John Thompson Jr., a towering presence in local, college and professional basketball who turned Georgetown University into a global basketball colossus, died Sunday at the age of 78.
Known affectionately as “Big John,” Thompson, a native Washingtonian who grew up in Southeast, was the first Black head coach to strike gold in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.
He transformed a basketball program that had won three games and lost 23 in 1971 into a powerhouse over a 27-year career, led the Hoyas to three NCAA Final Four appearances in the 1980s, including the 1984 national championship, won seven Big East Conference titles. He also coached the U.S. national team to a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics.
Survivors include two sons, John Thompson III and Ronny Thompson, and daughter Tiffany Thompson. The family, in a statement issued by Georgetown, said:
“We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson Jr.,” the statement 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.
“However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love.
“We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘Big Ace is cool.’”
Thompson’s coaching accomplishments included the recruitment and development of four players in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson.
Ewing, who Thompson lured to the Jesuit school and was central to winning tradition at Georgetown, currently serves as the coach for the men’s basketball team – a role that Ewing says he had never considered before receiving a call from his mentor.
“This is a person that, when I came to college, I was 18, helped me to grow,” Ewing said last fall to an ESPN reporter during Big East media day. “Even though my mom and dad were always there, he was always a person I could pick up the phone and call if I had a problem or if I had a question.”
Thompson, a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee in 1999, has been credited with opening the door for a generation of minority coaches. His national title run in 1984 was the first by a Black head coach and altered the perception of Black coaches.
Never one to pull punches, Thompson walked off the court in 1989 before a game against Boston College to protest Proposition 48, an NCAA measure that would ban academically ineligible freshmen from receiving scholarships. Thompson said he protested because he believed the proposition limited opportunities for minority students.
Born Sept. 2, 1941, Thompson starred for Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington during the school’s 55-game winning streak, capped by a 24-0 record in his senior year. At Providence College, he starred on a team that won the 1963 National Invitational Tournament, was named an All-American and served as captain of the school’s first NCAA tournament team in 1964.
The Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach selected the 6-foot-10 Thompson in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft. He saw limited action as backup to legendary center Bill Russell but won championships with the franchise in 1965 and 1966 before leaving the NBA after two seasons. His later said he was influenced by the coaching style of Auerbach.
He accepted a post as the head coach at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington in 1966. He was 122-28 during his six-year prep coaching career before Georgetown hired him in 1972, exceeding all expectations. And while the Georgetown president told Thompson his goal was to get the team to the NIT “every now and then,” by 1975, Thompson had led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 32 years.