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NASCAR’s Gaughan says John Thompson’s influence monumental

Brendan Gaughan says if there were a Mount Rushmore of the men who most influenced his life, each face carved from the granite on his hillside would belong to a man named John:

Michael John Gaughan, his father and South Point owner; John Davis “Jackie” Gaughan; his grandfather and a longtime Las Vegas casino operator; John Merkel, grandpa Jackie’s best pal; and John Robert Thompson Jr. — Big John Thompson, the legendary Georgetown basketball coach, who died Sunday at age 78.

“I have said forever that I would not be who I am today were it not for John Thompson,” Brendan Gaughan said Monday.

Wait a minute — wasn’t Thompson the first Africa-American coach to cut down the nets at end of March Madness? And isn’t Gaughan still a NASCAR driver who finished eighth at Daytona Saturday night?

Yes and yes.

Oscar Madison, meet Felix Unger.

Famous walk-on

Perhaps it is best to let the official Georgetown Basketball History Project fill in the blanks on this particular sports odd couple, via Gaughan’s page on the website:

“He’s Georgetown’s most famous walk-on of the John Thompson era — a short, stocky guard who wasn’t there to score, but to make practice as difficult as possible for a trio of future NBA All-Stars. And he’s the only Georgetown walk-on who was thanked in a Basketball Hall of Famer’s speech.”

The Hall of Famer who gave Gaughan kudos in Springfield, Massachusetts, is Allen Iverson, for whom Gaughan made practice difficult once the swelling on Gaughan’s ankles subsided. They had two things in common. The first was they both wore their hair in cornrows, though Gaughan thankfully only did once, before a NASCAR race at Dover, Delaware. The second is both were taught life lessons by the big man with the booming voice that sounded like a thunderstorm.

“The main thing is your name,” Gaughan said about what he remembered most about sitting on the end of Thompson’s bench during the 1990s.

His often was swapped for the swear word with a lot of hard consonant sounds.

“When he wanted to be, he could be very intimidating,” Gaughan said of the trait most associated with Thompson. “It was a different world (then). I needed it (discipline). He supplied it.”

Guests of honor

Gaughan said his family and Thompson’s become close when the Georgetown basketball team would stay at the Barbary Coast when his father owned it and the Hoyas played Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels.

“I had been going to (basketball) camp there since I was a little boy,” Gaughan recalled. “They’d come out during the Tark the Shark days — you know what the Thomas & Mack looked like back then, all red and scarlet. And I’d be sitting in my daddy’s seats in blue and gray wearing my Georgetown hat.”

Gaughan said he was much better at football field goals than the basketball kind. He had kicked a 61-yarder at Bishop Gorman and had several offers from major colleges before being injured. He wound up kicking for the Hoyas after Thompson put in a word for him with the football coach.

Years later, Michael Gaughan tried to return the favor. He wanted to make Thompson a 10-percent partner in the company that ran the slot concession at McCarran International Airport before the coach withdrew his application when Georgetown’s president advised against it.

When you ask Brendan Gaughan about what kind of basketball player he was, he says “a 5-foot, 9-inch white guy who can’t shoot, can’t dribble, but can definitely block out.” He scored just five points for the Hoyas over 3 1/2 seasons and made only one basket — against Colgate over 6-10 center Adonal Foyle, who played 10 years in the NBA.

But Gaughan said what he learned outside the lines at Georgetown was so much more vital than logging a few minutes of playing time against Colgate or St. Leo.

“Don’t judge the book by the cover,” he said about what others should know about John Thompson, the man and molder of men who carried a big stick but refused to walk softly. “A lot of people think they know a lot of things about him. They haven’t got a (expletive) clue.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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