U.S. college basketball Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, the Washington, DC native who transformed Georgetown University into a national basketball power and was the first Black coach to lead a team to the national championship, has died at the age of 78.
Thompson’s death was announced in a statement released by his family through Georgetown University. It said, “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. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.” No cause of death was provided.
Thompson, who used basketball to lift himself out of humble beginnings, was a life-long advocate for the underprivileged. An imposing figure at two meters, eight centimeters tall, he did not hesitate to speak his mind or stand up for what he believed in.
Born in Washington in 1941, Thompson was a star at Archbishop Carroll High School, and earned a scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island. A standout basketball player there as well, he was captain of the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 1964. After graduating with a degree in economics, Thompson played professionally in the National Basketball Association, for two years, then returned to Washington and earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at the University of the District of Columbia.
Thompson took over as coach of the 3-23 Georgetown Hoyas in 1972 and began remaking the team. Over the next 27 years, he led Georgetown to 14 straight NCAA tournaments (1979-92) and 24 consecutive postseason tournament appearances that included four appearances among the “Final Four” teams vying for the championship (1982, 1984, 1985). Georgetown won the NCAA title in 1984.
Thompson was as controversial as he was successful at Georgetown. He was a Black coach who recruited mostly Black players to a predominantly white Jesuit university in Washington. But he saw basketball as a means to an end, to provide an opportunity to young men who might not otherwise get one. Georgetown came around to his way of thinking, boasting that 76 of 78 players who played four seasons under Thompson received their degrees.
In 1989, he famously walked off the court before a home game between Georgetown and Boston College to protest the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) Proposition 42, which denied athletic scholarships to freshmen who didn’t meet certain requirements. Thompson said it was biased against underprivileged students. Because he spoke out, others soon followed, and the rule was modified.
Thompson retired abruptly in 1999, and later worked for many years as a sports talk radio host. His son, John Thompson, III, later coached at Georgetown as well. Additionally, another son, Ronny Thompson, was a college coach briefly.