Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 3, 2020

Big John Didn’t Open The Door, He Battered It Down

Because he accomplished so much, because in the end Big John Thompson became a larger-than-life figure in college basketball, fans tend to forget just how improbable and how difficult his achievements were. When he was hired to lead the basketball program at Georgetown in 1972, Father Robert Henle, president of the Jesuit university that sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River and the Washington DC neighborhood that bears its name, expressed the hope that Thompson, who died Sunday at the age of 78, might eventually take the Hoyas to the National Invitational Tournament.

By any reasonable measure Henle was setting an ambitious goal. GU’s basketball “program” barely deserved the name. The recently ended season had featured a total of just three wins, and the team had been to the NIT exactly twice in the previous two decades, losing in the first round both times. As for the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas’ only appearance in the Big Dance had come in the middle of World War II. But as Thompson, then the successful head coach at local St. Anthony High School, told the story many times in later years, while he already had bigger plans, he was smart enough not to overpromise, and so simply replied “yes, sir, I’ll try,” to Henle’s vision.

Yet Thompson’s task was about so much more than just changing the mindset of an unsuccessful small-time college basketball program. It was also about taking Georgetown to the heights of college basketball’s aristocracy with a coach who was Black. When Thompson was hired the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s were less than a decade old. It had been only four years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, momentarily placing sports at the center of the long struggle for equality. One of many reasons that protest shook America was because athletes rarely ventured into social or political issues. Thompson did so less dramatically but with every bit as firm resolve at the two Olympic medalists.

He immediately began recruiting Black players, focusing on the many outstanding high school teams in the DC area. Soon the Georgetown starting lineup was exclusively African American, to the dismay of some local fans. On at least one occasion a banner denouncing Thompson with an all too familiar slur appeared in the upper reaches of Georgetown’s gym. But Thompson used the most effective method of all to silence his critics and calm the doubters – winning.

By his third season the Hoyas had a winning record and something even more remarkable – an invitation to the NCAA tournament. When Thompson retired in 1999, his teams had made twenty March Madness appearances. As one of its seven founding members, Georgetown had also been a key factor in the rise of the Big East Conference. Unlike most college conferences that are centered on football, then as now the Big East revolved around the hardcourt, and GU’s rivalries with St. John’s, Villanova, and especially with Syracuse became appointment television for basketball fans, helping to build a fledgling sports network known as ESPN.

With the familiar white towel draped over one shoulder, Thompson was an imposing figure on the sideline. His teams played hard, aggressive defense, an in-your-face style not unlike that of the coach. When he learned that Rayful Edmund, a local drug lord, had befriended some of Georgetown’s players, Thompson had the thug come to his office, where he delivered a profanity-laced ultimatum that Edmund was to have no further contact with anyone on Georgetown’s roster. To oppose the NCAA’s Proposition 48, which limited the playing time for scholarship athletes based on standardized test scores, a criteria that Thompson believed discriminated against African American students, he boycotted a game against Boston College.

He also ignored vocal criticism by recruiting Allen Iverson even after the high schooler had been convicted of a felony in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia (a conviction that was later overturned). Iverson of course is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, as are Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, among the 26 athletes who played for Thompson and went on to the NBA. “I want to thank Coach Thompson for saving my life, Iverson said through tears on the day of his induction. But Thompson wasn’t just about stars, with 97% of his four-year players earning their Georgetown degree.

If Thompson’s career is the embodiment of the old Sinatra song “My Way,” that’s in part because it had to be, for there were no obvious mentors among the ranks of college coaches when Big John promised Father Henle he’d try. Thompson’s 596 wins still rank second on the list of NCAA Division I career victories by Black coaches. But everyone else in the top ten of that ranking began coaching at college basketball’s top level after Thompson. When the Hoyas first made it to the Final Four, two years before reaching the pinnacle of a national championship, he was asked how it felt to be the first Black coach to take a squad to the last weekend of college basketball’s season. “I resent the hell out of that question if it implies I am the first Black coach competent enough to take a team to the Final Four,” Thompson said. “Other Blacks have been denied the right in this country; coaches who have the ability. I don’t take any pride in being the first Black coach in the Final Four. I find the question extremely offensive.”

As it was that night with Thompson, attention is always paid to the first to achieve an elusive goal. But a true pathfinder knows that a far more important legacy lies in not being the last. John Thompson Jr. grasped this from the beginning, understanding that the higher purpose of paving the way is so that others can follow.


  1. Great piece! I was a big fan of his during his playing days at PC.Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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