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John Thompson Never Backed Down From Anyone

The legendary basketball coach died Monday at age 78. He leaves behind a towering legacy: at Georgetown, in college basketball, and throughout American culture at large.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No single anecdote is enough to sum up the greatness of legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who died on Monday at the age of 78, but this one comes close.

During his team’s 1984 NCAA tournament run, the media painted the Hoyas’ breakout star, 6-foot-9 freshman Michael Graham, as a villain. In the West regional final, Georgetown beat Dayton. After a second-half dunk, Graham turned up the floor and ran into the Flyers’ Sedric Toney. But instead of avoiding him, Graham extended his arms, sending the guard flying backward. Reaction to the play, which resulted in Graham being called for a foul and nothing more, was extreme.

“Here’s where Georgetown gets accused by many of being a bunch of thugs,” color commentator Billy Packer said on the broadcast, a remark that, at best, was latently racist. Then CBS Sports anchor Brent Musburger weighed in. “I love the way Georgetown plays basketball,” Musburger said from the studio. “Pat Ewing emulates Bill Russell. Jumps out on people. Intimidates in the middle. But there is no place for the kind of basketball that we have seen Michael Graham play against Syracuse, SMU, and today against Dayton. He should be tossed out of a basketball game and settle down. He’s too good of a talent to get away with conduct like that.”

At that point, Thompson decided to turn a middle-aged white guy’s unfair critique of one of his players into a motivational exercise. He began calling Musburger “Musburg.” He also publicly supported Graham, prophetically telling The New York Times that “Michael will be even more important in the Final Four.”

And Graham was important on that stage. In a victory over Kentucky in the national semifinals, Graham finished with eight points and six rebounds. (After that game, Thompson refused to be interviewed by Musburger.) In the final, Graham was even better, racking up 14 points and five rebounds to lead the Hoyas to a win over Houston.

It was the perfect I-told-you-so moment for Thompson, a man fiercely protective of his players, most of whom were Black. He was, Graham once explained to me, “that father figure—somebody you don’t mind running into a wall for.” Utterly unbowed, the coach refused to be defined or patronized by anyone, least of all the college basketball establishment.

Thompson’s coaching résumé—one national title, three Final Four appearances, three Big East Coach of the Year awards, 20 NCAA tourney berths, and a 596-239 record in 27 seasons at Georgetown—is impeccable. But his influence on basketball and American culture goes far beyond his on-court accomplishments.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., John Robert Thompson Jr. attended Archbishop Carroll High School, where the 6-foot-10 center became a local hoop star. He played college ball at Providence before joining the Celtics, who used him sparingly in two NBA seasons. During that time, Thompson soaked in all that he could from his legendary head coach.

“I’ve never been around a man who managed men in my life any better than Red Auerbach,” Thompson said when Auerbach died in 2006. “Particularly, the egos he had to deal with, the cross cultures he had to deal with, and all the variations in the kinds of people that I saw him be associated with.”

After his playing days ended, Thompson coached seven years at St. Anthony High School in D.C., where he compiled a 122-28 record before Georgetown hired him in 1972. At the time, it was not a prized job. In the season before he took over, the Hoyas had gone 3-23. By 1975, however, Thompson had the Hoyas in the NCAA tournament. And by 1979, the first year of the Big East—a conference he would help grow into a cash cow—he’d built them into a perennially competitive squad.

On February 12, 1980, Thompson helped spark what became one of college basketball’s best rivalries. That night, Georgetown defeated no. 2 Syracuse at the last game ever played at the Orange’s Manley Field House. “Manley Field House,” Thompson famously said afterward, “is officially closed.” That year, Georgetown advanced to the NCAA tourney’s East regional final.

With Thompson at the helm, the Hoyas emerged as a national powerhouse. The arrival of 7-foot center Patrick Ewing, a Jamaican immigrant from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on campus in 1981 further raised the program’s profile. As a freshman, Ewing led the Hoyas to the national championship game, where they lost to Michael Jordan and North Carolina. Over four seasons at Georgetown, Ewing was a three-time first-team All-American; as a senior, he was voted AP National Player of the Year.

The Thompson-Ewing relationship was nothing short of iconic. In November 1984, seven months after the Hoyas had won the NCAA title, they appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated—alongside President Ronald Reagan. The photograph of the most powerful man on earth standing next to the most powerful men in college basketball was striking. To that point, there had never been a more prominent partnership between a Black coach and Black superstar. The fact that a mostly white school located in D.C.’s toniest neighborhood had both radically altered its national image.

“When I would talk to people outside the D.C. area, sometimes even people in the D.C. area, they would say, ‘Well, where is the school?’” longtime Georgetown assistant coach Craig Esherick once told me. “‘Well, it’s in Washington, D.C.’ I got from a lot of people, ‘Is it an all-Black school?’”

