End of An Era

February 29, 2012

Coach John Thompson, John Thompson Show, ESPN 980 AM, Washington, DC, February 29, 2012. (http://espn980.com).

It’s Leap Year Day, so in light of having the first February 29 in four years, I want to take a different tack today. For it just so happens that today is John Thompson’s last day on the air on ESPN 980 AM in Washington, DC. The legendary former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach will air his final radio show this afternoon.

Thompson has had this show for about thirteen years, and I’ve listened off and on now for seven of them. What has made him interesting to listen to over the years has been his ability to be ornery, light-hearted, downright goofy and insightful, and all at the same time — whether I agreed with him or not. That the seventy-year-old Thompson has managed to maintain a solid audience across all demographics has been a sign of his ability to be a man with an old-school philosophy without become an old man. It’s a fine balance that Thompson maintained show after show, regardless of the outrageous calls he responded to time and again.

I’ve been a fan of Coach Thompson’s since I was in high school. Back then, he had Patrick Ewing and later Alonzo Mourning as part of his vaunted Hoya Paranoia defense. They won it all in ’84, only to be done in by Villanova’s raining of shots from all angles in the NCAA Championship Game in ’85. Despite his normally gruff demeanor, Thompson handled the loss with the graciousness and sportsmanship that was rare even then, and almost impossible to find now.

I came to like Thompson even more when he watch an analyst on TNT’s NBA games in the early ’00s. I used to call him “Sugar Bear” because of the way in which he delivered his take on players and coaches. It was through that context that I learned of The John Thompson Show, and began listening nearly seven years ago.

More than anything else, I appreciated the fact that many segments of his show had little or nothing to do with sports. Even as uncomfortable as he may have been about the topic, he discussed race, poverty, crime, relationship, the Black church, public education and higher education. I think that this diversity of ideas and topics is what I’ll miss the most. That Thompson used his show to educate his listeners — as well as educate himself — about much more than sports speaks to him as the educator he has been for most of his adult life.

I don’t know if I could’ve ever played for Thompson — between my relative lack of talent and my ears being burned from his yelling at me on every possession. But I have enjoyed listening to him and his show.


Fans of Delusion

October 25, 2011

Redskins Country Stop Sign display, October 25, 2011. (http://www.amazon.com).

In the past couple of years, in my down time between teaching and occasional consulting, I sometimes listen to ESPN 980 Washington, DC. I get a perverse pleasure out of it, especially this time of the year. With football season on, there’s nothing better than hearing Washington Redskins (hereafter known in this blog as Deadskins) fans whine and complain and kvetch after a loss. It’s not just because I became a New York Giants fan when I was a teenager. Nor is it because I’m also a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. No, there’s something different about these Deadskins fans, something that might be related to the personality of this area.

To those who don’t read my blog regularly, I’ve only been a DC/Maryland resident consistently since August ’99 (I did live in DC briefly in ’95 while doing my doctoral thesis research). I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York — the greater NYC metropolitan area, not upstate, just in case — for the first seventeen years and eight months of my life. I went to school and lived and taught in Pittsburgh for twelve other years. Not to mention spent the equivalent of five weeks in the Bay Area, three weeks in Atlanta, and two weeks apiece in Chicago and Boston. From a sports perspective, none of these areas and cities have fans as delusional as Deadskins fans, at least, not on a game-by-game or week-to-week basis.

The best way to show the difference is to take the same scenario and apply it to each city or area in which I’ve lived. The hometown team has just lost a game, in the ugliest possible way. Tune into a sports talk show or read the headlines for each team in their respective cities/areas, and this is what you’d read or see:

After a Giants loss:

“They suck! They suck! Did you see what Eli did with that throw! I’m tired of these guys screwin’ up! I want Coughlin’s head on a f–ing pike!”

That would go on for a day, maybe two, and if it’s really bad, maybe for three or four days. Then eventually, the Giants fan base settles down to, “What do we have to do to win this week?”

After a Steelers loss:

“My God, man, what happened out there today? Maybe we’re gettin’ too old, maybe Ben’s still playin’ hurt. You know, maybe this just ain’t our year.”

This would go on for a couple of days. Then, like the little engine building up momentum, the Stiller’s talk would turn to, “What do we have to do to win this week?”

After a Deadskins loss:

And this goes on all week long, every week they lose, and through every off-season. Until talk show hosts like the great former Georgetown coach John Thompson literally cuts callers off due to their “high levels of ignorance.”

It’s not as if the other places I’ve lived and the teams I’ve rooted for haven’t seen any hardship. Heck, the Steelers went through a twelve-year decline between their fourth Super Bowl win in ’80 and the hiring of Bill Cowher in January ’92, the last five seasons I witnessed first-hand. Not a single fan jumped off a bridge because of a loss, or took a rocket up to the moon over a victory. Maybe the realism that Pittsburgh as a city had to live with, including the loss of their industrial base for jobs, had something to do with their realism around the Steelers.

As a Giants fan, I appreciated their realism, and it helped make me a Stillers fan, too. Coming from an area where my team had one their first Super Bowl in ’87, only three years removed from a 3-12-1 season in ’83, I thought that some Johnny-Come-Lately types expected too much in a strike/scab-shortened season. But, even with that, the cycle of Jackie Gleason-esque fits of rage, followed by calm rationalism, were a reflection of the New York City I knew in the ’80s, sometimes ugly, but usually manageable. Even in troubled times.

This cycle also made the Giants fans of the ’80s more psychologically stable than the average Deadskins fan, then and now. Yes, it’s a reflection of an area of the nation that is also out of touch, as the worst effects of the Great Recession aren’t equally felt. As the expectations of Deadskins fans are as realistic as it was to believe that Mayor Vincent Gray could move DC government in the same way as Adrian Fenty, only without the ruffled feathers.

This form of delusion, though, otherwise known as bipolar disorder, where the highs are euphoric and lows can make you suicidal, may be catching on. For it shows our expectations of the economy and our politics.


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