Mali historian Amadou Hampaté Bâ once stated, “When an elder dies, a library is burned to the ground.” That wisdom captures the sentiments of so many upon hearing the news of the passing of one of the most revered elders of the African American village, Hall-of-Fame basketball coach John Thompson Jr, who died on Sunday, August 30th, at the age of 78. A cause of death has not been revealed. With his death, an era has ended, a chapter is closed as tributes rang in from his collegiate colleagues and the greater Basketball community.
On every occasion, John Thompson exuded Black power and Black pride. His impact transcended the realm of basketball as he was the embodiment of being unashamedly Black in a sea of whiteness and made the space for his players, his student-athletes, to discover their own unique gifts on and off the court and their responsibility to empower their communities. He was a griot of Black culture, a father figure with a white towel over his shoulder leading young Black men into basketball battles and in the game of life.
A towering figure, John Thompson was a giant not just in physical stature but as a human being deploying attributes such as character, integrity, toughness, and an unwavering commitment to his program at Georgetown that inspired Black America. He was a coach of Black America.
Born in Washington, D.C., Thompson Jr.’s mother insisted that he attended Catholic schools because of the school’s robust educational opportunities. This sparked in Thompson a deep and abiding passion for education at an earlier age. The symbiotic relationship between academic achievement and athletic accomplishments would be the hallmarks of Thompson’s life work.
While attending Archbishop Carroll High School, Thompson became a standout basketball star, playing center with his 6’10 frame. From 1958-1960, he led his team to three consecutive City Championship games. After graduating high school, Thompson went on to Providence College, where he played for the Friars, and then he was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1964. As a Celtic, he was influenced by the coaching prowess of Red Auerbach, a trailblazer for equal opportunity for Black players in sports, and was mentored by one of the most successful and socially conscious athletes of all-time, Bill Russell. Thompson was nicknamed “The Caddy” because he was Russell’s back up for two seasons, albeit sparingly, becoming a two-time NBA champion.
Thompson would leave the confines of the Boston Garden to take a coaching job at St. Anthony’s in his hometown of Washington D.C., leading them to a 122–28 record during his tenure. His stint at Archbishop Carroll was a foreshadowing of the success he would enjoy at his next stop.
When Thompson stepped on the campus of Georgetown to assume the role of head coach, he inherited a basketball program that was in shambles. The season before his arrival the Georgetown Hoyas only won three games. But by 1975 the tide began to turn. Under Thompson’s leadership, the Hoyas returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in years. In 1979, the first year of the Big East, Thompson led Georgetown into the newly established conference as a perennial powerhouse.
His success continued into the ’80s and he became the first Black coach to win the NCAA championship in 1984. Reflecting on his historical milestone Thompson replied, “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.” Thompson was the coach that Black America needed.
Georgetown became a cultural touchstone as “Hoya Paranoia” swept that nation and left an indelible imprint of pride on the African American community. The rise of the Hoyas coincided with hip-hop culture taking over the mainstream. With an unapologetic Black coach, an all-Black team, in the Chocolate City of Washington D.C., the Georgetown Hoyas reveled in being Black America’s team. Their athleticism, relentless defense, in-your-face attitude, and high basketball IQ, the Hoyas were unlike any team on the scene. Playing in the nation’s capital and with the increased visibility because of games being nationally T.V. Georgetown brought Black basketball into homes on a weekly basis. But not everyone loved John Thompson or his teams. Broadcasters openly depicted his team as “thugs” for their intense, physical brand of B-Ball.
The racial animus directed at John Thompson and the Hoyas made Black America love them even more. In hoods all across the country, from kids to adults, everyone who wanted to be considered cool, had to rock some Gerogetowon apparel. It’s hard to imagine any other coach that could have guided the careers of Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson, who all became superstars in the NBA. To his credit, Thompson never shied away from being unashamedly Black and his basketball program was a reflection of it. Simply put, he cared about his players and the Black community. (He cared so much that he told famously Rayful Edmond — one of the most powerful and ruthless drug dealers in DC at the time — to stay away from Alonzo Mourning or suffer the consequences. Edmond never befriended any more Georgetown players.)
No matter the cost, Thompson stood up for his players. He put a major spotlight on the systemic racism that was entrenched far before the term became part of the vernacular, walking off the court in protest right before a game in 1989, because of NCAA eligibility regulations that he felt was disproportionately aimed at young Black athletes in college basketball.
Without question, John Thompson blazed a trail for Black coaches such as Nolan Richardson and Orlando “Tubby Smith” to follow and for all-Black collegiate teams like the UNLV Runnin Rebels and the Fab 5 of the University of Michigan to achieve success in the NCAA. John Thompson’s influence still looms large in the NCAA and beyond.
Thompson would retire from Georgetown on January 8th, 1999; he would be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame that fall. he would keep close proximity with basketball as an analyst for the NBA and with his players as he transitioned into becoming their life coach. His son, John Thompson III, would take over the reins as head coach of Georgetown, and Patrick Ewing currently serves as head coach.
While other coaches were just creating basketball programs, Thompson was curating a safe haven for young Black men who could flourish academically, athletically, and as human beings without having to hide their Blackness. Although he would take pride in all of the players who made the NBA and the four Hall of Famers that he coached, he was even more proud of the fact that his program had a 97% graduation rate.
When Allen Iverson was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, he paid homage to John Thompson. An emotional tribute, A.I. through his tears thanked his former coach for “saving his life.” John Thompson could never be reduced to a coach who was great with the x’s and o’s on a basketball court. Coach Thompson was in the business of saving lives. His legacy will always be remembered because he invested in the development of Black men. He was more than just a coach of Georgetown. He was a coach of Black America.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.
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