The university reflects on the many contributions of pioneer Coach John Thompson Jr., who led the Hoyas to a 1984 basketball championship victory, became the sport’s first Black coach to win a major collegiate championship and changed Georgetown forever.
He died at age 78 on Aug. 30.
Well-known as a sports icon, advocate for social justice and his tireless support of players, the coach, affectionately known as “Big John,” encouraged his teams to value both the sport and academics – achieving an impressive 97% graduation rate.
Hired in 1972 as the university’s first Black head basketball coach, he began with a team that had won only a handful of games the year before and went on to win nearly 600 for Georgetown until he stepped down in 1999 – the same year he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Hoyas advanced to the NCAA Championship game three times – in 1982, 1984 and 1985 – during Thompson’s tenure. His teams earned 24-consecutive postseason berths and won seven Big East tournament championships.
“He has done so much to impact my life and the people he has coached and mentored along the way. He was a great coach but an even better person, and his legacy is everlasting.”
Patrick Ewing (C’85), Georgetown Head Coach for Men’s Baskeball
Thompson remained a part of the university community as coach emeritus, continuing to mentor and support Hoya athletes.
He coached Dikembe Mutombo (C’91), Patrick Ewing (C’85), Alonzo Mourning (C’92) and Allen Iverson – all of whom later joined Thompson as a Naismith Hall of Famer. Georgetown is one of only three schools to have seven people hold the distinction.
“Georgetown University, the sport of basketball and the world has lost someone who I consider to be a father figure, confidant and role model,” said Ewing, current head coach of men’s basketball at Georgetown. “He has done so much to impact my life and the people he has coached and mentored along the way.”
Ewing recalled how Thompson’s reach went far beyond just those he knew personally.
“He changed the world and helped shape the way we see it,” the current head coach added. “He was a great coach but an even better person, and his legacy is everlasting.”
Speaking Out Against Racism
The 6-foot-10-inch coach, remembered for towering courtside with his trademark towel over his shoulder, often fought racism directed at him and his players. He was one of the first Black coaches to head a major collegiate basketball program. Even today, the number of Black coaches makes up less than 20% of the 75 programs in college basketball’s six major conferences.
When the NCAA’s Proposition 42 eliminated educational funds for low-income students, Thompson spoke out and took action, bringing the issue to national attention. The basketball legend walked off the court in 1989 before a game against Boston College in protest. The proposition was subsequently dropped.
Georgetown hired John Thompson Jr. in 1972 as the university’s first Black head basketball coach. He began with a team that had won only a handful of games before he lead them to numerous Big East conference victories and a 1984 NCAA Championship.
Coach John Thompson Jr. cuts the net from a basketball goal after a championship victory.
The basketball legend taught his players to value both the sport and academics, achieving an impressive 97% graduation rate during his tenure.
He coached future basketball Hall of Fame members, such as Alonzo Mourning (C’92), left.
“While he broke barriers on the court, his legacy is the mark he made on our society as he fought each and every day for the rights of all people regardless of their race or where they came from,” said Lee Reed, Georgetown director of athletics. “He was a coach, mentor, activist and friend and his death leaves a gaping hole within the basketball community and, in fact, our nation.”
Ushering in a new era of college basketball, Thompson’s Hoyas were one of the original teams of the newly formed Big East Conference in 1979.
During his tenure, Georgetown not only captured seven Big East Tournament titles but also saw a Hoya named Big East Player of the Year six times. The conference named him Coach of the Year on three occasions.
“Few individuals have been as closely aligned with the Big East Conference as John Thompson, Jr.,” read a statement from the conference. “As a Providence College star, the basketball patriarch at Georgetown University and one of the conference’s ‘founding fathers’ in 1979, John can be directly credited with establishing the Big East’s national profile and propelling us to college basketball’s top tier. His dedication to the game of basketball was eclipsed by his unabashed determination to challenge norms and call out social injustices.”
NBA and Olympic Success
Prior to Georgetown, Thompson had been a basketball star at Providence College in Rhode Island who went on to play two national championship seasons with the Boston Celtics.
The coaching legend’s reach also extended globally. He served as head coach of the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team that won a bronze medal in 1988. Thompson also was part of two gold-medal efforts – first in 1976 as an assistant coach and again in 1984 as a member of the selection committee for the team.
“Coach John R. Thompson Jr. had a profound impact on our university,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “Forty-eight years ago, he joined the Georgetown community and with his distinctive style, commitment to excellence, and clear sense of purpose, transformed Georgetown basketball.”
