“Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” the words of the legendary basketball coach, John Thompson II are etched in the lobby of Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena, where his legacy as the first Black coach to lead a team to the NCAA men’s basketball championship will forever be cemented in history.
In a family statement released by Georgetown on Monday, it was announced that Thompson died at 78-years-old. While the statement didn’t sight the circumstances of his death, according to a CNN report, he passed away in his home in Arlington, Va. after experiencing multiple health challenges.
“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,” read the statement. “He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else. However, 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 was hired by the Georgetown Hoyas in 1972 and over the course of his 27-year tenure as the head coach of the program, he compiled a 596-239 record, led the team to 20 NCAA appearances, was instrumental in the formation of the Big East Conference, where he led the team to six Big East tournament titles, and a national championship. Just a season before he signed on, the program held a record of 3-23.
Under his tutelage, the college basketball program grew to national prominence as Thompson helped to shape the careers of many prominent N.B.A. stars that include Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Allen Iverson and Alonzo Mourning.
Following the announcement of Thompson’s death, Mutombo wrote on Instagram, “He was my mentor, great teacher, hero and a father figure to so many us who got the chance to play for him,” adding, “Under coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball, but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society.”
At 6-foot-10 and nearly 300 pounds, Thompson was a presence with an echoing bass voice that resounded as he paced up and down the sideline with his signature white towel draped over his shoulder. Thompson was steadfast in developing intimidating centers like Ewing and employed a relentless approach to defense.
In 1981, during Ewing’s freshman year, Thompson coached his first Georgetown team to the NCAA Final Four, where the Hoyas lost 63-62 in the championship game against Michael Jordan’s North Carolina team that included James Worthy.
Ewing was named the national college player of the year after Georgetown topped Houston in the 1984 NCAA title game coached by Thompson and went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1985 NBA draft.
The success Thompson experienced on the court was built on the foundation of championing disadvantaged Black youth with basketball talent and empowering them to gain a college education through athletic scholarship.
As a condition of his employment, Thompson negotiated terms for him to advocate for the recruitment of high school students who might otherwise be overlooked based on their academic standings. Under his tenure, of the 77 players who remained with the Georgetown basketball program for four years, 75 received their degrees not withstanding Georgetown’s demanding academic standards.
Among the multiple accomplishments Thompson earned, he was also selected as the U.S. Olympic team coach in 1988, where the team earned a bronze medal.
Thompson showed a level of passion and commitment to his players that at times forced him to put action behind his words. In 1989, when the NCAA adopted Proposition 42 which stated that it would deny financial aid to recruits who failed to meet minimum scores on standardized college-admission tests, Thompson walked off the court to a standing ovation before the tipoff home game against Boston College to express his displeasure and disagreement with the proposition, which he believed hindered the ability of minority student-athletes access to college education.
In another move, Thompson allowed Allen Iverson the opportunity to play college basketball at Georgetown despite the fact that he spent four months in jail during this senior year in high school.In 1996, Iverson became the first Georgetown player under Thompson to enter the NBA draft. During Iverson’s 2016 Hall of Fame speech, he fought back tears as he thanked coach Thompson for “saving my life.”
Iverson mourned the loss of his coach, mentor and friend in an emotionally charged Instagram post on Monday that was captioned,
“Thanks For Saving My Life, Coach. I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, ‘Hey MF,’ then, we would talk about everything except basketball. May you always Rest in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud. ‘Your Prodigal Son’ #Hoya4Life”
Thompson’s history-making run as Georgetown’s head coach ended abruptly in 1999 due to what he categorized as personal reasons soon after Gwendolyn Twitty, his high school sweetheart and wife of 32 years, and he divorced. Ultimately, the baton was passed to his son, John Thompson III, who was hired as Georgetown’s head coach in 2004 and later to Patrick Ewing.
Georgetown unveiled a $62 million state-of-the-art, 144,000-square-foot, on-campus athletics facility named in honor of Thompson in 2016, called the John R. Thompson, Jr. Intercollegiate Athletics Center. There is also a bronze statue of the former coach that stands near the entrance of the center. He remained a presidential consultant for urban affairs at Georgetown and had an office in the McDonough Arena.
John Robert Thompson Jr. was born Sept. 2, 1941, in Washington, D.C. After a great high school basketball career, he graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island with a degree in economics and led the Friars to the 1963 National Invitation Tournament title and, in 1964, their first NCAA tournament appearance. Thompson set Providence school records for points, scoring average, and field goal percentage. He was then drafted by the Boston Celtics in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft — the year of his college graduation.
During his two seasons in the NBA, Thompson mainly served as a backup to star center Bill Russell in which Boston won back-to-back championships. After his short-lived NBA career, Thompson went on to earn a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the University of the District of Columbia.
Thompson’s legacy of pushing for excellence in college athletics, standing up for what he believed student-athletes required to be successful both academically and on the court and his strong belief in his players are cemented by the words spoken by all the past and present NBA and college players who took to social media to mourn his loss, to explain his impact and to speak of his greatness.
On Wednesday, Thompson would have celebrated his 79th birthday. He is survived by his three children, John Thompson III, Ronny Thompson, and Tiffany Thompson and grandchildren.