John Thompson Jr., the larger-than-life Georgetown University and D.C. legend, is credited — and rightly so — with breaking down barriers for Black coaches, for making his hometown a better place and for serving as a protector, mentor and role model for generations of young men and women.
But for former Georgetown basketball great Allen Iverson, it goes even further: The NBA Hall of Famer thanks Thompson for his very life.
The onetime Virginia high school basketball phenom remembers that when he lost his scholarship offers after a four-month prison stint in 1993, no one but Thompson was willing to give him an opportunity.
“My mom went to Georgetown and begged to give me a chance,” Iverson, fighting through tears, said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2016. “And he did.”
Thompson’s influence on Iverson and hundreds of others in sports, politics and other walks of life could be seen in the collective nationwide outpouring of grief Monday when it was announced that he had died at the age of 78.
No official cause of death has been announced.
A towering 6-foot-10-inch former member of two championship Boston Celtics squads, Thompson returned home to the District to coach high school basketball before taking over the Hoyas in 1972. He soon turned the sleepy program into a perennial powerhouse. Along the way, he became the first Black head coach to win an NCAA national championship in a major sport.
During games, he directed his teams with his booming baritone voice and paced the sidelines with a signature white towel tossed over his right shoulder. Off the court, he was a champion for his players. He was determined to mold them into men and show them the possibilities an education could provide.
Thompson and star center Patrick Ewing led the Hoyas to the 1984 national title, which culminated in an 84-75 win over Houston in the championship game. Georgetown also reached the 1982 and 1985 title games but lost, the latter to Villanova in what many consider to be college basketball’s biggest upset.
Thompson coached Georgetown from 1972 to 1999 and compiled a 596-239 record. He abruptly resigned midway into the 1998-99 season, citing personal issues during a lengthy divorce settlement with his wife, Gwen.
After Georgetown joined the Big East Conference in 1979, the Hoyas qualified for the NCAA Tournament 17 times in 20 seasons. Thompson also coached USA to the bronze medal in basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the class of 1999.
Ewing, now Georgetown’s coach, called Thompson a father figure and a role model.
“He has done so much to impact my life and the people he has coached and mentored along the way,” Ewing said in a statement. “However, his reach went well beyond just those who he knew personally. He changed the world and helped shape the way we see it. He was a great coach but an even better person and his legacy is everlasting.”
A D.C. native, Thompson attended Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast. He coached at the now-defunct high school at St. Anthony Catholic School in Northeast for six seasons before Georgetown hired him.
Thompson grew up in the era of segregation and spoke out against racism throughout his career. Early in his tenure as a college coach, he faced a banner hanging in a gym calling him the n-word. He also faced accusations that he himself was racist because most of his recruits were Black.
Through it all, Thompson grappled with the topic of race. Before winning the 1984 title, Thompson became the first Black coach to lead a team to the Final Four in 1982. When a reporter asked him about that achievement, Thompson said he “resented the hell out of” the question.
“It implies that I am the first Black man to be accomplished enough and intelligent enough to do this. It is an insult to my race,” Thompson said. “There have been plenty of others who could have gotten here if they had been given the opportunity they deserved.”
He wasn’t afraid to take a stand. In 1989, he famously walked out of Georgetown’s game against Boston College just before tipoff as a way to protest Proposition 48, an NCAA rule that aimed to deny financial aid to recruits who did not meet minimum scores on standardized tests. Thompson said he believed the requirement was negatively affecting minority students.
Thompson was a fearless advocate for his players. In the 1980s, he told D.C. drug lord Rayful Edmond, who had befriended several members of the Hoyas, to stay away from his players, including future NBA star Alonzo Mourning.
“Rayful didn’t want any harm to come to any of my players,” Thompson later said in an interview. “And I wanted to make sure no harm came to them — including guilt by association.”
Before making his mark as a coach, Thompson played at Providence College. He then joined the Celtics, where he won NBA titles in 1964-65 and 1965-66, coming off the bench for Bill Russell.
Thompson’s eldest son, John Thompson III, coached the Hoyas from 2004 to 2017. Thompson III took the Hoyas to the Final Four in his third season, but the team’s postseason results slacked off after that. He was succeeded in the 2017-18 season by Ewing. It was the former star player’s first head coaching gig.
Both Thompson III’s and Ewing’s coaching tenures at Georgetown illustrated how intertwined the basketball program is with the legacy of the elder Thompson. The university dubbed him “head coach emeritus” not long after his resignation.
Later in life, Thompson worked as an NBA and college basketball television commentator, hosted a local sports radio program and sat on the Nike board of directors.
As a commentator, he once said he would be happy to coach the disruptive DeMarcus Cousins with the memorable quip, “You can calm down a fool before you can resurrect a corpse.”
Thompson is survived by three children, John III, Ronny and Tiffany, and three grandchildren.
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