When news broke of the death of John Thompson Jr., the longtime Georgetown men’s basketball coach, the college basketball world eulogized a titan of a bygone, halcyon era of the sport. It remembered the iconic towel draped over his shoulder, how his Hoyas shut down Manley Field House, how — with an all-Black starting five — he became the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship. But as with every discussion of Thompson’s legacy, the hardwood is only a part of how “Big John” cast such a long shadow on his sport.
Thompson’s Hoyas, tenacious on defense, came to embody the rough and gritty Big East Conference of the 1980s, and Thompson was at the center of it all. He won 596 games and coached four Hall of Famers in Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Thompson created Georgetown basketball — and Big East basketball — as we know it.
When Big John arrived at Georgetown in 1972, after brief stints in the NBA and coaching high school basketball in Washington, D.C., the school had enjoyed little success as an independent, reaching just one NCAA tournament. It was one of the last Catholic schools in the country not to recruit Black athletes. But Thompson changed all that. His teams were unapologetically Black, and they made their mark on the national scene — bringing the new Big East with them.
After the Big East was formed in 1979, Georgetown made three national title games in six seasons. They prevailed against Houston’s Phi Slama Jama in 1984 and were within 5 points of winning all three, if it weren’t for historic shooting from eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985 and a shot from some guy named Michael Jordan in 1982. The Big East also flourished in those years and throughout the 1980s; three teams, including Villanova, made the Final Four in 1985, and three more (Syracuse and Providence in 1987 and Seton Hall in 1989) would make it the rest of the decade. The Big East’s meteoric rise and subsequent expansion was thanks in no small part to Thompson’s Georgetown teams putting it on the map.
The Georgetown clubs of the 1980s were fiery and intimidating, known primarily for three big men: Ewing (1981-85), Mourning (1988-92) and Mutombo (1988-91). The Ewing-Thompson combo went a combined 121-23 in four years; the broader world took notice, as Georgetown’s applications increased by 45 percent from 1983 to 1986. Mourning and Mutombo comprised a fearsome defensive duo; they blocked so many shots that fans created a “rejection row” for all the opposing attempts they sent into the stands.
Georgetown’s time on the national stage wouldn’t last forever. After a loss to up-and-coming Duke in the 1989 Elite Eight, the Hoyas would reach the Sweet Sixteen only twice more under Thompson.
No matter. Thompson’s biggest legacy was off the court, both in his creation of a college basketball brand that was explicitly Black and in his drive for social change.
Culturally, Georgetown basketball was embraced by Black Americans. Whether it was the racial composition of Thompson’s teams — they were almost all Black — the Georgetown starter jackets, or the Kente cloth that the Iverson-led Hoyas of the ’90s donned, Georgetown basketball embodied a brand that Black Americans felt they owned, just as white Americans disapproved of it. And in a majority-Black city with a Black mayor, the Thompson-led Hoyas, as The Undefeated’s Chris Palmer put it, “appealed greatly to local Black fans, particularly young Black men who felt labeled, disrespected and disregarded.” That appeal to “disregarded” Black men extended to Iverson himself; Thompson was one of the few coaches to offer the future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick a scholarship after he served a jail sentence.
“He created that environment, and that worked for us,” former guard Gene Smith said about Thompson in a recent interview with The Georgetown Voice. “But also for Black America, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re not taking any shit. We’re not apologizing.’”
The success Thompson had at Georgetown almost certainly prompted more schools to hire Black coaches. During the 1978-79 season, there were just seven Black head coaches, including Thompson, coaching at the Division I level outside of historically Black colleges or universities. But by 1991, after Georgetown achieved its powerhouse status, that number had jumped to 34. It’s also telling that, among the 10 winningest Black coaches in Division I men’s basketball history, Thompson (who still ranks second behind only Tubby Smith) started coaching at that level first. Of the other members of the top 10, eight started their careers at least a decade after Thompson had begun building influence at Georgetown:
In the coach’s mind, that progress was long overdue. When he made it to his first Final Four back in 1982, a reporter asked Thompson if he felt pride in being the first Black coach to reach that stage in the tournament.
“I resent the hell out of that question,” he said. “It implies that I’m the first Black man to be accomplished enough and intelligent enough to do this. It’s an insult to my race. There have been plenty of others who could’ve gotten here if they’d been given the opportunity they deserved.”
Thompson took a tremendous interest in his players’ lives outside of basketball and wasn’t afraid to speak out against injustices they faced. He sat out multiple games to protest the NCAA’s decision to apply Prop 48, a controversial measure that denied eligibility to athletes who didn’t meet certain academic requirements, to freshmen — and that he believed unfairly targeted Black athletes. When a local drug kingpin got too close to his players, Thompson warned him to stay away. When his players faced racist abuse on the road, Thompson forcefully defended them and castigated opposing fans and administrators. Ultimately, 97 percent of his four-year players graduated from Georgetown.
Even years after his retirement, Thompson maintained a towering presence at the university he helped put on the map. He remained close to the program as his son, John Thompson III, coached the Hoyas from 2004 to 2017, and he was a fixture at Georgetown home games — and postgame press conferences. (Now Ewing, Thompson’s prized pupil, leads the program.)
And just as he never minced words on social justice and responsibility in his coaching years, he didn’t in retirement, either. In 2014, following a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold, killing him, Georgetown players donned shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe,” Garner’s final words. After the game, the elder Thompson intercepted a reporter’s question about the shirts directed at his son.
“It’s a fucking school, man,” he said. “That’s your responsibility, to deal with things like that.”
In the current moment surrounding sports and social justice, Thompson’s message of responsibility rings especially clear.
Neil Paine contributed research.