For Black men of a certain age, John Thompson was the pinnacle. And even if they didn’t play for him, he was their coach.
And while “Big John” is no longer with us, it’s hard to imagine what this world, college basketball, and Georgetown University would be like today if he didn’t arrive on campus in 1972.
I was only three months old when Patrick Ewing led the Hoyas, and Thompson, to their first and only national championship. It led to me living a childhood often dressed in Georgetown sweatshirts. My father is one of those men of that age that viewed Thompson as the pinnacle, and in our house we rooted for Georgetown.
It was years before I realized that Georgetown wasn’t an HBCU. Because as a child, a team with a Black coach with an all-Black roster had to be an HBCU, right? Almost 30 years later, I visited Georgetown’s campus, and it was then that I realized just how important Thompson was.
A 6-10 Black man that would walk off the court to protest Prop 48 or when fans were being racist to his players, had a school that was located in one of the most affluent areas in the country, with a Black enrollment of only seven percent, wearing traditional African Kente cloth patterns on their uniforms.
“We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson, Jr.,” wrote the Thompson family in a statement. “Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court.
“More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us.”
Thompson instantly commanded all attention when he entered a room. I witnessed it during the third and fourth rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament in Atlanta. Thompson was commentating for satellite radio, and when he showed up on press row the entire arena paused and watched him, even the players warming up on the court.
That’s why it’s not hard to understand why the college basketball world is in mourning, especially Georgetown’s best player and Thompson’s brightest star, Allen Iverson.
“Thanks For Saving My Life Coach. I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, ‘Hey MF,’ then we would talk about everything except basketball. May you always Rest in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud. ‘Your Prodigal Son.’ #Hoya4Life,” Iverson wrote on Twitter.
As a player, Thompson won at Providence and in the NBA as a member of two championship teams with the Boston Celtics.
As a coach, he won numerous conference and national coach of the year awards, compiling a 596-239 record and a 97 percent graduation rate for his players.
As a trailblazer, he led the way for Nolan Richardson (1994), Tubby Smith (1998) and Kevin Ollie (2014) to lead teams to national titles as Black men, as he was the first to do it in 1984.
And as a legend, Thompson showed a generation of Black basketball players how to be men, because he knew that they were much more than athletes.
“Don’t let the sum total of your existence be 8-10 pounds of air.” – John Robert Thompson Jr.