Tag Archives: pursuit

Exit John Thompson, Jr.

2 Sep

In sports, we often use words like ‘iconic’ or ‘monumental’ to describe people whose job it is to direct the athletic feats of others. We claim they have influences over society beyond their courts or fields or rinks, which can be a reach. But there are rare figures who earn every one of those accolades, and who use their tenures to do a lot more than pile up a few victories. Former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., who passed away this past week, was one of them.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thompson was an exceptional coach who built a prestigious, small Jesuit school into one of the nation’s greatest basketball powers. He made three Final Fours and won one, in 1984, before winding up in the Hall of Fame. He made the Hoyas into Big Man U, coaching superstars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, plus a little Allen Iverson for good measure. His teams won, and they won with style.

Thompson was a trailblazer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship, though don’t tell him that: he scoffed at the notion that he deserved any special recognition for achieving something that wouldn’t have been revolutionary in a just society. He was unapologetically Black and recruited so many Black players that the casual fan could be forgiven for mistaking stodgy old Georgetown for a Historically Black College or University. (Thompson likened his recruiting efforts to that of the hockey team at his alma mater, Providence University, which exclusively recruited Canadians: why not go back to the same well if you knew that was where the talent and hunger was?) He was decades ahead of polite society on questions of racial justice and bore his share of abuse for it, once pulling his team off the court at Villanova when they were subjected to vicious chants. But whether by inertia or design, he embraced it when his program become a symbol of an aspiration, an exemplar of Black greatness on its own terms. Georgetown Starter jackets became such icons of 1980s Black Culture that the museum of African American history features one in a display case.

Thompson’s toughness was legendary. Most famously, when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond tried to get close to some of his players, he ordered the godfather of the DC crack epidemic into his office for a meeting. Edmond was responsible for dozens of murders and countless broken lives; witnesses at his 1989 trial were hurt, the jurors were kept secret and hidden behind bulletproof glass, and he was flown from prison to the courthouse in a helicopter rather than risk a jailbreak from a vehicle. The one man he couldn’t break, though, was John Thompson. No one knows exactly what he said in that conversation, but Edmond never came close to a Hoya player again.

That legendary tale is just one: Big John also brought sky-high demands for his players’ conduct, demanding excellence on and off the court. “Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” he told his players, and graduated 97% of them from one of the nation’s more rigorous institutions otherwise populated by a bunch of East Coast Catholic bluebloods. At the same time, he pushed to do away with test score standards that could limit his talent pool, which drew its share of critics; Thompson countered that he was giving talented young Black men opportunities they would otherwise never have. Iverson, who certainly was a beneficiary of the changed policy, has repeatedly, and tearfully, insisted that Big John saved his life.

By the time I set foot on the Georgetown campus, Big John was a larger-than-life figure looming over the program. His son John Thompson III, fresh off a Final Four appearance early in his tenure, was a beloved figure, and there was no doubt his dad still had considerable sway. Those warm, fuzzy feelings faded some as JTIII’s restoration soured in the early 2010s, and the installation of Thompson’s greatest protégé, Ewing, whose tenure (which I fully thought was worth the chance at the start) gets an incomplete grade at best to date. Outside of the honeymoon of the early JTIII years, the Hoyas have never come close to returning to the elder Thompson’s heights in the 20 years since his retirement. In some ways the game has moved on; no longer do teams win on the strength of unmovable big men and a plodding pace, and in an era of one-and-dones, the benefits of a Georgetown degree may be less apparent to a budding basketball star than living like a king in Lexington or Chapel Hill.

Still, I refuse to believe Georgetown’s basketball glory days are only a thing of the past. The style may change, but the swagger of the Thompson era still looms from time to time, and the formula is still there. The brashness that led a young coach, fresh off an upset of 2nd-ranked Syracuse in their final game at a venerable old arena where they’d won 57 straight games, to grab the microphone and declare “Manley Field House is officially closed” is just as powerful today. The Thompson era is officially closed now, too, but that long shadow will continue to loom over the basketball program he built, the cloistered university he taught to be cool, and the ongoing admiration of disciples who learned something about poise, about self-respect, and about what it meant to chase greatness against a backdrop that so often failed to live up to its alleged equality. John Thompson, Jr. used basketball to show us how the world can be if it unflinchingly stares down reality, and anyone who touched his legacy, no matter how tangentially, is richer for it.

So farewell, Big John, and let the quote at the top of this blog be a reminder that, even if we cannot build Heaven on earth, we can still have Georgetown. And that can mean much more than a few wins on a basketball court.

On Being Cultured

21 Mar

Most anyone with any interest in a public life these days dedicates themselves to the pursuit of justice or freedom or equity. These things, while valuable, are fraught with questions over how to achieve them or how they look in practice, and it’s not uncommon to find them in contradiction. The less publicly minded may aspire to something like happiness, if not something even more crass like fame or riches, and while happiness is lovely, it runs the risk of being a short-term, vapid interest that neglects a longer view of life, and what yields a sense of fulfillment. For that more measured perspective, I often find myself turning to some fairly highbrow traditionalist, if not straight-up conservative, publications: this is where one finds much more originality of thought—or, rather, a revival of thought that doesn’t get nearly enough mainstream airing today. Perhaps it’s because this tradition, at its best, aspires to knowledge for its own sake, not merely in convenient pursuit of some agenda.

Enter Joseph Epstein, an American man of letters, who, in last week’s Weekly Standard, helps explain why this is an intellectual tradition where I feel like I’m at home. The man is an absolute quote machine, so I’m going to pull from it at length, but I recommend the whole thing.

Epsetin’s piece is an unabashed defense of elitism. This doesn’t mean aristocratic snobbery, necessarily; instead, it means the pursuit of excellence, tracking down the best of everything that the world has produced to date, and placing some faith in the other insightful people down the ages as fellow travelers. The goal, he says, is to become “cultured.” This doesn’t quite mean reading all of a certain group of writers or collecting a certain litany of facts, but instead means coming to embrace a certain pursuit of knowledge within a historical context, seeing how it all fits together and thereby creates meaning. At the same time, this pursuit requires the humility to acknowledge that there is always more to learn, always more to explore, and that learning more only opens up more unknowns beyond. Socrates was the wisest man on earth because he knew how much he didn’t know.

When properly undertaken, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t inflame the ego, but instead knocks down certainties or claims of ownership. Epstein quotes Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, in which one man comments on the soup another has made: “I am not deprecating your talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” Culture acknowledges the debts we incur over history, and how it all feeds into a long-lasting tradition.

Culture means complexity. It means answers don’t always present themselves readily, and a willingness to admit that one may not have all the answers. Epstein again:

I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V. S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: “She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.

Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s entering the European Union. “I don’t see,” he answered, “why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott’s Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.” And second, that culture “teaches that there is much one does not want to know.” I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing “what one doesn’t want to know” isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.

This is a real struggle: it’s so easy to consume information to no apparent end, and I’m also someone who feels shortchanged, perhaps even somewhat betrayed, if I don’t have the full story behind some things. Drawing limits like this is no easy task. I’m also not one of the cultural vegans that Epstein describes; I have my fondness for certain types of culture that no one would really define as highbrow, and would defend that staunchly. But even then, I can usually fit it in to a vision for a rounded sense of self, even for developing that sense of complexity that comes with culture.

Through it all, though, we can’t forget to step back and look toward the higher goal that drives day-to-day tasks, large and small. Epstein quotes Matthew Arnold:

[T]here are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery…for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection…And this bent always tends…to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.

We won’t necessarily make it, but it’s still worth trying. In this world, at least, I can’t think of anything greater to aim for.