Washington

Black History Month: John Thompson II's legacy lives on after his passing

Washington

One's connections within a city's culture can't be fabricated or given. It comes from a lifelong knowledge and being molded by the culture and growing up within it. 

That is partly what drives Washington D.C.'s affinity toward the late John Thompson Jr. Not only did he have a monumental impact on the collegiate game, making gargantuan strides for Black athletes in basketball, but he was a true Washingtonian, through and through.

Born and raised within the District, Thompson's impact and landmark actions reflected the city he grew up in. After taking the Georgetown head coaching position -- for a school he wouldn't have been able to play at in the 1960s -- it did not take long for him to become the head coach of D.C. 

Of course, the rapid ascension and reverie did not occur overnight. 

Within the first couple of seasons at the helm of the Hoyas, a bedsheet with a derogatory term was displayed in the middle of a game. Referencing Thompson, it said he had to go after becoming the first Black head coach in the school's history. 

"It wasn't all peaches and cream, it was a process," son John Thompson III said of his father to NBC Sports Washington. 

By the mid-1980s, Georgetown was at the pinnacle of the sport and the 1984 NCAA Tournament changed everything. Thompson made history by becoming the first Black basketball coach to lead a team to an NCAA championship.

 

"I remember the day he was leaving the house to go to the first round (of the NCAA Tournament),' John Thompson III said. "The bracket had come out that day or two days before in the post. He comes downstairs and he slaps the piece of paper on the table and nothing's filled out except the champion. He had Georgetown written in and he said, 'that's going to happen' and walked out the door."

Powered by Patrick Ewing, Thompson and his Hoyas delivered. It was a historic day for the sport and opened the door for hundreds of Black coaches that would soon follow.

The lists of his accomplishments on the hardwood speak for themselves. He guided the program into the Big East conference. He turned a three-win team that was an afterthought in the national landscape of the sport into an NCAA Tournament team (when the tournament field only had 32 teams) within three seasons.

Yes, he has the 1984 national championship and reached the Elite Eight six times. He vaulted the program into a consistent contender that rivaled that of the blue bloods. He coached a program that had a 97% graduation rate over the span of two-and-a-half decades, having 26 players enter the NBA Draft. 

But for everything he did on the court, off-the-court is where his biggest impact is felt. His relentless fight for the betterment of Black athletes was a first for someone of his stature in the sport. 

"Most of what he will be remembered for won't be that '84 championship," Thompson III said. "It will be the fact that he was willing to take a stand."

The Hall-of-Fame coach not only taught his players on the court, he also mentored them off of it and strove to give them more opportunities that would benefit them throughout their lives.

His then-progressive stances and determined fight to take a stand rival the legacy he had just coaching the Hoyas.

There's the legendary tale of him confronting a D.C. drug lord, to have him stay away from Georgetown players. There's him walking off the floor before a game against Boston College in 1989 in opposition to Proposition 42, which many Black coaches believed had racist outcomes. 

"We understood who he was, but it wasn't until a little later that we understood the magnitude of what he was standing for and how potentially volatile it could have been," his son Ron Thompson said. 

Thompson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1999. For many, his accolades and influence are too long to list. But by the time the final whistle had blown in his career, he was the one who had further molded D.C.'s culture and is best-remembered for the men his players became after their time at Georgetown.