For Black basketball fans, the success of Thompson and Ewing was a revelation. “Not only was this a team full of Black players who would definitely take it to you, you had a big-ass Black man as a coach who wasn’t taking no shit. That was big,” Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who was in his 20s when the Hoyas were dominant, told me in 2013. Ed Pinckney, who played on the Villanova squad that upset the Hoyas in the 1985 national title game, once told me that growing up in the Bronx, no item was more coveted than a Georgetown Starter jacket.

Long before the rise of UNLV and Michigan’s Fab Five, Georgetown was by far the coolest team—in any sport—in the entire world. By the early ’80s, Hoyas gear was flying off the shelves. “The Georgetown jackets were almost officially our gear,” Chuck D told me in the same interview. “As a matter of fact, I used to make up imaginary hip-hop groups. And there was a group called ‘Georgetown Gangsters.’ And they were a bunch of cats that wore Georgetown jackets. That group never came to be.”

As interest in the Hoyas increased, Thompson closed ranks. Unsurprisingly, the press scoffed at the coach’s caginess and tight control over access to his program. The term “Hoya Paranoia” became ubiquitous for a reason. Yet Thompson never relented, limiting interviews with players. He preferred being the team’s lightning rod. It was his way of protecting his guys, who reporters often incorrectly portrayed as unthoughtful.

“They had never seen a team like this, that played that aggressive and that intimidating on the court,” Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, who starred at Georgetown from 1978 to 1982, told me. “I mean, I think it was just new to a lot of the media to meet someone like Coach Thompson, who was brash, who spoke his mind, who did things his own way.”

Public perception be damned, Thompson stuck with his approach. In February 1983, after Villanova fans at the Palestra in Philadelphia held up racist banners that read “Ewing Is an Ape” and “Ewing Kant Read Dis,” the coach pulled his team off the court until the signs were removed.

“Sooner or later these kinds of things will cause a riot,” Thompson said at the time. “Sooner or later, I’m going to tell my players to go up and get the sign and then see what happens.” And, he added, “First of all, you cannot be responsible for every idiot who jumps up in the stands and wants to do it. But I have no tolerance for administrators who don’t do anything about it.”

Five years later, when CBS’s NFL handicapper Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder infamously said that Black people were superior athletes because they’re “bred to be that way,” Thompson asked his players what they thought about it. Mark Tillmon, a Hoyas guard at the time, claimed not to have an opinion on the matter. That set Thompson off.

“Why don’t you have an opinion about something? Just because you have an opinion doesn’t make you wrong, and it probably doesn’t make you right. But have an opinion,” Tillmon once recalled the coach saying. “Don’t ever let somebody ask you something and you don’t have an opinion.”

“That,” Tillmon added, “never left me.”

And in 1989, the same year he reportedly met with D.C. drug dealer Rayful Edmond III in an attempt to stop him from associating with his players, Thompson sat out two games to protest the NCAA’s passage of Proposition 42, a rule that ended financial aid to recruits who didn’t meet stringent academic standards. The coach viewed the legislation as both racially biased and classist. “It’s not solely a black-and-white issue,” he told SI. “I’m making a statement for low-income athletes.”

Thompson formed deep connections with many of his players. Even though he kicked Graham off the team after one season at Georgetown, the two remained close over the years. And in his Hall of Fame speech, former Hoyas star Allen Iverson credited Thompson with saving his life.

Throughout a career in which he coached four NBA Hall of Famers—Ewing, Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning—Thompson remained unapologetically committed to his ideals. When critics idiotically called him a racist for recruiting mostly Black players, he refused to apologize. “I’m not going to get down on my knees and say, ‘I’m not racist,’” he said in 1990. “That’s the most idiotic and degrading thing I could do.”

After retiring from Georgetown in 1999, Thompson began sharing his opinions on basketball and beyond as a broadcaster. He also hosted a local radio show on D.C.’s ESPN affiliate. All the while, he remained a towering presence at Georgetown, where his son John Thompson III coached from 2004 to 2017. Until recently, “Big John” attended Hoyas home games at Capital One Arena, where he’d sit courtside, in a special seat brought out for him, and root for the program that he helped build.

To John Thompson, on-court victories were not achieved in a vacuum. Even after his greatest triumph, he kept this in mind. In April 1984, when a reporter asked him how it felt to become the first Black coach to win an NCAA tournament championship, he took issue with the question. “I’m not interested in being the first or only Black doing anything,” he said. “Because it implies that in 1984, a Black man finally became intelligent enough to win the NCAA title, and that’s a very misleading thing.” It was quintessential Thompson: smart, irreverent, and never willing to suffer fools.