John Thompson Jr. knew the power he held when he walked off the court in protest thirty years ago – in pursuit of greater social justice – just as the generation of NBA and WNBA players whom he helped inspire demonstrated just last week. It was 1989, the start of Georgetown’s home game against Boston College. Decades before it became the movement it is today, he exclaimed to the world that Black Lives Matter. He labeled the NCAA’s Proposition 48 – requiring student-athletes meet academic standards through high school in order to play basketball in their freshmen year – as racist, then set out to draw attention to and organize action against it.
Chronicled in the Washington Post at the time, he said: “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. 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. I did it to bring attention to the issue in hopes of getting [NCAA members] to take another look at what they’ve done, and if they feel it unjust, change the rule.”
He was unabashed in his protection, mentoring and love of his players. He was a father figure – as well as the most demanding coach – and they all loved him for it. A pioneer where sports, culture, and the civil rights movement all coalesced. He displayed ferocious integrity and – in a city full of great monuments – he stood as a giant and left an indelible mark on Washington D.C., on Georgetown University, and on basketball.
Coach Thompson was indeed a giant. He was tall and broad and a fierce athlete – a collegiate All-American, NBA Championship player and a Naismith Memorial Basketball and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer. But the very famous deflated basketball which he kept on his desk was a reminder to the elite athletes he groomed that there was much more to life which transcended sports. He got after them to go to class and to graduate because what he would preach to them is that they would not all make it to the NBA. On teams comprised mostly of Black Athletes, he wanted to make sure that the players took advantage of the opportunity afforded them by being at Georgetown. His message was clear: come to play, but go to class.
When Allen Iverson was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he thanked Coach Thompson for saving his life. Iverson’s mother saw her tremendously talented teenaged son start to make very poor decisions and drove to DC to beg John to help save him. She knew he was the only one who could turn it around for Allen with the opportunity to play for him. She was right. And since then, generations of other basketball players who have followed have pointed to Iverson as an inspiration for their own careers – which could have only been possible because of the tremendous foresight and patience of Coach Thompson.
John wasn’t just about basketball – he was a teacher and a leader and spoke up unabashedly for Black student athletes. His presence will be tremendously missed by Georgetown, fellow alumni, the greater DC community, the NCAA and the NBA. Even after he stepped off the hardwood for the last time, he was still omnipresent across basketball. He was an announcer, radio show host and was someone whom I called on frequently.
I first met him as a Georgetown undergraduate in the 1970s where I helped tutor some of the players he coached. When I returned to Washington DC in the early 90s, I would go to Georgetown games and see Coach Thompson and he would visit with me at AOL.. When deciding to purchase the Washington Wizards ten years ago, we spent hours on the phone. I was seeking his advice, but would spend hours listening to his stories of what DC was like while he was growing up here, his impressions of various personalities across his storied career in college, the pros and as a coach, as well as a history of all things NBA.
There wasn’t an inauthentic bone in his body and high integrity was his hallmark. He built that in his players and it is the foundation of the work we are doing with Monumental Basketball. When we brought in John Thompson III to manage our player development program for all four of our basketball teams – the Wizards, Mystics, Capital City Go-Go and Wizards District Gaming – the teachings of JTIII’s dad were always inherent in our planning. Developing the whole player is what Coach Thompson believed in and is what we are preserving through our own efforts at Monumental Basketball.
He was so meaningful to me and the DC community. I have watched both John Thompson Jr. and John Thompson III as they coached their respective teams. I even had the opportunity to attend Final Four games – once as John Thompson Jr. coached and another time when John Thompson III did. What struck me was how equally hard their teams worked, how both coaches drove their young men to operate as a unit, and how great talent combined with respect for their coaches. That kind of coaching excellence allowed Georgetown to compete for championships while developing young athletes who could go on to make our community proud.
This is a very, very sad day and he will be greatly missed.