Today, the Georgetown Hoyas celebrate 100 years of basketball, in conjunction with what I fervently hope will be a victory over Marquette. The Washington Post has this story on John Thompson, Jr., “Big John,” father of the current coach. I thought the following story from the college days of Dikembe Mutombo was particularly interesting:
Dikembe Mutombo, a veteran NBA center and former Georgetown standout, said the only day he ever missed a class at Georgetown, he later showed up to practice to find a one-way airline ticket in his basketball locker. Mutombo was very alarmed to learn he was being sent back to his native Congo that evening.
“He said, ‘I’m sending you back to your father in Kinshasa, Zaire,’ ” Mutombo said, referring to the capital and the country’s former name. “Big John said, ‘Go back home so you can work in [former president] Mobutu’s army.’
“I could not believe it. I said: ‘I had a horrible toothache and got my tooth removed. That is why I missed school.’ He told me I should have scheduled time around school to take care of my tooth. It was chaos in my life. I thought it was the end of my education. I told the advisers, ‘Why is he doing this?’ One day I miss. Can you imagine?”
Mutombo never missed another day of school in four years. He returned to the Congo many times during an NBA career that is now in the midst of a renaissance at age 40. Mutombo soon will open a hospital there.
“Big John’s teaching was very powerful,” Mutombo said. “He always emphasized education and life. Sometimes we would be at the gym for four or five hours. But three of those were him asking questions about life, questions about school, the direction he wanted us to go when we leave the university, how we should interact in business relationships.”
Mutombo was one of 27 Thompson players chosen in the NBA draft and one of eight taken in the first round. More impressively, he is one of 76, out of 78, who stayed four years and received their degrees from Georgetown — a 97 percent graduation rate.
Outsiders who look at that graduation rate may wonder whether it is for real or whether ball players get passed along easily. In that regard, I pass along something I myself witnessed in the early 1980s. During my sophomore year, I had an introductory European history course with the late and legendary Professor Michael Foley, reputed to be one of the best and toughest. He was old school — blazer and tie for every class, Lord’s Prayer before the lecture. I remember three or four basketball players in the class, and I remember being surprised that they would sign up for that particular professor when there were certainly less challenging alternatives. But mostly, I remember one day when one of the players — it might have been Bill Martin — walked up after class and asked Professor Foley if he would take a look at Martin’s outline for a paper I had not yet begun to think about. There was a week left before the due date and this guy had an outline! Eventually, I got a C, and Foley wrote withering comments not about my writing, but about the superficiality of the thought I put into the thesis. I hope Bill Martin did better, because he sure deserved to.
Michael Foley, R.I.P. John Thompson, Jr., thanks for the memories. JT III, Hoya Saxa! Beat Marquette!