John Thompson Jr. helped advance collegiate basketball, paving the way for Black players and coaches. He was the first African-American head coach to win a major collegiate championship in basketball when he led Georgetown University’s Hoyas to the NCAA Division I national championship in 1984. By all accounts, Thompson lived a disciplined life and strove to promote equality on and off the court. Thompson died on Aug. 30, at the age of 78.
Here are 10 things to know about legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson.
He played basketball for Providence College, a Catholic college in Rhode Island. While on the team, he earned an honorable mention in All-American honors in 1964. After college, he went pro. He played for two seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Boston Celtics — winning an NBA championship in both seasons. He averaged 3.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, NBC Sports reported.
When he hung up his pro sneakers, he became a high school coach in Washington, D.C. before coaching Georgetown for 27 seasons.
When he retired as a coach, he worked as a radio and TV sports commentator.
More than a coach, Thompson also became a father figure to many of the young men he coached.
He stepped in when his players needed him, not only when they were playing but in their personal lives as well. “That meant putting his life on the line by confronting the largest drug dealer in the D.C. area when Thompson felt that drug dealer (Rayful Edmond) was getting too close to his players at Georgetown. That also meant boycotting a game when he felt his talk about the need to reform rules relating to freshman eligibility that he felt were discriminatory, wasn’t getting enough attention,” NBC Sports reported.
As the coach of college basketball’s most successful teams, Thompson knew he had a platform to talk about social issues and that he did.
He walked off the court prior to a game against Boston College in 1989 to protest the NCAA passing Proposition 48, which would have discriminated against poor and for Black athletes seeking scholarship opportunities, Yahoo Sports reported.
“He realized this had an inordinate impact on Black student-athletes and poor student-athletes,” said Dr. Ketra Armstrong, professor of sport management and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan, in a Today interview. “He said, ‘This is wrong and something has to change.’ He stood tall for the conditions that were disproportionately impacting the Black community.”
Thompson was a strong voice against racism in the sport as well as in the country.
“John was a significant voice, he was right there with Muhammad Ali in terms of when John spoke on racial issues or different things, people listened,” former Maryland coach Gary Williams told Yahoo Sports. “He had the nation’s attention.”
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese added, “He said and did things to represent the Black point of view and people criticized him. John was hated by a lot of people. It didn’t faze John. He was tough. He was really tough.”
Thompson tirelessly fought for equality for Black athletes and Black coaches. “He didn’t have a microphone, he had a megaphone,” said Mike Jarvis, the former coach at St. John’s and George Washington universities. “And he wasn’t afraid to use it.”
“I think he helped every young, aspiring Black coach’s career by what he was doing and the success he had,” Jarvis said. “John opened up a lot of doors with his success. It certainly didn’t hurt (my career), either.”
Thompson had an incredible number of wins under his belt, including seven Big East Tournament championships and three National Coach of the Year awards. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Thompson was known as “Big John” in basketball circles. “He was a giant,” said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese in Yahoo Sports. “What he did coaching speaks for itself. As we’ve sat here and watched what’s going on with the NBA and social justice, John did it 30 years ago. But he did it by himself.”
Thompson helped mold NBA stars such as Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson at Georgetown University. Ewing even filled Thompson’s shoes as Georgetown coach.
“Georgetown University, the sport of basketball and the world has lost someone who I consider to be a father figure, confidant and role model,” Ewing, the Knick Hall of Famer, said in a statement, according to The New York Times. “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.”
Thompson was a major voice in the now-defunct Black Coaches Association.
“He inspired coaches,” said Dr. Armstrong. “I called him the consciousness because he was calling things out early to make people listen. He had values and he wouldn’t compromise—on the court, in the classroom and in the community as a steward of humanity.”
Dr. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, recalled Thompson’s profound impact on the Jesuit university.
“He challenged us to live up to our values and enabled us to see new possibilities—for ourselves and for the impact we could have on the world,” DeGioia told Today. “John will be remembered for many things—his historic achievements, the lives he shaped, his advocacy for social and racial justice—but perhaps most of all, for the authenticity through which he lived his life.”