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Remembering "Big John" Thompson The First Black Coach To Lead His Team To The NCAA Championship

Remembering "Big John" Thompson The First Black Coach To Lead His Team To The NCAA Championship

Another legend joins the ancestors.

John Thompson Jr., the iconic Georgetown University basketball coach, has passed away at 78-years-old according to a family statement released by the university this morning. He is survived by his sons, John Thompson III and Ronny Thompson, and daughter Tiffany Thompson.

His national title run in 1984 was the first by a Black head coach; he forever changed the perception of what a coach should be and look like. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, solidifying his place in history and leading the way for more coaches of color to come behind him.

"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,” the statement said.

"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 every day. 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.'"

Thompson, known as “Big John” during his college basketball days, the 6-foot-10 phenom changed the face of basketball at Georgetown and opened the doors for coaches of color to follow in his footsteps.

He was born Sept. 2, 1941, in Washington D.C. and was the star of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington before he led Providence to the 1963 NIT championship and serving as captain for the school's first NCAA tournament team in 1964. He went on to be selected third in the 1964 NBA Draft by Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach where he was Bill Russell's back up and went on to win the 1965 and 1966 championships with the franchise. He always credited Auerbach for how he went on to coach his own teams.

"I've never been around a man who managed men in my life any better than Red Auerbach," Thompson told NBA.com following Auerbach’s death in 2006. "Particularly, the egos he had to deal with, the cross cultures he had to deal with and all the variations in the kinds of people that I saw him be associated with."

 

Thompson played in the NBA for two seasons, turning down an opportunity with the Chicago Bulls to work with the next generation of basketball players. In 1966, he began his career as head coach of the at the prestigious St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington in 1966. During his six-year prep coaching career, he was 122-28 before Georgetown hired him in 1972.

"When I was hired," Thompson told Sports Illustrated in 1980, "I had a talk with the president [then the Rev. Robert Henle, S.J.]. All that Father Henle said about basketball was that he hoped I could take a team to the NIT every now and then. I thought to myself that I'd eat my hat if I couldn't do better than that. But I didn't say anything except,  'Yes, sir, I'll try,' because you don't want to set yourself up.”

Thompson blew those hopes of a few victories out the window.  He had led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 32 years by 1975, but his success with the team wasn’t without racial commentary. 

In the McDonough Arena on Georgetown’s campus a sign was posted up, "Thompson the n----r flop must go." It was removed, but Thompson stayed the course leading The Hoyas to win their next 10 games and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

When he came to Georgetown The Hoyas had only won three games the prior season, but with his leadership and intention to win he changed the game.

He built the team into an unstoppable force. They went to the 1984 national championship and went to three Final Fours in the 1980s. During this time he also won seven Big East titles and lead the 1988 United States national team to a bronze medal in the Olympics. 

Without Thompson we wouldn’t have some of the most respected players in Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson whom he recruited and developed over their careers.

He mentored and protected his players on and off the team. He supported Iverson after he spent four months in jail for his alleged participation in a bowling alley brawl before his senior year of high school.  Iverson's sentence was ultimately overturned by an appeals court due to lack of evidence. As a  talented guard he wen not to win Big East Rookie of the Year honors and led the program to an Elite Eight during his second and final season at the school. Although Thompson was criticized for sticking by him, Iverson said he saved his life in tweets Monday morning.

 

 

During the 1998-99 season Thompson suddenly resigned citing his desire to take care of his family issues after filing for divorce from his wife, Gwen, two years earlier. 

''You know that I'm going through a problem with my marriage right now,'' Thompson said at the time. ''I owe it to my family to address that. I would be irresponsible if I didn't address that.’' 

Thompson never returned to coaching. He finished with a career record of 596-239. His autobiography, I Came As a Shadow: An Autobiography, will be available January 26, 2021.

We send our love and condolences to all of his loved ones.