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John Thompson Camp at Big Man U

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John Thompson Jr.

John Thompson’s death this week got me reminiscing about John Thompson basketball camp, which I attended three times during the 1980s.

Thompson wasn’t the kind of big-time college coach who put his name on the camp and made a cameo some point during the week. He was around. And his imprint was on everything.

I can see, in retrospect, that the experience helped me grow as a player, a fan, and as a person.

Thanks for your consideration! I graduated Georgetown in 1995 and ended up covering the Hoyas a bit as a sports writer for The Georgetown Voice. I’m a doctor now, but earlier in my career I was a journalist (AP, Chicago Tribune). I felt moved to write something about Thompson because he’s had such an impact on my life, like so many others.

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John Thompson Camp at Big Man U

By John Biemer

The first time I ever saw Dikembe Mutombo, I was a camper at John Thompson basketball camp. It was the late 1980s and I was sitting cross-legged with hundreds of other kids on the wooden floor of McDonough Arena on Georgetown University’s campus, home of the mighty Hoyas.

At the end of each day, all the campers would gather to watch pickup basketball games involving Georgetown players who were around campus and some of the camp counselors, who were young coaches and players at other schools around Washington, DC.

At this point, no one had heard of Dikembe Mutombo. We learned he was from the Congo. We could see he was as tall as the day is long. 7’2”, all legs and elbows.

We all knew about Alonzo Mourning, considered by many the best high school recruit in the country, so good that he almost made the US Olympic team before even playing in college.

As campers, we had the thrill of watching these two future NBA stars go at it in epic battles in the paint: dunks and swats and hook shots and ferocious rebounds. We were in awe.

Mutombo and Mourning were then the heirs at the center position to Patrick Ewing, the legend, whom we’d see occasionally sauntering into the gym for a workout. Ewing was, by then, an NBA All-Star, and he didn’t play in the pickup games.

Between Dikembe and Alonzo, we were watching the birth of Rejection Row and the solidification of Georgetown as “Big Man U.”

One time, Dikembe threw down a massive dunk and held onto the rim, hanging on until his feet hit the ground again. The rim snapped back violently. The campers went wild.

Coach Thompson didn’t like it. It was show-boating. In a real game, it’d earn you a quick technical foul.

Thompson, himself 6’10”, a backup center to Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, pointed his long arm at the exit.

“Dikembe!” he shouted in his thunderous voice. “Go!”

The campers were struck silent. Big John had sent Mutombo home. A Hall of Fame coach putting a future Hall of Fame player in his place.

I went to John Thompson basketball camp three times in the mid to late 1980s, when I was a junior high and high school basketball player. I can see now that the experience helped me stretch and grow – as a player, a fan and as a person.

I was a basketball crazy kid from Florida who’d played countless hours on the hoop in our driveway. I’d end up peaking as a varsity bench-warmer for Tampa Jesuit High School. My older brother had gone to Georgetown and was at the Superdome for the 1982 Finals when Ewing and the Hoyas fell one point short against Michael Jordan, James Worthy and the North Carolina Tar Heels. I was just eight at the time, but I became a Hoya fan for life. It was solidified when I met Ewing at my brother’s graduation later that year.

Going to Thompson camp, when I got a little older, was kind of a dream. There I was, an aspiring hoopster myself, going up against basketball players from the DMV: home to some of the best high school talent in the land.

While those end-of-the-day pickup games went on, the coaches would pull some of the standout campers out of the crowd and put them into the game. DC ballers like Michael Smith – a stud power forward who would star for Providence and later play in the NBA. What a thrill it must’ve been for these kids to test their ability against top-notch college talent. The campers would cheer when they got buckets.

Thompson camp in the 1980s – when Georgetown was among the best programs in basketball and Thompson an icon in the African American community in DC and beyond – was an eye-opening experience for me. Georgetown is a predominantly white Jesuit university, but because of Thompson, the first black coach to lead a team to the National Championship, many people at the time thought it was a historically black college.

