John Thompson: A Coaching Pioneer

Freddy Beavers

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Photo courtesy of: Mitchell Layton - Getty Images

Coach Thompson (right) consoles Hall of Famer Allen Iverson (left) during a game.

On August 30, longtime Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson II passed away at 78 years of age. He served as head coach for the Georgetown Men’s Basketball team from 1972 to 1999. During his tenure, he led the Hoyas to 20 appearances in the NCAA tournament, made the finals three times, and in 1984 became the first African American head coach to win the NCAA tournament. Outside of Georgetown, Thompson won a bronze medal as the head coach of the USA men’s basketball team during the Seoul Olympics of 1988. During his time at Georgetown, Thompson also coached many NBA greats. Current Georgetown Basketball head coach and hall of fame member Patrick Ewing, along with hall of famers Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson all played college ball under Thompson.
At 6’10”, Thompson was an imposing and revered figure on and off the court. He was known as a man who was set in his beliefs. He kept a deflated basketball on his desk to emphasize to his players that basketball was only a part of life. He made sure that his players were on top of their academics, so that they would have an alternative if professional basketball did not work out. Thompson also wanted his players to be gentlemen and good citizens. “Under Coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball, but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society,” Former player Dikimbe Mutumbo emphasized on Instagram
As one of the only African American head coaches in charge of a successful college basketball program, he did not shy away from confronting rules he thought were unfair to African American players. One noteworthy example was when Thompson walked off the court after tip-off in a game against Boston College to protest a NCAA rule change that allowed athletic scholarships to be denied to freshmen that didn’t meet certain academic requirements. He thought that this rule negatively affected disadvantaged minority student athletes who didn’t have enough resources to receive a good education. Thompson was also a pioneer in using sports as a way to attain social justice. “He paved the way when it came to African American athletes fighting for social justice,” WJ varsity basketball player Charlie Newman said.
One particular example occurred during a Big East game against Villanova. The fans put up signs calling Georgetown center Patrick Ewing “an ape” and even threw a banana peel on the court. Coach Thompson promptly removed his team from the court until the signs were brought down. “I always admired the way that Big John stood up for his players,” varsity head coach Kevin Parrish said.
Thompson was not only a role model for his players, but he was also a role model to millions of African American kids who now see a career in coaching as a possibility. Thompson paved the way for more African American coaches and players to prosper in the sport of basketball. He is a true DMV legend and he will be sorely missed.