John Thompson Jr. stands on stage with a tribute to him projected in the background.
Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Pays Tribute to the Late, Great Head Basketball Coach John Thompson Jr.

Date Published: August 31, 2020
John Thompson Jr. sits and talk.

“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
John Thompson Jr. and Patrick Ewing embrace in celebration on the court after a game.
Legendary Georgetown basketball Coach John Thompson Jr., left, not only served as a leader for his players on the court – he was a father figure to many, including current head men’s basketball coach Patrick Ewing (C’85), shown in this 1984 photo.

Thompson remained a part of the university community as coach emeritus, continuing to mentor and support Hoya athletes.

‘Father Figure’

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.

“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.”

‘Founding Father’

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.”

An aerial view of John Thompson Jr. walking across the basketball court.
“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,” read a statement from the Big East Conference.

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.”

John Thompson Jr. sits with John J. DeGioia as they share a laugh.
“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,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.

‘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.

John R. Thompson Jr. Athletic Center banner.

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.

Coach John Thompson Jr.
Coach John Thompson Jr., left, and Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, far right, listen to 2015 Legacy of a Dream Awardee George Jones talk about the work Bread for the City does for DC residents.

Serving DC

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.

Ten of John Thompson's family members sit next to him outside of the building named after him.
“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 every day,” Thompson’s family said in a statement.

‘Historic Shepherd’

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.”

John Thompson embraces Dikembe Mutombo as Barack Obama looks on and applauds the two men.
John Thompson Jr. congratulates NBA great Dikembe Mutombo (C’91) as he receives the 2010 John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award as President Barack Obama applauds both men.

‘My Mentor’

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.

“Don’t let the sum total of your existence be 8-10 pounds of air,” was one of John Thompson Jr. ‘s more famous quotes.

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.

Fostering Support

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.”