John Thompson towered as a larger-than-life figure in college basketball for decades, as unabashedly Black as anyone could be in a sport and a time when Black coaches in Division I weren’t in high demand.
The first Black male coach to win a Division I men’s basketball title in 1984, Thompson transformed Georgetown from a moribund program into a national hoops power during his 27-year reign (1979-92).
More importantly, Thompson’s Hoyas became Black America’s team, a majority-Black team at a predominately White school. These Black players played proud and tough and disciplined with this big Black man on the sidelines leading them with his trademark white towel draped over one shoulder.
“He established something beyond a good basketball program,” said Kevin Stanfield, a D.C. native, of Thompson, who died August 31 at age 78. “He established a foundation for these young Black men to be successful. He showed them how they could use college basketball for what it was intended to be, a vehicle for them to get an education they wouldn’t normally have…an education that will help them be successful in life.
“John Thompson made men,” continued Stanfield, a longtime radio producer. “He showed them how to be men and showed them how they could make men.”
Nearly 100 percent of his players (76 of 78) who stayed and played for him all four years graduated from Georgetown, a small private college more known for political science and law than sports.
The late Hall-of-Famer put D.C. on the national basketball map. “We don’t have a state…and we really didn’t have our own identity,” said Stanfield of the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia). “He was a presence. John didn’t care where he’d go in the city. John went to where the ball players were, not always the five-star recruit.”
After retiring from coaching, Thompson successfully hosted a daily sports radio show for over a decade. “Everybody who worked at the station just loved and respected the man,” said Stanfield, who worked as a veteran radio producer in the same building though the two men’s paths rarely crossed.
“The only time I met him, John was standing in the corner [at an arena], and I went and introduced myself.” He recalled Thompson’s graciousness.
“I met Mr. Thompson while covering the Coppin State women at Georgetown [women’s basketball game] on Dec. 22, 2010,” added Keith Henry, a Baltimore freelance writer. “I was taking pictures and Mr. Thompson was not too far behind me watching the game.
“He was an intimidating presence in person. But he was a cool man to say hello to, which I did after the game. It was an honor to share the same space with a legend of basketball.”
Thompson had a 596-239 career record. One of those losses occurred at Madison Square Gardens when Georgetown lost to Minnesota 62-61 in the 1993 NIT championship game, the first time in tournament history that two Black coaches led teams to the finals.
“I didn’t know that,” said retired Gopher coach Clem Haskins. “I got him in the championship.”
Thompson and Haskins were cut from the same father-figure cloth, taking their coaching responsibilities beyond the court. “What he did with his players, I did with mine,” admitted Haskins. “I learned a lot from Big John as a coach and a human being.”
“Guys like Clem and John Thompson, it should be the norm, not a rarity,” said Stanfield.
This reporter met Thompson only once, in the early 1990s at a basketball clinic in Las Vegas in my second life as a local high school basketball coach. I saved my nickels and dimes to go to Sin City and hear the Georgetown coach. I stood in line afterwards and got to briefly speak with him, asking a coaching question. He easily offered his advice, which I put to use as soon as I returned to the Cities.
Thompson while alive was oft-criticized. But once his death was announced, some critics flip-flopped and offered glowing tributes, praising the man for his influence on sports and society in seemingly hypocritical tributes.
“Thompson shattered preconceived norms,” wrote USA Today Columnist Mike Jones. “He went about business his way. He gave Black people hope and inspiration.”