A Coach and A Player
A Relationship That Began Four Years Ago in Harvest, Ala., Has Developed Into a Lasting Bond.
File Photo:Andreas Jeninga/The Hoya
The Renaissance of Georgetown Basketball took place by a flat stretch of I-65 so far into northern Alabama you might as well call it Tennessee. There, in a drafty high school gym so tiny they didn’t bother to give it a name, was where the coach first saw the player. That is where the coach would first notice the player’s focused gaze — a look so familiar he could not forget it even when it should not have mattered anymore. That is where the 39-year-old man and the 18-year-old boy began a relationship that would take them to the pinnacle of college basketball and weave them so close with each other it would blur the line between coach and player.
When the coach walked into to the gymnasium at Sparkman High that winter night in 2004, he wanted the player to be a Tiger. The coach had liked what he’d seen from the smallish point guard on film, and the sharp-minded player was just the type he coveted for his Princeton program. Quite possibly the first Princeton man to ever visit the sleepy home of the Sparkman Senators, the coach kept a low profile. Low enough that it was not until after the game, when someone introduced the two, that the player realized the stranger in the black sweater sitting behind the cheerleaders in the gym’s far corner, away from everyone else, was the college coach who had been calling him.
He didn’t even know who the coach was, past the fact that he had a famous dad and that the school he came from was far from Harvest. But when the coach started talking, the player realized his pitch was nothing like the ones he had been hearing from the recruiters at Murray State, Birmingham Southern and Samford. It seemed like this coach with the orange “P” on his hat didn’t have much to say at all, which made the player, who was himself quiet by nature, feel all the more at home. What the coach did say was honest — he believed in discipline, hard work and academics — the same things the player’s father had preached all along.
The coach went back home. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the way that player in the tiny gym carried himself. His demeanor. He was so focused. He had the same tunnel vision that blinded the coach when he stepped on the court. It was almost like he was watching himself out there.
A few months later, the phone rang. The coach answered it. Dream job on the line. Just like that, he was going back home, to where he had spent his childhood watching his father cut down nets and hoist championship trophies. Now that he was home at Georgetown — where Ewings and Mournings and Iversons came to play — he wouldn’t be needing that kid from the tiny gym anymore.
Or would he? He couldn’t stop thinking about him. The smooth shot, the court sense, his demeanor. Sure, he had only spoken with him for a minute. Sure, recruiting trips are mostly a shot in the dark. But the player had such character. He was the kind of kid you would build a program around.
The phone rang. The player answered it. Dream school on the line. Georgetown? It was that coach’s voice again — quiet, understated, honest.
“You’ll never play if you come here, you know,” the coach said, according to the player’s accounts. “And I can’t offer you a scholarship right now.”
It didn’t matter. The player wanted to play for that coach — and that coach only. He made him feel comfortable, and besides, deep down, he knew he could play with anybody.
It was hard. Harder than it had been at Princeton. He had fared well in his first year, beat Pitt, made the NIT, done his best to make his dad proud — but he hadn’t made the NCAA tournament like he had the year before at Princeton. But that player, the one who he’d told would never play, the one with the heart of gold and — he was getting good. He was smart, calculating. He never took a bad shot. He almost always made the right decisions. Most of all, he kept quiet and let his actions speak volumes, the same way the coach had always tried to do.
It was hard. But not as hard as he’d thought. Georgetown was different than Sparkman, but the coach, he helped him along. He seemed to know the perfect balance of when to look out for him, when to let him figure it out on his own. There was just something about the way the coach talked. It was different. Maybe because he was the only freshman that the coach had recruited. Maybe it was that the coach’s son, who watched each practice from the sideline, shared his same name. Maybe it was that he had always just felt right with him. And it was happening: He was playing, starting. He had had faith that it would happen eventually. But this fast? He felt the confidence in his three — so he dropped 20 points on Davidson. He could see what the St. John’s back court was going to do next — so he picked their pocket four times.