‘A Better University’
The university awarded Thompson for his lasting commitment to the Hilltop community with its two highest honors – the President’s Award and the Patrick Healy Award.
“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,” DeGioia added.
A Lasting Impact
While his success from the 1970s through the 1990s was unparalleled, his legacy reached well into the 21st century.
Georgetown dedicated the 144,000-square-foot John R. Thompson Jr. Athletics Center in October 2016 in honor of the basketball legend’s profound impact at the university, on the game of basketball and in the fight for racial justice, equity, equality and opportunity.
A bronze statue of the basketball great dominates the center’s lobby, along with several Thompson quotes, including “When I’m gone, if I can’t go to Heaven, take me back to Georgetown.”
Lara Adekunle (NHS’22), a middle blocker on the women’s volleyball team who frequently walks the halls of the Thompson Center, expressed gratitude for the trail the coach blazed not only for Georgetown basketball players, but for all student-athletes at the university.
“Coach Thompson used his platform to amplify marginalized voices and served as a role model for many,” said Adekunle, a global health major. “He expanded the space for Black culture at Georgetown and was a pioneer in improving the Black experience on the Hilltop. I hope we all can learn from his time here and continue the path towards racial and social justice.”
Life After Coaching
After coaching, Thompson had served as a coach emeritus and presidential consultant for urban affairs at Georgetown, as well as a consultant, spokesman and board member for Nike.
The basketball giant also pursued a variety of broadcasting efforts that included hosting The John Thompson Show on ESPN 980 until February 2012.
The native Washingtonian established The John Thompson Charitable Foundation in 2000 to help improve the quality of life for underserved children within the District of Columbia and other communities.
The foundation awards grants to organizations that enhance children’s lives, provide for continuing education or support rehabilitation.
Legacy of a Dream
In 2003, Georgetown created the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award to honor emerging local leaders who reinforce the university’s commitment to engagement within Washington, DC and work to solve key issues that are responsible for shaping the city and the people who live in it.
For the past 17 years, the award has been granted to civil rights icons, children’s rights advocates and other humanitarians.
“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,” DeGioia added.
Thompson is survived by two sons and a daughter – former Georgetown head basketball coach John Thompson III, Ronny Thompson and Tiffany Thompson.
“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,” the family said in a statement. “He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.”
The family shared their “father, grandfather, uncle and friend” with the world, but they saw those roles as his greatest legacy.
“More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day,” the family added. “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.”
Thompson’s former players rushed to pay tribute when they learned of his death.
“Our legendary Georgetown coach, John Thompson has passed away,” Mutombo wrote on Instagram that morning with a photo of himself and Thompson. “He was my mentor, great teacher, hero and a father figure to so many of us who got the chance to play for him. Under coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society.”
Mutombo received the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award from Georgetown in 2010 for his humanitarian work in America and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The basketball great witnessed his coach’s commitment to the DC community and decided in 2012 that his Mutombo Foundation would partner with the university to begin an initiative aimed at providing care for visually impaired children from low-income families in the DC region.
The Deflated Basketball
Thompson kept a deflated basketball in his office to help his players understand they would need, at some point, to do something else besides play ball.
“Coach Thompson taught me a great deal and broadened my horizons,” former basketball player Fred Brown (C’84) told Georgetown Magazine in 1997. “I still remember him spending whole practices just discussing things with us. It was a great classroom, and one of the most important things he taught me involved a perspective which goes beyond the immediate.”
Brown, who went on to attend Georgetown Law, is now CEO of Process H.O.P.E. (Help Overcome Poverty through Education) Inc., a nonprofit community-based organization that helps children in the Washington, DC metro region.
In 1972, Frank Rienzo, who passed away in 2018, told The Washington Post that he didn’t “expect John Thompson to work a miracle.”
Though it later appeared that he had worked a miracle, it was actually a concentrated effort to turn the team around and win hundreds of games while mentoring young men to value both their education and sports.
“It hasn’t been John Thompson standing out there alone,” the legendary coach told Georgetown Magazine in 1997. “In order for me to be me, I had to get support from a hell of a lot of people: from the custodian who agreed to spend a couple of extra hours at the gym waiting for us to finish practice, to the faculty who understood when a player had to miss a class, to the deans listening for one thing or another. From the lowest to the highest, we have had support from a lot of people.”