In accomplishing three impressive feats, John Thompson was less a respected basketball coach than one of the most powerful forces to touch college athletics and American society at large.
One, his achievements at Georgetown University, building a winner at an institution with little sports tradition, compelled many sports fans – and certainly African Americans – to embrace college basketball at unprecedented levels. Fans sprouted from every corner of the country.
“I played in the NBA 14 years, and I still get stopped mostly for my Georgetown association and playing for Coach Thompson,” former Warriors star Sleepy Floyd said in a phone interview Monday. “What we meant to the country at that time, coming onto the national scene in 1982 and dominating a lot of college basketball. It really gave the African American community someone to really, truly root for.”
Two, Thompson, who died Sunday at age 78, surely made college sports more receptive to Black culture. He understood the challenges faced by many of his recruits and was able to articulate it to broader audience in an illuminative way. Big John taught more than basketball, and he taught it beyond those on his roster.
“He was one of the first African Americans to coach at a major institution at that time,” said Floyd, an All-American at Georgetown. “And being at Georgetown, a mostly white Jesuit institution, he was not swayed by that. He was committed to people like myself, to young Black men, getting an education. He was about the basketball, but he also wanted to prepare us in every way for life after Georgetown.”
And, three, Thompson was behind a fashion trend that, like his teams, defied norms. At a time when one’s choice of sneakers was evolving from comfort and convenience to becoming a personality statement, often with bold colors, Georgetown’s success made gray ultra-popular.
Georgetown’s gray sneakers, with navy blue trim, were among the least aesthetically appealing sports items one could wear. Gray as a dominant color in fashion has a long history of being rejected. Too bland. Too boring. Gray is the right tackle of the color spectrum.
Thompson and G-Town made it stylish. From the early 1980s and into the 1990s, those gray and blue sneaks could be found on college campuses, sidewalks, playgrounds and gyms across America. No college shoe was more easily identifiable. Even as the NBA, behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and then Michael Jordan, was captivating youngsters and influencing culture, affiliation and affinity with Georgetown teams and the Big East Conference remained strong.
The Hoyas were the “Bad Boys” of the college game, every bit as menacing and marvelous – and downright polarizing – as those infamous but successful Detroit Pistons behind Chuck Daly and Isiah Thomas. Thompson and the guys didn’t care to be liked, nor did they have a nanosecond of concern about what you thought.
From 1979 to 1992, Georgetown reeled off 14 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, with three Final Four appearances and one national championship (1984). A three-time national Coach of the Year, Thompson is the first Black coach to build a team that ended the college hoops season by cutting down the nets and hoisting the trophy.
From teams that featured Patrick Ewing and Floyd, to Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, to Allen Iverson and Othella Harrington, players came and went, entering the NBA or playing overseas or sliding into the business world, repping G-Town every step of the way.
Thompson and that white towel draped over his shoulder were constants. For 27 years. He was massive, 6-foot-10 and north of 300 pounds, commanding any court on which he stood, any room in which he entered, any young man who accepted the challenge of playing for him.
When Iverson was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2016, he thought back to 1993, when he was a 17-year-old convicted to 15 years in prison for participating in a brawl at a bowling alley in Virginia. Though he served only four months, as charges were dropped, it was evident the experience and Thompson’s reaction to it have a hold on his heart.
“I want to thank Coach Thompson . . . for saving my life,” Iverson said, overcoming the lump in his throat. “For giving me the opportunity. I was recruited by every school in the country for football and basketball. And an incident happened in high school, and all that was taken away. No other teams, no other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance. And he did.”
Thompson knew the game exceedingly well but was not a pure coaching genius. He wasn’t much for basketball innovation. He won by instilling discipline and getting his players to summon maximum effort. Big John did some of his best work with rosters that were relatively light on talent.
As many coaches, at every level, stand up to racial injustice and disenfranchisement, they are following the trail made by Thompson. He did it when it was unpopular, particularly considering his skin color.
“We lost a good one,” Floyd said. “We were all better for having him.”