Race and the Georgetown Offense

4 minute read
Sean Gregory

When John Thompson III, coach of the Georgetown University men’s basketball team, took over the moribund program there three years ago, a persistent question hovered over him, the way Patrick Ewing once loomed over point guards when Thompson’s father, Hall of Famer John Thompson Jr., coached the Hoyas during their 1980s glory years. Could he really import the Princeton Offense, the precise, pass-happy basketball style that Thompson absorbed as both player and coach at the Ivy League school, to a team like Georgetown, which competes in the high-powered Big East conference? Consider the Hoyas’ most notable hoops alum over the past decade, Allen Iverson, who still enjoys hoisting 20 shots a game in the NBA.

“That whole line of questioning is baffling,” insists Thompson III, 41, whose Hoyas mounted a bracket-saving comeback against North Carolina in the East Regional tourney to send Georgetown to its first Final Four in 22 years. “The perception–and it’s an unfortunate perception–is that you go to the Big East and these guys can’t, or won’t, share the ball. Why not?”

Thompson, more than anyone else, knows what drives the doubters: a hoops stereotype that says black guys play with their bodies and white guys with their brains. And even if the 2007 Hoyas fail to win the national title on April 2 in Atlanta, Thompson’s team has done more to smash that perception than any other in recent memory. “If you think of the Princeton Offense, you wouldn’t think a team of African-American guys can run it,” notes Georgetown star Jeff Green, whose last-second bank shot against Vanderbilt in the regional semifinals kept the Hoyas on their magical run. Why? he asks himself, mocking the ignorance. “Because we’re not ‘disciplined’ enough.”

After all, the athletic (read: black) guys need to push the ball up the court and run one-on-one plays to showcase their skills. You can’t hold them back by running that 1960s hayseed Princeton junk. Plus, only the smart, 1500-SAT (read: white) kids can learn those sets. The slower (read: very white) players need to milk the clock, move without the ball and throw those tricky backdoor passes to compete. So goes the code.

But Thompson figured that if the system could help Ivy Leaguers win–Pete Carril, who devised the offense, won 13 Ivy titles during his 29-year tenure (including 1996, when I was on the team), and Thompson clinched three more as Princeton coach from 2000 to ’04–imagine if the most talented players in the country could augment backdoor passes with individual skills. A trip to the Final Four perhaps? Georgetown’s offense has clicked, with Thompson expertly mixing finesse with freedom. For example, before Green’s game winner against Vandy, Thompson gave the NBA-bound Big East MVP spare instructions: Quickly look for Patrick Ewing Jr. (yes, son of the former Georgetown center) cutting to the basket. If Ewing isn’t open? “Just score,” Thompson told Green.

JT3, as the rabid Hoya fans affectionately call Thompson, struggled with his decision to take the Georgetown job in 2004. He loved his alma mater, and most members of the ’04 Tigers, fresh off a league title, were returning. It wasn’t certain that Georgetown could compete against the bulked-up budgets of the Big East. Even today Georgetown’s hoop team fights the volleyball squad for practice time at the school’s campus gym.

It’s an even sweeter bit of irony that Thompson runs, as Ewing Jr. calls it, the “quote-unquote white-guy offense” at Georgetown, whose aggressive, all-black teams under John Jr. discomforted many white fans. Papa John Jr., a 6-ft. 10-in. intimidator, in turn scared his players. These days, he attends practices and isn’t shy about sharing. “A father has a license to meddle any time he wants,” John Jr. says in his booming voice, adding a broad smile. The son embraces the presence of “Pops” but says, “Like most kids, I’m pretty good at ignoring my parents when I want to.”

Hall of Famer John Jr. isn’t the only looming legend. Hall of Famer Carril, 76, has been carefully following his basketball progeny’s stunning three-year turnaround at Georgetown. And though Carril calls JT3’s Hoya players “darn levelheaded Joes,” they admit to not immediately buying into a system that demands total team discipline. “When you’re coming from high school and you’re the superstar of your team, you can sometimes ask, ‘Why are we doing this?'” says Green. “But we soon realized that nobody could guard us.” Thompson never considered scrapping the Princeton O. “You are who you are,” he says. “And you do what you know.” And that is the code for winning.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com