John Thompson Jr., who built Georgetown University into a basketball titan and became the first black head coach to win an NCAA national championship in a major sport, has died. He was 78.
Thompson was a revered figure in the District of Columbia and became a legend during his three-decade run on Georgetown’s sidelines, at McDonough Gymnasium and then the old Capital Centre. He towered 6-foot-10, and the white towel he carried over his right shoulder during games became his signature look.
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Thompson and star center Patrick Ewing led the Hoyas to the 1984 national title, which culminated in an 84-75 win over the University of Houston in the championship game. Georgetown also reached the 1982 and 1985 title games but lost, the latter to rival Villanova in a famous upset.
Thompson coached Georgetown from 1972 to 1999 and compiled a 596-239 record. He abruptly resigned midway into the 1998-99 season, citing personal issues amid a lengthy divorce settlement with his ex-wife, Gwen.
After the program joined the Big East Conference in 1979, the Hoyas qualified for the NCAA Tournament 17 times in Thompson’s final 20 seasons.
He also coached Team USA to the bronze medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the Class of 1999.
A District native, Thompson attended Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington. He coached the now-defunct high school at Washington’s St. Anthony Catholic School for six seasons before Georgetown hired him.
“I love this Maryland-Washington-Virginia area,” Thompson said in an interview on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” in 2012. “I was lucky that I was able to make a living and able to do my thing at home. I like it here, I love it here and I love the people who are here. They have been very supportive of me most of the time.”
Thompson grew up in the era of segregation and continued to deal with racism throughout his career. He faced a banner in McDonough Gymnasium calling him the N-word early in his tenure at Georgetown. Ironically, he also had to tune out critics’ accusations that he himself was racist against white people, because of how the players he recruited to Georgetown were almost always black.
All his life, Thompson grappled with the topic of race. Before winning the 1984 title, Thompson became the first black coach to lead a team to the Final Four in 1982. But when a reporter asked him about that achievement, he said he “resented the hell out of” the question.
“It implies that I am the first black man to be accomplished enough and intelligent enough to do this. It is an insult to my race,” Thompson said. “There have been plenty of others who could have gotten here if they had been given the opportunity they deserved.”
In perhaps the most famous story about Thompson, he scared off Rayful Edmond, a Washington drug lord in the 1980s, from fraternizing with some of his players at the time, including future NBA star Alonzo Mourning.
“Rayful didn’t want any harm to come to any of my players,” Thompson later said in an interview. “And I wanted to make sure no harm came to them — including guilt by association.”
Before making his mark as a coach, Thompson played at Providence College and a short stint with the NBA’s Boston Celtics. He won NBA title with the Celtics in both of his two NBA seasons, 1964-65 and 1965-66, coming off the bench for Bill Russell.
Thompson’s eldest son, John Thompson III, coached the Hoyas from 2004 to 2017. Thompson III brought the Hoyas to the Final Four in his third season, but the team’s postseason results slacked off after that. He was succeeded in the 2017-18 season by Ewing, the former star player’s first head coaching gig.
Both Thompson III’s and Ewing’s coaching tenures at Georgetown have further illustrated how intertwined the basketball program is with the legacy of the elder Thompson — whom the university dubbed with the rare title of “head coach emeritus” not long after his resignation.
Later in life, Thompson worked as an NBA and college basketball television commentator, hosted a local sports radio program and sat on the Nike board of directors.
As a commentator, he once said he would be happy to coach the disruptive DeMarcus Cousins with the memorable quip, “You can calm down a fool before you can resurrect a corpse.”
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