GEORGETOWN University was a heavy underdog, a $4 million underdog at least.
The Denver Nuggets were the favorite. Their offer was a reported yearly salary of $800,000 plus four percent ownership of the NBA franchise.
Hardly anyone thought John Thompson would turn it down.
Smart money in Washington said he was gone. Georgetown people couldn't see how he could turn down the Denver offer. Hoya fans couldn't see how he could turn it down. I couldn't see how he could turn it down.
He turned it down.
Everyone, it seemed, had underestimated the big man once again.
Thompson summed it up by explaining, "I am an educator."
That may elicit snickers from the cynics. But at Georgetown, and especially in the city of Washington and the surrounding areas, he is much more than a basketball coach.
In fact, Thompson is a deeply complicated man. Not all the elements of his complexity, nor even most of them, are in his favor. He can be arrogant and imperious; abrasive to the point of bullying. He often provokes and angers the people with whom he deals.
But no one questions his integrity nor his honesty.
By staying at his school, Thompson has not committed to a life near the poverty level. Educated estimates of his current income say he makes a yearly total of about $700,000, including more than $300,000 from Georgetown and another $200,000 from a manufacturer of basketball shoes.
In fact, Thompson said he doubts the Denver offer was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He said he hoped in two years he might entertain an offer three times what the Nuggets would give him.
Yet Thompson, through his decision, made it clear he understands the importance of his sense of place. The life of a GM who owns a piece of the action is secure and pleasant. In Denver, he would have been associated with the first black ownership in the history of major league sports.
Nevertheless, Thompson belongs at Georgetown and in D.C.
Washington is a city that is heavily black. The role models for young black males have been a disaster lately.
Len Bias was an All-America at the nearby University of Maryland. The Celtics were to rebuild their dynasty around him. He killed himself with an overdose of cocaine.
Dexter Manley personified the great Washington Redskin teams. He is on life suspension from the NFL because of drugs.
The mayor, Marion Barry, is a Horatio Alger story gone to rot.
Thompson's status in Washington goes far beyond that of sports celebrity. When ABC's "Nightline" broadcast a lengthy town meeting from Washington on the drug problem, the most eloquent speaker was not drug czar William Bennett. It was Thompson, who spoke on the importance of neighborhoods in the war.
Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon summed up the meaning of Thompson's decision perfectly: ". . . the NBA is about the business of basketball. Players get in their fancy cars and go home. Players with big cars and $1 million homes don't need John Thompson.
"A 17-year-old kid whose elementary school is short on textbooks and whose high school has one part-time guidance counselor needs Thompson."
A 17-year-old kid named Robert Churchwell learned something the morning of Thompson's surprise decision. Like everyone else, Churchwell thought, "He has to take it." Since he had been recruited by Georgetown, Churchwell expected, after the Denver offer, he never would be coached by Thompson.
After the decision, Churchwell remarked, "I guess he's about a lot more than money."