic might see this as an effort by a controversial man to avoid any responsibility, but—with a handful of exceptions—I think he’s right about athletes not being role models. Too often, they are put on pedestals they don’t deserve, and there’s a tendency to hype up good players as perfect until they do something wrong, when suddenly they become villains; it’s a rather bipolar outlook, and seems to forget that they’re humans like the rest of us. (And they’re usually males just out of adolescence at that.) His candor makes him much more relatable than the players who mount vast PR campaigns in an effort to enhance their status.

“These are my new shoes. They’re good shoes. They won’t make you rich like me, they won’t make you rebound like me, they definitely won’t make you handsome like me. They’ll only make you have shoes like me. That’s it.”

No, Sir Charles is no role model. But he does have a few admirable qualities that people can learn from. In a field overwhelmed by canned clichés, his honesty is a breath of fresh air, and while he can be pointed, he still has fun with it all. His approach is crisp and direct, and no one ever comes away not knowing what he thinks. He knows to draw a line between what happens on the court and everything else, and keeps it all in perspective. A world full of Charles Barkleys would not be a very fun place, but one of him adds some much-needed life and cuts through all of the other noise one hears. He’s one of a kind, he leaves his mark, and sometimes he teaches us things that are well worth learning; things that can be relevant far beyond basketball. Keep it up, Chuck.

“I know I’m never as good or bad as one single performance. I’ve never believed in my critics or my worshippers, and I’ve always been able to leave the game at the arena.”