Phil Jackson got his basketball coaching wins by convincing big NBA egos to play as a team.
William Thompson got his coaching wins by somehow harnessing the squirrelly energy of grade-school boys and getting them to play the game of basketball with the composure of grown men
The Grace Lutheran School coach will likely notch his 900th career coaching victory this week and he’ll do it the same way he coaches — quietly.
The road to 900 wins over a 43-year-career was not paved by pacing a worn path in the coach’s box screaming himself hoarse.
Thompson, 67, of Forest Park, is usually found sitting on the bench, his legs crossed, an index finger to his chin, as if he were listening to jazz.
Only when he observes a missed beat will he stand or shout a gentle correction to a player.
“He is very relaxed,” said Cameron Lewis, the point guard for Grace’s seventh- and eighth-grade team. “He is very disciplined and expects you to work hard, but he just talks to us. We never feel tense.”
Thompson will leave Grace this summer after 14 years. He earned victories 700 through 899 (and counting) at the River Forest school.
His first 12 years coaching seventh- and eighth-graders took place at St. Paul in Melrose Park, followed by junior high and high school teams at an international school in Hong Kong for 11 years. He returned to the Chicago area and eventually landed a job coaching a girl’s team at a Lutheran school in Roselle, where he took an 8-12 team to a state title the next year without losing a game.
Thompson arrived at Grace in 2000, working down the street from Concordia University, where he briefly played college basketball. At Grace he has coached both boys and girls and currently has two teams, boys grades 5 and 6 and boys grades 7 and 8. He also coaches track.
When Thompson talks about his approaching milestone, he speaks in terms of “we.”
“I’ve not scored a single point in these games,” he said to deflect focus on individual achievement. “It’s really a team effort. Yes, I’ve prepared them, but it’s us winning a game together or losing a game together.”
To see the “team-first” philosophy in action, spectators need only look at Lewis, the eighth-grade point guard.
Serene and confident as he moves the ball up court, Lewis can drive through taller players to score a layup or strike from the outside with an arching jump shot. If his own point total begins to climb, he tries to create plays to give other teammates chances to score, especially those who have yet to record a basket.
“That’s the kind of kid he is,” Thompson said. “He could score 30 points a game. He’ll score 15 points, decide it’s enough and then he’ll get 15 assists.”
More than anyone, Lewis hung his head last Thursday night, as his team’s first chance to deliver win number 900 came up short.
Grace had defeated St. Peter of Arlington Heights with a fourth-quarter rally earlier in the season, but the taller, more physical Saints played the Vikings close throughout the entire game and came out ahead late in the fourth quarter to win by three points.
Thompson clapped at the sound of the buzzer, huddled his players and told them he liked the way they played the game.
Meanwhile, part of the celebration that was meant for the milestone couldn’t be withheld. Red balloons spilled out onto the court and parents held up signs that read, “Almost 900.”
Thompson laughed and shook hands with parents and friends, who attended the game in hopes of witnessing a victory.
“He doesn’t get upset with us as long as we’re trying,” said forward David Stahlke, who has benefited from persistence and his coach’s patience.
He did not score a single basket his first season, managed to score two late last season and proudly reports he has already hit seven baskets this year.
“He has taken a lot of time to work with me; a lot of time,” Stahlke said. “He took me aside, played defense and showed me all the situations he could think of until I could start making it.”
Thompson’s next chance at 900 comes Thursday, when his team of fifth- and sixth-graders play in Mount Prospect. After that, a weekend tournament with his seventh- and eighth-graders will provide other opportunities.
His departure from Grace at the end of the year is not a retirement.
Thompson and his wife, Jane, are moving to Martin, Slovakia for a two-year stint at a Christian education center.
Thompson said his job is being a teacher and living his faith first, but both have allowed him to stay close to the sport he has always loved.
“Our faith, our beliefs … It’s how I coach; it’s how I live. … That is the basis of how I do my life,” Thompson said. “We’re doing this together; it’s us working together.”
He goes to Slovakia unsure whether he will get a chance to coach a basketball team.
But considering the growing popularity of basketball in central Europe, there may be an opportunity.
Thompson will pack his whistle.