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Monday, August 31, 2020

John Thompson: Iconic Leader and Coach

John Thompson's career spanned several eras and included two legendary teams--one that he joined as a player, and one that he built as a coach. Thompson's death yesterday just days short of his 79th birthday is yet another sad event in a year overflowing with death and tragedy; in the basketball community alone, we lost David Stern and Kobe Bryant in January, and then Cliff Robinson and Lute Olson within the past week.

Thompson won two NBA championships in two seasons as Bill Russell's backup center with the Boston Celtics. Thompson was selected by Chicago in the 1966 expansion draft, but he retired to begin his coaching career. Six years later, he took over a moribund Georgetown basketball team that had posted a 3-23 record the previous season and had made just two postseason appearances since 1952. The Hoyas improved to 12-14 in Thompson's first season, they reached the NCAA Tournament in his third season, and they rapidly developed into a powerhouse. From 1982-85, the Hoyas made three NCAA Championship Game appearances in four seasons, winning the 1984 title. Thompson bristled at any commentary about being the first black coach to win an NCAA Division I basketball title, noting that there had been many worthy coaches before him who did not receive the opportunities that they deserved.

Thompson is revered by the players who played for him, and respected by his opponents. He was an assistant coach for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal, and in 1988 he coached the final all-collegiate team that the U.S. sent to the Olympics; that squad won a bronze medal, a disappointing result but in retrospect perhaps not as surprising as it may have seemed at the time: other countries were rapidly closing the gap with the U.S. basketball team, and it no longer made sense to send collegians to compete against seasoned professionals. 

Thompson was a central, indispensable figure in the rise of the Big East as a power conference. A good argument could be made that no basketball conference was ever as dominant in a single season as the Big East was in 1985, and Georgetown was right in the middle of that dominance, losing in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game to Villanova, a fellow Big East team.

The phrase "Hoya Paranoia" was often used to describe the attitude of Thompson's teams. "Hoya Paranoia" is partially an image intentionally created by Thompson to intimidate opponents, and partially a media invention to stigmatize the team as a group and the players as individuals. Thompson's Georgetown teams were known for playing tough, physical defense. The anchor of that defense during Georgetown's glory days was Patrick Ewing. Racist fans taunted Ewing with vile chants during Ewing's collegiate days, and they held up signs saying "Ewing is an Ape" and "Ewing Kant Read Dis." 

I interviewed Ewing and he was far from being a paranoid or intimidating or mean person. He is an intelligent and thoughtful person who was generous with his time with me, a writer who he did not know and who he could have easily brushed aside (as an NBA assistant coach, he did not have to do media availability and was not required to speak with me).

Ewing told me, "Coach Thompson is a great person and a great coach. I felt that I came to Georgetown as a boy and left there as a man. He taught me a lot of things not only on the basketball court but also in life. He played the position so he could give me a lot of insights about the center position." For the past three seasons, Ewing has served as the head coach for Georgetown after paying his dues for many years as an NBA assistant coach. One can imagine how much pride Thompson felt about Ewing's accomplishments, and how much pride Ewing must feel about following in his mentor's footsteps.

Thompson coached two other Hall of Fame centers: Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. Later, Thompson coached Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson. Iverson was sent to jail for four months as an 18 year old for his alleged role in a bowling alley altercation, but Iverson was subsequently granted clemency by the Virginia governor prior to the Appeals Court overturning Iverson's conviction based on insufficient evidence. Throughout Iverson's ordeal, Thompson stood by Iverson, so it is no surprise that after Thompson passed away Iverson sent out a heartfelt message including these words: "Thanks For Saving My Life Coach."

Many years ago, I tried to schedule an interview with Thompson, but it never worked out. I respected his basketball acumen and I would have been fascinated to speak with him not only about basketball but also his status as a leader and role model.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:23 PM



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