Exit John Thompson, Jr.

2 Sep

In sports, we often use words like ‘iconic’ or ‘monumental’ to describe people whose job it is to direct the athletic feats of others. We claim they have influences over society beyond their courts or fields or rinks, which can be a reach. But there are rare figures who earn every one of those accolades, and who use their tenures to do a lot more than pile up a few victories. Former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., who passed away this past week, was one of them.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thompson was an exceptional coach who built a prestigious, small Jesuit school into one of the nation’s greatest basketball powers. He made three Final Fours and won one, in 1984, before winding up in the Hall of Fame. He made the Hoyas into Big Man U, coaching superstars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, plus a little Allen Iverson for good measure. His teams won, and they won with style.

Thompson was a trailblazer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship, though don’t tell him that: he scoffed at the notion that he deserved any special recognition for achieving something that wouldn’t have been revolutionary in a just society. He was unapologetically Black and recruited so many Black players that the casual fan could be forgiven for mistaking stodgy old Georgetown for a Historically Black College or University. (Thompson likened his recruiting efforts to that of the hockey team at his alma mater, Providence University, which exclusively recruited Canadians: why not go back to the same well if you knew that was where the talent and hunger was?) He was decades ahead of polite society on questions of racial justice and bore his share of abuse for it, once pulling his team off the court at Villanova when they were subjected to vicious chants. But whether by inertia or design, he embraced it when his program become a symbol of an aspiration, an exemplar of Black greatness on its own terms. Georgetown Starter jackets became such icons of 1980s Black Culture that the museum of African American history features one in a display case.

Thompson’s toughness was legendary. Most famously, when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond tried to get close to some of his players, he ordered the godfather of the DC crack epidemic into his office for a meeting. Edmond was responsible for dozens of murders and countless broken lives; witnesses at his 1989 trial were hurt, the jurors were kept secret and hidden behind bulletproof glass, and he was flown from prison to the courthouse in a helicopter rather than risk a jailbreak from a vehicle. The one man he couldn’t break, though, was John Thompson. No one knows exactly what he said in that conversation, but Edmond never came close to a Hoya player again.

That legendary tale is just one: Big John also brought sky-high demands for his players’ conduct, demanding excellence on and off the court. “Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” he told his players, and graduated 97% of them from one of the nation’s more rigorous institutions otherwise populated by a bunch of East Coast Catholic bluebloods. At the same time, he pushed to do away with test score standards that could limit his talent pool, which drew its share of critics; Thompson countered that he was giving talented young Black men opportunities they would otherwise never have. Iverson, who certainly was a beneficiary of the changed policy, has repeatedly, and tearfully, insisted that Big John saved his life.

By the time I set foot on the Georgetown campus, Big John was a larger-than-life figure looming over the program. His son John Thompson III, fresh off a Final Four appearance early in his tenure, was a beloved figure, and there was no doubt his dad still had considerable sway. Those warm, fuzzy feelings faded some as JTIII’s restoration soured in the early 2010s, and the installation of Thompson’s greatest protégé, Ewing, whose tenure (which I fully thought was worth the chance at the start) gets an incomplete grade at best to date. Outside of the honeymoon of the early JTIII years, the Hoyas have never come close to returning to the elder Thompson’s heights in the 20 years since his retirement. In some ways the game has moved on; no longer do teams win on the strength of unmovable big men and a plodding pace, and in an era of one-and-dones, the benefits of a Georgetown degree may be less apparent to a budding basketball star than living like a king in Lexington or Chapel Hill.

Still, I refuse to believe Georgetown’s basketball glory days are only a thing of the past. The style may change, but the swagger of the Thompson era still looms from time to time, and the formula is still there. The brashness that led a young coach, fresh off an upset of 2nd-ranked Syracuse in their final game at a venerable old arena where they’d won 57 straight games, to grab the microphone and declare “Manley Field House is officially closed” is just as powerful today. The Thompson era is officially closed now, too, but that long shadow will continue to loom over the basketball program he built, the cloistered university he taught to be cool, and the ongoing admiration of disciples who learned something about poise, about self-respect, and about what it meant to chase greatness against a backdrop that so often failed to live up to its alleged equality. John Thompson, Jr. used basketball to show us how the world can be if it unflinchingly stares down reality, and anyone who touched his legacy, no matter how tangentially, is richer for it.

So farewell, Big John, and let the quote at the top of this blog be a reminder that, even if we cannot build Heaven on earth, we can still have Georgetown. And that can mean much more than a few wins on a basketball court.

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