John Thompson, the legendary former basketball coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, passed on Monday at the age of 78. Thompson coached the Hoyas from 1972 to 1999. During his career, he won a national title, three Big East Coach of the Year awards, and accumulated a record of 596-239.
Thompson’s presence as the coach of the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team brought a great measure of pride to Black America during the 1980s and early ’90s. Many can remember the towering figure standing tall and being unapologetically Black as he led his all-Black squads to Final Fours and into the elite of college basketball.
Georgetown became a part of the Black culture of the time. One news source explained that beginning with, “the Georgetown starter jackets, or the Kente cloth that the Iverson-led Hoyas of the ’90 wear, Georgetown basketball embodied a brand that Black Americans felt they owned, just as White Americans disapproved of it.”
The Undefeated’s Chris Palmer wrote that the Hoyas, “appealed greatly to local Black fans, particularly young Black men who felt labeled, disrespected and disregarded.”
Thompson was the only coach to stick with and offer former NBA superstar Allen Iverson a scholarship after other schools pulled their offers after he was convicted of taking part in a melee in his hometown. His conviction had racist overtones.
Iverson, upon hearing about his former coach’s death tweeted, “Thanks for saving my life coach. I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, ‘Hey MF,’ then we would talk about everything except basketball.”
Thompson’s Hoyas won the NCAA basketball championship in 1984 and reached the championship game of the Final Four in 1982 and 1985 and they made it to the NCAA tournament 20 times.
Georgetown teams during Thompson’s 27-year reign took on the personality of the coach, as they played an aggressive game which included an intense style of defense up and down the court.
Opponents and the media criticized the Hoyas style of play at the time along with Thompson’s very tight and seemingly secretive way of operating including sheltering his players and program from outsiders, particularly the mainstream press.
Sportswriters and commentators led by Brent Musburger—who apparently disliked the Hoyas, their style of play and Thompson—coined the term “Hoya paranoia.”
Racists who resented the team’s success through tough play would sometimes label them “thugs.”
Thompson was respected by many because as the saying goes “he didn’t take no crap” especially from the media.
The coach pulled his team from the floor In February 1983, after Villanova fans at the Palestra in Philadelphia held up racist banners that read “Ewing Is an Ape” and “Ewing Kant Read Dis.” The coach insisted that the signs be taken down before his team would return to the court: the signs were removed.
“Sooner or later these kinds of things will cause a riot,” Thompson said at the time. “Sooner or later, I’m going to tell my players to go up and get the sign and then see what happens.”
When asked by a reporter what it felt like to be the first Black coach to win a national championship after they won it all in 1984, Thompson responded, “I resent the hell out of that question,” he said. “It implies that I’m the first Black man to be accomplished enough and intelligent enough to do this. It’s an insult to my race. There have been plenty of others who could’ve gotten here if they’d been given the opportunity they deserved.”
Thompson spoke out against injustice. He boycotted a few games to protest the NCAA’s decision to apply Prop 48, a controversial measure that denied eligibility to athletes who didn’t meet certain academic requirements, to freshmen—and that he believed unfairly targeted Black athletes.
“Not only was this a team full of Black players who would definitely take it to you, you had a big-a—Black man as a coach who wasn’t taking no s#*t. That was big,” said Public Enemy’s Chuck D said in an interview in 2013.
As one writer put it, “long before the rise of UNLV and Michigan’s Fab Five, Georgetown was by far the coolest team—in any sport—in the entire world. By the early ’80s, Hoyas gear was flying off the shelves. According to Chuck D, “Georgetown jackets were almost officially our gear.”
The iconic coach is often remembered for the loving hug of Fred Brown in the 1982 finals after he erroneously passed the ball to North Carolina in the final seconds of their championship game against Georgetown that sealed the Hoyas fate.