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Legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., a central figure of Hoyas basketball for several decades, has died, according to family statement. He was 78 years old.
« Big John, » as he was affectionately called, led Georgetown to its first NCAA championship in 1984 — a team led by Patrick Ewing and David Wingate. The Hoyas returned the following year as favorites to repeat, but Rollie Massimino’s underdog Villanova squad bested them 66-64 in the title game. It was the second and final time Big John finished as a national runner-up.
« We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson, Jr. Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else. However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear everyday. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘….’Big Ace' » is cool. »
He nonetheless had some memorable coaching runs beyond those seasons, taking the Hoyas to three Final Four appearances in the 1980s and to Elite Eight appearances in 1987, 1989 and 1996. He stepped away from coaching abruptly in January 1999 in a resignation that came as Georgetown was flailing, at 7-6. At the time he cited the need to focus on his family and to address a lengthy divorce proceeding.
As a player, Thompson’s credentials were just as impressive as those on his coaching resume: a high school Parade All-American, he signed with Providence College where he became a star and an honorable mention All-American as a senior. He averaged 19.2 points per game over three seasons with the Friars, and won an NIT Championship. As a senior, he averaged 26.2 points per game and led the program to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. He was drafted in the third round of the 1964 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, where he backed up the great Bill Russell and won two championships in two years before moving on to coaching.
Thompson was succeeded by Craig Esherick at Georgetown after stepping down in 1999, and while the former assistant had the coaching chops as a long-time John Thompson disciple, he ultimately fizzled out after six seasons and only one NCAA Tournament appearance. His son, John Thompson III, took over in 2004.
Thompson was a pioneer and trendsetter for Black success in college basketball: He was the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship when he did so in 1984, and a larger-than-life figure for many not just as Georgetown. As Mike Wise wrote in the Washington Post in 2007, his Georgetown teams were « part of the zeitgeist. »
And the face of that movement was the towering sideline presence of Thompson, who at 6-foot-10, 270 pounds with a permanent scowl could not go unnoticed.
« I was supposed to be grateful because I one was one of the first African Americans coaching, » he told the Post in 2007. « I was supposed to sit there and say, ‘Oh, thank you Mr. White Man for giving me a job.’ God made me human and equal. Now I’m supposed to be grateful because you’re treating me equal and treating me as a human being? No. »
In this era of protests for social justice, Thompson was well ahead of his time, too. In 1989 he walked off the floor before a home game to protest an NCAA rule that was called Proposition 48 and enacted in 1986 prohibiting scholarship athletes from playing as freshmen if they failed to qualify academically.
Thompson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1999 and into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
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