It was happening. His team was getting better. The athletic forward was growing into “the man.” The tall awkward center was looking more like Dikembe Mutombo than Manute Bol. But it was the player who came from nowhere that kept surprising him. Every game he made him feel better about putting him on the floor. He did not get scared against Duke. He refused to let a loss to West Virginia get him down. No matter how bright the lights shone, the player could not lose his cool. The coach marveled at how, in the conference tournament, the kid from the tiny gym looked perfectly at home in Madison Square Garden.
It was happening. They were beating teams. Good teams. Teams like Duke and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Programs he had never even dreamed of playing, or beating, when he sat listening to the salesmen from Samford and Southern. This was happening just like he knew it would from the time the coach sat in his living room and talked books and basketball with his father. They were advancing in the tournament. Knocking off the big guys just like the coach told them they would. No matter whom they faced, no matter what all-American was guarding him or what Hall of Fame coach tried to scheme against him, he felt the same calm that the coach had always shown to him. The loss to Florida was bitter, but they had come so close — the coach wouldn’t let that happen next year. Neither would he.
The shot left the player’s hand at the top of the key with 31 seconds left. It hung suspended in the air for a pause, then sliced through the net and lodged itself in North Carolina’s heart. The coach watched as the Tar Heels first panicked, then slowly accepted their fate with a look of somber disbelief at the wound the player had left gaping in them. He watched as the player — without batting an eye — led his teammates through a thrilling five-minute overtime. It was an eerie feeling, like he was almost playing in the game himself. This was it. This was what he had seen that north Alabama night in the tiny gym when he first saw the player. There was that calm, that confidence, that demeanor. He had trusted it back when the player was a raw freshman. He hadn’t lost faith in it when his team suffered crushing defeats to Old Dominion and Oregon early in the season. He had believed in it with his team down 14 to Carolina late in the second half. He had always had felt a trust in the player — and now it was taking him to the Final Four.
It is now nearly four years since John Thompson III first met Jon Wallace. But now it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
“With [Coach] being with Jon since day one, they have grown in this program together in the four years together. Coach really believes and trusts in Jon a lot,” Jessie Sapp says.
“He’s kind of like a baby Coach,” DaJuan Summers adds.
Sapp, Summers and the rest of Wallace’s teammates speak of how striking the similarities between the coach and player have become — their linear focus, their stoic manner, their demeanor.
“[Our relationship] is a special one, me and coach,” Wallace says. “I talk to him a lot of time in the position I am. I try and grasp what side of it he has and the structure he has in doing things and try to carry it over on to the floor. A lot of times you have to have that focus in mind just so I know I’m doing what he wants me to do and carrying it out onto the floor.”
When Thompson is asked about his team, he is usually quick in response. Summers needs to “make plays.” Roy Hibbert has “improved with time.” They all need to take it “one game at a time.”
But a question about Wallace is followed with a pause, as if Thompson is envisioning his point guard’s three against Carolina arcing through the air.
“Jon Wallace is, Jon Wallace is someone that I trust. I trust him with the game, I trust him with the ball in his hands, I trust Jon Wallace,” Thompson says. “I want people like him around me. That is much more important than the type of basketball player he is. It has turned out that because of the type of person he is, he’s turned into a damn good basketball player. I don’t believe there are too many guards in this country that are better than him.”
It is hard to imagine the second Georgetown Dynasty existing without Jon Wallace exacting John Thompson III’s battle plan. But next season, Thompson’s and Wallace’s time together will be through. Everyone with a drop of Hoya blue in their veins wants to see Wallace on the bench alongside Thompson. Thompson says that Wallace would make a great coach, but for now it appears Wallace may have something else in mind.
“I will miss that type of guidance, but he’s groomed me for a level beyond here,” Wallace says. “So all I can do is just take what he’s instilled in me as a player and as a person and just carry that with me.”
Years down the road, when John Thompson III is far from where he is now, after all the Chris Wrights and Austin Freemans and Greg Monroes, you get the feeling he won’t hesitate when asked who meant the most to him — or will he? After all, he always pauses when speaking of the player who helped him build it all.
“Jon Wallace is,” the coach says, pausing, still struggling for a word to describe what he sees in the player. “Jon Wallace is special. He is truly, truly special.”