John Thompson’s accomplishments are too numerous to chronicle in any tribute. To name but a few, the Hall of Famer won almost 600 games, took Georgetown to 24 straight postseason appearances including three NCAA Final Fours, and his team won the 1984 national championship. He coached the 1988 United States Olympic basketball team, won two NBA championships as a player for the Boston Celtics, and was an All-American player at Providence College in the 1960s.
John Thompson also knew what right looked like, and he pursued it for his team, his players and his community. The late coach was unforgettable.
Thompson did not have an easy road to legendary coaching status — he started out as a high school coach and took the Georgetown job when the Hoyas program was irrelevant nationally. Yet, within a decade, Thompson built the Georgetown program into the nation’s best. It is impossible to fairly discuss the Big East and college basketball in the 1980s without John Thompson being mentioned first.
And, damn, could his teams play. His teams were feared because they were disciplined, smart and ferocious on the defensive end. The Hoyas inspired fear not because of any physical reason (although the Hoyas were just as gifted athletically as any other top team) but because they were so well-coached defensively. From the ball pressure of Michael Jackson, to the trapping, to the rim protection of Patrick Ewing, Georgetown made scoring incredibly difficult. It was intimidating defense because it was so disciplined and hardworking.
But Thompson’s legacy goes so far beyond the X’s and O’s and his stellar record as a winner and champion. He stood up for what was right, and he did so even when it wasn’t cool. He walked out in protest of a Big East game in 1989 because of the NCAA’s Proposition 42, an initial eligibility rule that disproportionately affected African American athletes.
When he won the 1984 NCAA championship, he was asked about being the first African American coach to accomplish that feat. Thompson was insulted by the implication that he might be the first African American coach capable of such an accomplishment; he was just among the first allowed the opportunity to achieve it. When asked about how many of his players graduated, he replied “every one that wanted to,” always reminding us that such a distinction should not be put on the coach’s shoulders.
Michael Wilbon shares his personal experiences with John Thompson Jr. and the impact Thompson had on his life as a mentor.
Thompson did not feel the need to comply with the unwritten rules of others or the system. His teams did not stay at designated NCAA hotels, as Thompson wanted to keep players away from the distractions. He was criticized for that. His players were available for all required media responsibilities, but Thompson would not allow the media anything they wanted. He was criticized for that. It was called “Hoya Paranoia,” and Thompson used it to his advantage, but it also laid bare the differences in the way the largely white media portrayed Georgetown. The “paranoia” extended to opponents, and the mystique only added to the substance of the players, the coach and the schemes.
Thompson’s players were everything the NCAA establishment said it wanted in an athlete. They wore coats and ties; they were every bit as eloquent and respectful of the media as any other team; and they were just as smart and disciplined as any other top team in the nation. Yet that truth didn’t carry the day. Instead, the Hoyas were lightning rods for criticism because John Thompson did things his way, called out injustice when he encountered it and never apologized for doing what he thought was right. What was in any way wrong with that? Nothing.
The game was better for having John Thompson in it, and society was better too, for having John Thompson point out its inequities. Today, more than ever, those with open minds and hearts can see that Thompson was right in his cause. He was a truly great coach. He was a man of true courage and conviction. He was a true giant on and off of the floor. Rest in Power, John Thompson. It was our honor to know you.