In October 2001, GW men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs sat in his 22nd Street office, having just completed his first day of official practice as a head coach, and talked about the four members of his freshman class. He talked about the athleticism of a guy named Darrio Scott and the strength of Tamal Forchion, both of whom would join freshman Matija Debevec in transferring at some point.
And then there was T.J. Thompson, a short point guard from Germantown, Md. with as pure a jump shot as you’ll find. He had the potential to be a special player, Hobbs said. And what was more, the coach emphasized, he took criticism well, something he undoubtedly got a lot of as the starting point guard for a former point guard.
Four years later, the two are the embodiment of a program that has grown from a first year marred by a 10-game losing streak to one that is now in a tight race for the Atlantic 10 title and an NCAA Tournament bid. They are GW’s odd couple – a hyper-intense, demanding coach who will stomp his feet during games to get the attention of players; and a nonchalant, bright-eyed joker whose intensity is always masked by his easy smile.
The difference in personality was an adjustment at first for Thompson, who had been recruited to GW by former coach Tom Penders.
“Early on it was tough,” Thompson said. “It was his first year as a college coach, my first year as a college player. So you go through bumps and bruises in the road, but you learn from it. While he was learning, I was also learning. And it all paid off because now we’re on the same page, he knows what to expect from me and I know how he’s going to coach.”
For Hobbs, the fact that Thompson was recruited by Penders was not as much of an adjustment – once they were both in Foggy Bottom, none of that mattered, he said.
“I always looked at it as once I became a coach here, every guy became my player,” Hobbs said. “I never looked at it as well, he’s Tom Penders’ guy, he brought him in. Once I took the job, hey man, I’m your adopted father figure or whatever you want to call it, and we’re a family now. And that’s how I’ve always treated these guys.”
What may seem like two very different personalities actually turned out to compliment each other remarkably well. Thompson’s sense of humor can deflate some of Hobbs’ intensity, such as at last year’s Atlantic 10 Tournament, when the guard poked fun at his coach for pacing the sidelines as if in a close game during a blowout of Rhode Island.
“Hey coach, I think we got this one, you can sit down now,” Hobbs recalled Thompson saying after the game. The remark made everyone laugh, Hobbs included.
“I thought he had a lot of nerve to say that at that time but I had no choice but to smile,” Hobbs said.
But at the same time, Thompson says that sense of humor should not be mistaken for taking the game any less seriously than his coach.
“When I’m on the court I’m more relaxed, but when it comes to talking about what this team needs to accomplish, it’s business,” he said. “I may be joking around a lot, but when the ball goes in the air, it’s business.”
Business, for GW, has been good this year. Attendance is up. Highlights on ESPN are way up. And the team will probably win 20 games for the first time since its last NCAA Tournament year – 1998-99. All of which has generated considerable excitement for the team around campus, a stark difference from the days Thompson remembers marked by frustrating losses and half-empty bleachers at the Smith Center.
“If you just come to a game you can see how much things have changed,” Thompson said. “My first year we couldn’t pay anyone to come and sell out. Now the last two years we’ve had a few sellouts. Even with the student body, everything is like basketball this and basketball that. So it feels good.”
As Hobbs has surrounded Thompson with quality recruits and the team has improved, so too has Thompson’s game. Playing primarily as a shooting guard since the arrival of sophomore point guard Carl Elliott, he will graduate with an impressive resume of personal accomplishments, including the record for most total minutes ever logged by a GW basketball player.
“He just about means everything, because he’s so much of what we do,” Hobbs said. “He’s so much of our personality and our style of how we play. He’s really a reflection of what we’re all about.”
He added, “It almost seems like he’s been here for six years.”
But all that means for Hobbs and Thompson is that they’ve been through a lot of games together – and none of them have been in the NCAA Tournament. That’s why on Tuesday night, when Thompson was honored on Senior Night at the Smith Center, he was not in a particularly reflective mood, especially after losing the game.
Because for all Thompson and Hobbs have done to build the program, both of them know it has all been toward the long-term goal they have been talking about for four years – making the tournament. If they fail to do that now, it wont take away from what they’ve already accomplished. But they are in a business where you are measured by wins earned and banners hung. Nobody remembers the losers who tried.
That is why, when asked just what it means to play more minutes than any Colonial before him, Thompson quickly replied, “Nothing,” looking almost incredulous at how people could consider it meaningful with so much more at stake right now.
“I haven’t gotten to the tournament,” he said. “Now if we end up making it to the tournament, that can maybe be an accomplishment. But right now, a lot of people play, but not a lot of people win, and that’s what I want to be known for – turning this into a winning program.”