The world lost another giant Monday morning with the passing of longtime Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson. Thompson — a trailblazer for Black coaches and players at the collegiate level, an icon of the sport, a national champion — was 78.
In his North Carolina years, Michael Jordan became well-acquainted with Thompson’s Hoya squads, most notably in the 1982 national championship game. Jordan’s last-second, game-winning jumper propelled the Tar Heels to the storied program’s third title, and Dean Smith’s first.
That year, Thompson became the first African-American coach in NCAA history to reach a Final Four, with a team headlined by Patrick Ewing.
Jordan released the following statement in the wake of the news of Thompson’s death:
“Coach Thompson was a truly great man and a legend in college basketball,” Jordan wrote. “He had such a profound impact on his players and was a father figure to so many of them. I admired him and loved him dearly. My deepest condolences to his family and the Georgetown community.”
That echoes sentiments and memories that have poured from all corners of the basketball world tributing Thompson — from recalling the coach confronting notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond after players of Thompson’s, Alonzo Mourning and John Turner, were spotted with him (innocuously), to this memorable quote from the 1982 tournament run that ended with Jordan’s jumper.
“I resent the hell out of that question,” Thompson said when asked his thoughts on being the first Black coach to make a Final Four (via The Washington Post). “It implies that I’m the first Black coach capable of making the Final Four. That’s not close to true. I’m just the first one who was given the opportunity to get here.”
By all accounts, he was stern, fatherly and incisive. Fiercely protective, wise and humble. A true force, and a man whose name can’t be left out of any telling of the history of the game of basketball.
In addition to helming Georgetown’s national championship team in 1984, Thompson won three National Coach of the Year awards, earned three Final Four berths and claimed seven Big East (now a great conference that he helped legitimize) tournament titles. He fostered the growth of Hall-of-Famers from Ewing to Dikembe Mutombo to Allen Iverson to Mourning, and was enshrined into the Hall himself in 1999. He was the first African-American head coach to win a Division I championship. He coached 27 seasons to the tune of a .714 winning percentage.
Now, may he rest in peace.