Coach John Robert Thompson Jr. has died at 78. Washington, DC native Thompson was the first African American coach to lead the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team to the NCAA championship. But perhaps his greatest achievement was giving young Black basketball players hope on and off the court, by giving them an opportunity accompanied with discipline, guidance, and love.
“Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence” he would tell his team, admonishing them to use basketball as a means to a better life for most of those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds like his.
Thompson grew up in the racially segregated section of Southeast District of Columbia, where he was a standout ball player for Archbishop Carroll High School. He graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island, played two years in the NBA, and earned a master’s degree in education and counseling from the University of the District of Columbia.
In 1972, Thompson was hired to be the head coach of the Georgetown program, leading them to their first national championship in 1984. During his 27-year career, he fostered the careers of NBA players including Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson. In an unprecedented move, Thompson requested as a term of his employment that he be given the right to recruit high school students who wouldn’t meet Georgetown’s rigorous admission standards. He also negotiated the hiring of Mary Fenlon, a former nun and educator, to serve as the Hoyas’ academic coordinator. Seventy-five of the 77 players at Georgetown received their degrees.
Citing personal reasons, Thompson retired in 1999.
Not one to shy away from controversy or controversial statements, Thompson told The Washington Post in 1984, “My father never learned to read, never made anywhere near the kind of money I make, but he was a success. So was my mother, I am perceived as a success by standards created by white people.”
Survivors include his three children, John Thompson III, Ronny Thompson and Tiffany Thompson; and several grandchildren.