John Thompson always did things his way, whether others approved or not. He was a high school standout and successful college player who later enjoyed a solid pro career as the backup center to legendary Bill Russell on the
But before that he played on two Celtic title teams during his time in the NBA. However, Thompson spent more time learning about coaching, getting tips from another legend, Arnold “Red” Auerbach. That prepared him for what became a historic, Hall of Fame college coaching career.
Thompson, who died over the weekend at 78, made the Georgetown Hoyas a feared power in the NCAA. He was the first Black coach to win an NCAA tile, doing so with a Patrick Ewing led team in 1984. Thompson took over a team in 1972 that had won three of 26 games the preceding season. He’d already done a superb rebuilding job at St. Anthony’s in Washington DC. His teams there were 122-28 before he left to take the Georgetown coaching position, a job most thought was a route to nowhere.
Instead, Thompson transformed them into a must-see television powerhouse throughout his 27 year tenure.
Georgetown won six Big East Tournament titles in the first 10 years of the conference, back in an era when the Big East was clearly the nation’s premier college basketball conference. They appeared in three Final Fours in 1982, 1984 and 1985 and reached the NCAA Tournament 20 times.
Thompson mentored eight NBA first-round draft picks and 26 overall, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson. He finished with 596 career NCAA wins. Thompson also coached the United States to a bronze medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and was an assistant coach on the 1976 gold-medal winning team in Montreal. Thompson stepped down as Georgetown head coach in 1999.
But throughout his time in the coaching spotlight and later during a period when he was a broadcaster, Thompson spoke out loudly and often about what he thought were injustices and unfair treatment of Black athletes playing at predominantly white institutions. He offered Alan Iverson a scholarship despite his involvement in a highly publicized incident while he was a high school student, something Iverson always remembered.
He’d recruit players who weren’t beloved by many in white media, who liked to paint a portrait of Thompson’s teams as too physical, unskilled in fundamentals, and not really even students. Thompson also spoke out against NCAA measures he felt were being done to restrict or limit access for Black students coming out of inner city high schools trying to get into places like Georgetown. He didn’t mind being perceived as a villain when he said too much emphasis was being placed on admission tests weighted in favor of students from upper class backgrounds.
He took a lot of grief from media foes when his Olympic team finished with a bronze medal, though it was a harbinger of needed changes. American college players could no longer defeat foreign pros who were capable of being NBA starters, or teams that stayed together and played all year as opposed to a squad hastily thrown together just for the World Championships or Olympics. Eventually USA Basketball was created, NBA players began competing in the Olympics and World Championships, and folks saw that most of the top players in the game were still predominantly American and Black.
Thompson’s son John III later became Georgetown coach, and the current one is none other than Patrick Ewing. John Thompson’s impact on college basketball and society in general was large, and he will be fondly remembered.