Back in the day, when a 6-foot-10, Papa Bear of a coach patrolled the court, his white terry-cloth towel slung over his shoulder just so, Georgetown University was not known as the country’s oldest Catholic institution of higher education. No, Coach John Thompson Jr. made sure it was known for something far more important.
“That was Black America’s team,” says Spike Lee, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and unabashed Hoyas fan. “The ‘hood loved Georgetown. To see this big brother as the coach, to see how he protected his players as if they were his sons — to have so many in the White media be against them because of what he believed in and who he was — was to feel so much pride for them.”
“It’s why, whether you were from D.C. or New York, if you were Black, you wanted them to be victorious.”
Thompson, the patriarch of Georgetown men’s basketball, the first African American coach to win an NCAA Division I title, an outspoken advocate for racial justice and societal change, a baritone-voiced purveyor of conflict who knew two languages (“I speak English and profanity”), died Sunday. He was 78.
He is survived by family, his players, the game and Black excellence.
It’s hard to envision now but, in the 1980s, journalists didn’t lose their jobs for calling a Black coach the “Idi Amin of Big East basketball,” as a Salt Lake Tribune writer did, likening Thompson to the brutal Ugandan dictator. Students weren’t expelled for holding up signs at games alleging “Ewing Can’t Read,” as happened in 1983 during a game at Providence — until Thompson pulled his players off the court and refused to bring back All-American center Patrick Ewing and the rest of his team until the sign came down.
Today, when an NFL backup quarterback kneels before a game, Nike might sign a socially conscious athlete such as Colin Kaepernick to a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal. Entire teams boycott NBA playoff games to protest racial injustice. In 1989, though, no coach had the conviction to walk off the court before two games to protest racially biased college-entrance achievement tests.
No coach but “Big John,” who didn’t care if being woke made him broke, and who refused to be a homogenized, palatable Black man to appease ill-intentioned White America.