The life and legacy of former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson Jr. was honored by a long list of players, coaches and public figures during a virtual memorial service Saturday. The first to speak was former U.S. President Barack Obama, who opened the ceremony by talking about the respect he had for the late sports legend.
“What made Coach Thompson special, what compelled us to celebrate his life today, is what he did to build young men [and] to turn them into men of character and purpose,” Obama said. “Under his tenure, raw talent arrived at Georgetown — Ewing, Mutombo, Mourning, Iverson, so many others. Coach Thompson molded that raw talent into something better by showing them not just new skills, but new possibilities for themselves and for their lives.”
Thompson Jr.’s NCAA accolades as a head coach are among the greatest ever seen in college basketball: 25 straight winning seasons, 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, seven Big East titles, three Final Fours and the 1984 national championship. “Big John” also won two NBA Finals during his short professional career with the Boston Celtics and made headlines as a radio show host after he retired from basketball.
However, Thompson Jr. is most remembered for how much he cared about preparing his players for the rest of their lives — on and off the court. He was a mentor for many of them even after they left Georgetown and wasn’t afraid to cause a scene when he felt those players’ careers or livelihoods were in jeopardy.
As Obama mentioned in his segment of the service, Thompson Jr. in 1989 met with a renowned and feared D.C. drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond, and told him to stay away from Mourning and his other players. It was not a polite request. Thompson also boycotted two games in an effort to block the NCAA from passing a rule that would prevent players with low standardized test scores from playing college basketball at all.
Thompson died on Aug. 30 at 78 years old.