John Thompson walked on the floor 12 minutes before the game began, head down, expression stern. That could have been any game, except Georgetown’s towering men’s basketball coach was making NCAA history that January night in 1989. Every East Coast paper that could get there, got there — to cover the Hoyas playing Boston College, having nothing to do with the Hoyas playing Boston College.
Thompson talked with the opposing coach, shook hands with the game officials, stayed out for player introductions. Then Thompson pitched his famous towel to his assistant coach and walked straight to his maroon Lincoln Town Car parked under the stands, every network camera following his progress. So did every reporter in the place. The game wasn’t why we were there.
This walkout had nothing and everything to do with Thompson’s own basketball team. As the news hit Monday morning that Thompson has died, two days short of his 79th birthday, maybe that lingers above all the other iconic images of Thompson. He was a true forefather of all the protests happening in sports today. Over 31 years ago, Thompson used his tremendous stature in his sport to protest the previous week’s NCAA decision to deny scholarships to freshmen who were academically ineligible for athletics under Proposition 48.
It now seems so obvious. Deny scholarships to players who maybe needed them the most? History wasn’t kind to Prop 48 … except Thompson did not wait for history’s judgment. He walked out.
“It’s not like he’s completely gone,” Hoyas center Alonzo Mourning said after the game. “He’s at practice. He’s in the locker room before the game. He’s still our coach.”
To say Thompson was fearless is to suggest fear was even allowed in his gym. His stature benefited from his success and vice versa. Easy to forget — or maybe you never knew — that Georgetown barely existed in basketball pre-John Thompson. Not completely true, the school had played for a national title once before, but that was in 1943. The Hoyas never won as many as 20 games between ‘43 and Thompson taking over in 1972. They’d won three games the season before his arrival, so the building took a little time, as in three years. Georgetown reached the NCAA Tournament in 1976.
Good teams were followed by great ones, featuring a game-changer, Patrick Ewing, now himself the Hoyas head coach.
It wasn’t lost on the wider basketball world that Thompson changed Georgetown as an institution simply by recruiting Black basketball players. A Georgetown and Georgetown Law graduate, Ron Henry, called this a “blind spot” immediately corrected by Thompson. The internal message was not just that Georgetown was getting serious about basketball, Henry said. “Much more important was the message that the university was finally serious about getting out beyond its gate to engage with and in the community of which it is a part.”
Thompson was on Nike’s board of directors for almost three decades. If you thought that was a conflict while Thompson was coaching the Nike-adorned Hoyas, for which Thompson was handsomely compensated, that was your problem.
Thompson had zero interest in being some cuddly beloved figure. Best known as a 6-foot-10 backup center to Bill Russell on two Boston Celtics championship teams, Thompson reached three NCAA finals with Ewing’s teams. All three became embedded into the history of the sport.
In 1982, Dean Smith finally won a title, as a freshman named Michael Jordan hit the game-winner, but Georgetown had its own chance at the end, until Hoyas guard Fred Brown threw the ball to North Carolina’s James Worthy when Brown thought he was throwing it to a teammate.
Thompson, a play away from becoming the first Black coach to win an NCAA title, bear-hugged Brown, told him, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve won a lot more games for me than you’ve lost.”
Grace when he needed it most, shocking those who only saw Thompson’s prickly side, it all was rewarded two years later when Georgetown and Ewing, and Fred Brown, won an NCAA title, taking down Houston in the final.
The next season, Georgetown was supposed to make it two in a row, until Villanova had other ideas, shocking college hoops with the NCAA final that became known as The Perfect Game.
“Intimidating,” said Harold Jensen, a hero of that ‘85 final, about what it was like to take on John Thompson in that game and all other Big East battles, when Thompson and Rollie Massimino and Jim Boeheim and Lou Carnesecca and the rest turned the Big East into basketball royalty.
That one word was Jensen’s first text thought Monday morning. Actually, Jensen texted INTIMIDATING. Plenty of people are intimidating. John Thompson was INTIMIDATING.
“He was a great coach, leader, developer of men, winner,” Jensen elaborated. “You always knew you would be in a battle … Teams were relentless and prepared.”
Thompson’s other massive contribution to Philadelphia basketball history was recruiting Allen Iverson to the Hoyas. Thompson had been under great pressure not to take Iverson after his famous bowling alley fight. Thompson ignored the pressure. Who knows how different Iverson’s path would have been?
“I want to thank Coach Thompson … for saving my life,” Iverson said in his iconic Hall of Fame acceptance speech, getting emotional. “For giving me the opportunity. I was recruited by every school in the country for football and basketball. And an incident happened in high school and all that was taken away. No other teams, no other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance. And he did.”
In some important ways, this man was so far ahead of the game, most of his competition wasn’t even playing. Temple’s John Chaney was a peer, fighting Prop 48 alongside. But this wasn’t a popular fight.
Before that Landover game, Thompson had said that he would walk out “in hopes of getting (NCAA members) to take another look at what they’ve done, and if they feel it unjust, change the rule.” Thompson did not say how long he would continue his protest. Technically, it was just that one game. In reality, it never ended.
(Article written by Mike Jensen)