John Thompson Jr., Georgetown University’s legendary former men’s basketball coach who led the Hoyas to a 1984 NCAA championship, died on August 30, 2020. Remembered vividly for his unwavering advocacy for student-athletes, commitment to civil rights, and calls for equitable educational opportunity, Thompson—affectionately known as “Big John”—touched lives on and off the court.
Over the course of his Georgetown career, Thompson coached several Hoyas-turned-NBA stars, including Dikembe Mutombo; Allen Iverson; Alonzo Mourning; and Patrick Ewing, Georgetown’s current head men’s basketball coach.
“He has done so much to impact my life and the people he has coached and mentored along the way,” Ewing said. “However, his reach went well beyond just those who he knew personally, he changed the world and helped shape the way we see it.”
Tributes have poured in since Thompson’s death, many highlighting the coach’s role in championing college access for students from underserved communities near and far. “His most profound contribution to the game was his grasp of its power to lift disadvantaged youngsters to a better life,” The Washington Post writes. “He used college basketball—and his stature in the sport—as a platform from which to demand greater opportunities for Black athletes to gain the college education they might otherwise have been denied.”
It’s bigger than ball
Prior to arriving at Georgetown in 1972 as the university’s first Black head basketball coach, Thompson was revered for his standout athletic career at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington, D.C. Hailing from the starkly segregated quadrant of southeast D.C., the 6’10” basketball star went on to have a short stint in the NBA after graduating from college, eventually returning to the District to pursue his master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Thompson’s experiences in professional sports and education would lend themselves to his push for players to see themselves as more than athletes.
“Coach Thompson taught me a great deal and broadened my horizons,” Fred Brown, CEO of the D.C.-based nonprofit organization Process H.O.P.E. (Help Overcome Poverty through Education) and one of Thompson’s former players told Georgetown Magazine in 1997.
According to the university, throughout Thompson’s coaching career, 97 percent of his players graduated from Georgetown. Thompson made clear that his players’ academic success was as consequential as their athletic achievements; a deflated basketball sat in his office as a visual reminder of advice he offered to many of his staff and players: “Don’t let the sum total of your existence be eight to ten pounds of air.”
Activism and mentorship in pursuit of social justice
Thompson also used his platform and prominence to speak out against injustice, and advocate for educational equity and access. In 1989, when the NCAA approved a plan that would bar athletic scholarships for freshmen who failed to meet certain academic standards, Thompson walked off the court just before tip-off in protest of the rule, believing it would disproportionately target Black student-athletes. Estimates indicated that Black student-athletes would account for 90 percent of those affected by the new rule.
“I am perceived as a success by standards created by white people,” Thompson told The Washington Post in 1984. “My team wins a lot of games; I make a lot of money. When I’m 80 and look back, is that going to make me think of myself as a success? I don’t think so. But if I change some things, even slightly — if I stand up on this platform I’ve been given and say, ‘No, this is wrong,’ then maybe I will feel good about myself. I may not change anything, and I know I’m going to upset some people. But I can live with that.”
A lasting legacy
Beyond the court, Thompson is credited for bringing Georgetown into the hearts and dreams of many Black youth from low-income, underrepresented communities. He also made a conscious effort to give back to the community in which he grew up. In 2000, he created The John Thompson Charitable Foundation, which works to improve the lives of children from disenfranchised communities throughout the D.C. metro area.
“Coach Thompson should get more credit than he gets for having created diversity at Georgetown, connecting Georgetown to this city, and making it clear that Georgetown is not some elite institution sitting off there on the top of a hill,” Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner and Georgetown alumnus, told The Washington Post.
One of those inspired youth was Allen Iverson, who played under Thompson and later became an NBA star. “Thanks for saving my life, Coach,” Iverson tweeted in tribute to Thompson, adding that he would miss conversations with his late mentor about “everything except basketball.”
Other former players like Mutombo also expressed heartfelt condolences on the loss of their beloved mentor. “He was my mentor, great teacher, hero and a father figure to so many [of] us who got the chance to play for him,” Mutombo wrote on Instagram. “Under Coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society.”
“We are a better university because of John’s leadership—he challenged us to live up to our values and enabled all of us to see new possibilities, for ourselves, and for the impact we could have on the world,” said Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia. “John will be remembered for many things—his historic achievements, the lives he shaped, his advocacy for social and racial justice—but perhaps most of all, for the authenticity through which he lived his life.”