By LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE
Hall of Fame Coach John Robert Thompson Jr., known as “Big John,” was the first Black coach to win major collegiate championship in basketball. In 1984, he led the Georgetown Hoyas to win the NCAA-Division 1 national championship, in a victory over the Houston Cougars. In 1985, he was named Coach of the Year for the first time after turning his team into a powerhouse.
In March 1982, he led the team to the Final Four. Though the team lost to North Carolina, 63-62. However, six of his players became NBA first-round draft picks: Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Patrick Ewing, Anthony Jones, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worty.
Before becoming a highly successful and respected NBA coach, he began honing his skills on the home courts of Washington, D.C. In high school, he led his basketball team to 55 consecutive wins and two local tournament championships. He went on to attend Providence College, where he earned the title “New England Player of the Year” and “Most Outstanding Senior.” Afterward, he played in the NBA for the Boston Celtics, playing in two world championships.
He began coaching basketball at Georgetown University March 13, 1972 and continued through 1999 – earning Coach of the Year six more times. Thompson led his team to three more Final Four games in 1982, 1984, 1985 and 20 NCAA tournaments.
In 1976, he was the assistant coach of the men’s basketball for the USA during the Olympics in Montreal. The team won the gold metal. In 1984, he was part of the selection committee to build the men’s Olympic team, which went on to win gold. In 1988, he was the head coach of the men’s team during the Olympics in Seoul. That team won the bronze metal.
Thompson was said to be a coach who set the bar high for his players on and off the basketball court. He coached legends such as Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo. He became a mentor to many long after they left Georgetown and competitive basketball.
He preferred players that had a passion for the game on the court.
“You can calm down a fool before you can resurrect a corpse,” he once stated.
He emphasized the power of habit, attitude and state of mind with his players.
“If you think you are beaten you are. If you think you dare not, you won’t,” he would quote.
His dedication to coaching and mentoring players caught national attention.
“Big John Thompson is the single most important African American man in the history of D.C. sports,” writer Clinton Yeats said.
Thompson resigned his position during the 1998-99 season. In 1999, Thompson was selected to be in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 27 seasons, he compiled a coaching record of 596-239. Most importantly to Thompson, 97% of his players stayed all four years and left Georgetown University with a college degree.
Thompson died in his home in Arlington, Virginia, Aug. 30 – three days before his 79th birthday. He is survived by his three children; John Thompson III, who also coached basketball at Georgetown, Ronny Thompson and Tiffany Thompson. The hall of fame coach’s autobiography is due out in January 2021.
On Aug. 31, Georgetown shared a statement on behalf of the Thomas Family.
“We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson Jr.,” the statement read. “Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly off the basketball court. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.
“However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear everyday. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘Big Ace is cool.'”
Several athletes shared emotional farewells to honor Thompson through social media.
“Thanks for Saving My Life Coach,” Iverson wrote on his page.
Iverson once stated, with a shaky voice as he held back tears, that Thompson was the only coach that would give him a chance to play after an incident that occurred during his youth.
“I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile,” he continued. “I would give anything just for one more phone call from you to hear you say, Hey, MF,” then we would talk about everything basketball. May you Rest in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud. ‘Your Prodigal Son.’”
Sources: Georgetown Hall of Fame biography