Monday, December 1, 2008

The big world outside of basketball

Interesting story in Alonzo Mourning's new book "Resilience" about an incident involving John Thompson at a 1989 Georgetown basketball practice (pp. 69-70):

On November 9, 1989, the Georgetown basketball team was, not surprisingly, at practice. The session was physically and mentally demanding. John Thompson towered over every small detail of the game.

Then, for no apparent reason, he sent his players to the sideline bleachers. No one was sure what was up.

Thompson is a serious and intimidating man, who for decades made college players cower. It was no different that day, as he made eye contact with his players.

"Can somebody tell me what happened today?" he barked.

None of the players knew what he was talking about. Did he mean what happened at practice? Had someone screwed up off the court?

No one said a word.

Thompson pressed on, feigning surprise.

"No one? Who read the paper today? Raise your hand if you read the paper today."

None of the players raised his hand; none had read a newspaper.

Thompson wasn't happy.

"Can somebody at least tell me what happened on the headlines today -- something of historical significance? Did any of you even bother to glance at the headlines?"

Still no one had any idea what Thompson was talking about. Finally, one of the student trainers, Markhum Stansbury, raised his hand.

"Coach, they tore down the Berlin Wall."

"Right," Big John said. "They tore down the Berlin Wall."

Then he turned to his team, almost all black kids, most from poor backgrounds, all receiving the opportunity of a lifetime to attend one of the elite institutes of higher education in this country.

He shook his head.

"That's a shame. You guys go to Georgetown University, a prestigious, world-renowned university, and not a single one of you can keep up with current events?"

Then his voice got louder, turned into that powerful blast that Thompson was famous for.

"The damn world could be at war, and you wouldn't even know about it."

The players were humiliated, which was the point. Thompson was relentless in pushing his players off the court. But it was about more than just earning diplomas, which virtually all of them did during his nearly three decades at the school.

It was about making them grow intellectually, socially, and spiritually. It was about setting up the habits that would continue that growth through the rest of their life.

It was about pushing them, maturing them, and making them aware of the big world outside of basketball. Thompson just could not tolerate anything less.

There are no small lessons with him -- just lessons.

Not knowing what was on the front page was no more acceptable than failing a class or not trying for a rebound. It might seem minor to many (plenty of college kids are blissfully unaware of the world at large), but it wasn't to Thompson.

There was no excuse for an educated adult not to know that the Berlin Wall had been knocked down, so he sure wasn't going to accept such ignorance from his players.