One year, at the top level of play for the oldest campers, out of about 40 high school students, there were only three white kids, myself included. It put me, as a product of white suburbia, in some ways, out of my comfort zone. In a good way though.

One game, I got the ball and brought it up against the pressure. Head up, surveying the court, looking for the open man.

After the game, the camp counselor who was my team’s coach pulled me aside.

“You’re a point guard!” he said. “You can always tell a point guard when you see one. You can tell the minute they get the ball.”

It was a confidence booster. He played me at point the rest of the week.

That coach, it turns out, was Paul Hewitt, who would later become head coach at George Mason and Georgia Tech.

I can see, in retrospect, Thompson was providing opportunities to young coaches and kids in the community. We would line up each day and go to the university swimming pool for relief from the sweltering DC sun. T-shirts said “John Thompson Camp” on the front and slogans like “Score with Education, Not with Drugs,” on the back.

Towering over it the whole time, was big John Thompson. He wasn’t the kind of big-time college coach who put his name on the camp and shows up once to make a cameo. He was around. And his imprint was on everything.

He’d patrol the floors of the dorm rooms. He’d greet the kids and let them know if they were out of line. He came into my dorm room in New South once as some of us were getting rowdy playing Nerf hoops, and let me just say we quieted down fast. He had a smirk on his face.

Each day, at McDonough, Thompson would pull out an aluminum chair onto the middle of the basketball court with all the campers sitting on the floor around him, and he’d tell stories. He was a natural raconteur. A big man with a big voice. I remember him talking about how much he loved Western movies. I remember him calling out kids who yawned for being rude.

One year, he brought out William Peter Blatty, the author of “The Exorcist,” set in Georgetown, to address the campers. Blatty was in town, filming “The Exorcist III,” which he also directed. Thompson and Blatty were friends — and, you may recall, Ewing had a small role in that movie.

Blatty spoke for a while and Thompson asked if anyone had any questions.

A future journalist, I raised my hand. Nervously, I asked Blatty if he had any misgivings about placing the psychological horror story about demonic possession at Georgetown because it might give the school a negative association.

A murmur rippled out among the campers.

“Motherf*cker getting political,” one of them said.

“Now hold on,” Coach Thompson said. “This young man is using his head.”

He then went on to say how high school recruits who visited Georgetown always asked to see the infamous Exorcist steps, located just off campus.

Coach had stood up for me. I was over the moon.

As campers, we were given a tour of McDonough Arena, the old college gym from 1952 where Georgetown practiced. I remember in the Hoyas locker room there was a painting depicting important figures in black history like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. There also was a statue of the Virgin Mary. Thompson was a Catholic.

On one end of the gym hung framed jerseys from the many Hoyas who had played in the NBA. Names like Floyd, Duren and Martin. And in the middle, Ewing. No. 33, from the New York Knicks. The centerpiece. The superstar who partnered with Thompson to win the National Championship in 1984.

I was there on the day, in 1986, when David Wingate and Michael Jackson, two key players on the Hoyas championship squad, were drafted into the NBA. They were camp counselors. I remember Jackson coming around the dorm rooms. He looked into my room and saw I was reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

It was “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway. Summer reading for me at the time.

Jackson, the starting point guard for the NCAA championship team, then sat down on the bed and discussed the book with me.

Coach Thompson, so famously, kept a deflated ball in his office. It was a reminder that no matter who you are, you have to prepare for life after basketball. For everyone, at some point, playing basketball comes to an end.

My official basketball career ended when I graduated high school, although I kept playing for fun: intramurals at Yates as a Georgetown student in the 1990s and still, if my knees are up for it, in the men’s basketball church league at my parish in Oak Park, IL, today.

Thompson, of course, retired from coaching in 1999. His larger than life presence still looms over basketball, even in his passing, and the so many lives he touched along the way. RIP, Coach.

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John Biemer, MD, (@John-Biemer) Georgetown University class of 1995, is a pathologist in the Chicago area and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune.