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Legendary Coach John Thompson Dead at 78

John Thompson with his first superstar, Patrick Ewing, after winning the 1984 national championship.
John Thompson with his first superstar, Patrick Ewing, after winning the 1984 national championship.
Image: (AP)

Legendary Georgetown Men’s Basketball Coach, John Thompson Jr., has died. He was 78.

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Thompson, who at 6-foot-10 was affectionately known as “Big John,” won a national championship with the Hoyas in 1984. The championship made him the first black head basketball coach to win an NCAA basketball title.

Thompson graduated from Providence College in 1964, as the school’s leader in points, scoring average and field-goal percentage. He was drafted by the Celtics in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft. In Boston, Thompson won two NBA championships before beginning a high school coaching career in 1966.

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After coaching at D.C.’s St. Anthony High School for seven years, Thompson got the job he would become synonymous with for the rest of his life, coaching the Georgetown Hoyas beginning 1972. At Georgetown, Thompson built a powerhouse program, creating a phenomenon known as “Hoya Paranoia,” for the fear his teams put into opponents. During his tenure, Thompson took Georgetown to three Final Fours and won seven Big East championships. He also coached the 1988 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team to a bronze medal, the last Olympics the U.S. played college players. He coached Georgetown for 27 seasons. During that time, 97 percent of his players graduated.

Individually, Thompson won the coach of the year award in 1982 and 1985 and the Big East coach of the year in ’80, ’87, ’92.

In 1999, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Thompson coached a number of players who made a career in the NBA and had an impact off the court. Four are enshrined in the hall of fame as well, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson.

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At his Hall of Fame speech, Allen Iverson stood next to Thompson who said the college coach, “saved my life.”

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When Thompson began coaching at Georgetown in the 1970’s, he inherited a mostly white team. As the years went on, Thompson recruited more black players to the predominantly white school.

After winning the championship in 1984, Thompson had mixed emotions about being the first black coach to win a title.

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“A lot of people will come up to you and say, ‘well, how does it feel for you to be the first African-American to win the national championship at the Division I level,’ and I said I feel offended by the statement, because the statement implies that John Thompson was the first black person who had enough intelligence,” he told ESPN in an interview. “I might have been the first black person who was provided with an opportunity to compete for this prize, that you have discriminated against thousands of my ancestors to deny them this opportunity. So, I felt obligated to define that, and I got a little criticism for saying it.”

Thompson never shied away from issues of racial injustice on the floor and outside the lines.

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In 1989, Thompson boycotted a game against Boston College over what he called a “discriminatory” practice. The rule, Proposition 48 and 42, denied scholarships to incoming athletes who did not meet the NCAA’s academic standards.

“I’ve done this because, out of frustration, you’re limited in your options of what you can do in response to something I felt was very wrong,” he said after sitting out of the B.C. game. “This is my way of bringing attention to a rule a lot of people were not aware of – one which will affect a great many individuals.”

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The basketball community and the nation is mourning the loss of a giant.

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Thomson is survived by his three children, John Thompson III — who also became a head coach of Georgetown — Tiffany Thompson and Ronny Thompson.

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