Remembering Georgetown Hoyas Coach John Thompson
Iconic Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson has died, his family shared in a statement Monday. He was 78, just days short of his 79th birthday. The cause of death has not been revealed.
Thompson built a legacy at Georgetown like few college coaches have. Thompson became the first Black coach to win a National Championship when the Hoyas won the title in 1984. In his 27 years as the Georgetown head coach, always with a white towel draped over his shoulder, he took the team to the NCAA Tournament 20 times, making three Final Four appearances. The program created so much excitement it was known across the country for Hoya Paranoia.
He played college ball at Providence College and had a short career with the Boston Celtics under Red Auerbach serving as the backup to Bill Russell. Thompson was named the Hoyas head coach after the program went 3-23 for the 1971-1972 season.
"I made Billy stay up until 2 [a.m.] because we started off and 3-and-23 and we had to win," he reflected during his 1999 Hall of Fame induction speech on the hard work he put in with his college friend and assistant coach Bill Stein to turn the program around.
Thompson, who grew up in the Washington D.C. area, gave young Black men a chance to play basketball at the elite level and receive a college education. Among Georgetown's star players were Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson, who's repeatedly thanked Coach Thompson for keeping his scholarship offer when most other programs withdrew theirs after Iverson was sentenced to prison for his alleged involvement in a brawl.
In his tribute post on Instagram, The Answer wrote, "Thanks For Saving My Life Coach. I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, 'Hey MF', then we would talk about everything except basketball. May you always Rest in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud. 'Your Prodigal Son'. #Hoya4Life"
Perhaps just as much as his winning ways, the 6'10" Thompson will be remembered for standing up for the rights of his players even when all odds were stacked against them.. Right now, the sports world is making national headlines for protests against police brutality, including sitting out games in support of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back by police and left paralyzed. In 1989, Thompson made a stir when he walked off the court prior to a game against Boston College as a protest of a proposition affecting eligibility for incoming freshmen. The rule was withdrawn within a year.
"[The NCAA was] putting in this legislation that would inhibit a lot of young kids from having an opportunity to become doctors, lawyers or whatever else they wanted to be, not just basketball players," Thompson said in an interview with ESPN regarding the rule and his stance. "Basketball has never been just about basketball. It's a stupid game if it's just about basketball... You've got a lot of people running around in shorts throwing the ball in the goal. I hope I see things a little bigger. But, that stupid game has provided a lot of opportunities, and now you go make this legislation, and you deprive a lot of kids from coming through the only tunnel that they might have of getting into the world of work or getting into the world of opportunity."
Other times, he threatened to forfeit a game against Villanova because fans wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs held a slanderous sign directed toward Iverson and he had a one-on-one conversation with drug kingpin Rayful Edmond, telling him to stay away from Mourning and his other players.
Since that historic 1984 season, Thompson held mixed feelings about his own accomplishment.
"I was very proud of winning the national championship and I was very proud of the fact that I was a Black American, but I didn't like it if the statement implied that I was the first Black person who had intelligence enough to win the national championship," he shared with ESPN. "...I might have been the first Black person who was provided with an opportunity to compete for this prize, that you have discriminated against thousands of my ancestors to deny them this opportunity."
Three more Black coaches have led their teams to the National Championship. It took 10 seasons before Nolan Richardson won the title in 1994 with Arkansas. Tubby Smith followed leading Kentucky to the championship in 1998 and most recently, Kevin Ollie went all the way with UCONN in 2014.