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Towering Enigma

In recent books, one sportswriter attempts to size up a complex coach, while another reveals some of the challenges of dealing with such athletic figures

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THE necktie is loosened. The shirt is open at the neck. The suit coat is also open. So is the mouth. When John Thompson coaches a basketball game, it's always that way. The way of a man driven to succeed.

Pro basketball is a players' game. The average fan can name two full all-star teams worth of players before he can come up with half that many National Basketball Association coaches.

But in college basketball - John Thompson's basketball - the coach is bigger than the players. And Thompson, the 6 ft., 10 in., 270-pound centerpiece of this honest and clear-eyed biography, is as big as they come.

``Big Man on Campus: John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas'' is not merely a book about basketball, however, because Thompson is not just another successful coach. Yes, he's black, but there are now numerous black head coaches. Yes, he came from humble origins, but so have thousands of other sports figures.

What makes his story special is the marriage between this intense man and an academically elite, predominantly white, Roman Catholic university. Georgetown, like most other urban Catholic schools, has no football program; it's up to the basketball team to bring it glory. What the administration wanted when Thompson was hired was to bring national visibility to a program that had become a laughingstock.

He has provided that and much more.

It's tough to be objective about Thompson, but Leonard Shapiro tries. Shapiro's style is purposeful, not lyrical. But then basketball itself isn't lyrical - especially the relentless, in-your-face brand of basketball John Thompson teaches.

Basketball purists admire the highly disciplined work ethic of Thompson's teams. Georgetown fans love their record: 423 wins before the current season, including 16 consecutive post-season playoff trips and a national championship. Others - in as well as outside the black community - applaud his highly visible stands on behalf of the disadvantaged. His superiors are adamant in saying that he has been good for Georgetown.

Ah, but the critics! They are legion: rival coaches, referees, sportswriters, broadcasters, former players, people he has climbed over to get where he is, and the many others he has turned his back on. Without them there'd be no reason to write this book.

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