Legendary Georgetown Hoyas basketball coach John Thompson passed away at age 78. Known affectionately as “Big John,” the iconic Hall of Famer led Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA National Championship.
He took the Hoyas to four Final Fours in the 1980s while also winning seven Big East conference titles. He even took his experience to the professional level by leading the 1988 U.S. national team to a bronze medal in the Olympics.
Thompson started for Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington before moving on to Providence University. He led the Friars to the 1963 NIT championship and served as team captain for the schools’ first ever NCAA tournament appearance the following year.
Boston Celtic’s head coach Red Auerbach drafted Thompson in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft where he served as a backup to Bill Russell. While Thompson’s NBA playing career wasn’t long-lived, he said his illustrious coaching career was heavily influenced by Auerbach.
“I’ve never been around a man who managed men in my life any better than Red Auerbach. Particularly, the egos he had to deal with, the cross cultures he had to deal with and all the variations in the kinds of people that I saw him be associated with,” Thompson said in 2006.
After a short stint as an NBA coach for two seasons, Thompson accepted a position with St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C., in 1966. He amassed a 122-28 record during his six years at the prep school before Georgetown hired him in 1972.
After just three years, Thompson led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 32 years.
Thompson’s career at Georgetown didn’t come without controversy. The university’s basketball program was mostly white prior to Thompson’s arrival. A majority of his players were black, which led to stark criticism of his coaching.
The thing most remember about Thompson was his concern for his players both on and off the field. He was awfully protective of his players.
On a 1989 episode of ABC’s “Nightline,” Thompson explained how he had confronted notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III. The high-profile criminal had contacted some of his players, including Patrick Ewing and John Turner.
Thompson also stood by star point guard Allen Iverson. The NBA icon spent four months in jail for his involvement in a bowling alley brawl his senior year of high school. Thompson supported Iverson during the entire ordeal. Authorities eventually dropped the charges due to a lack of evidence.
Thompson also walked off the court in 1989 before a game against Boston College to protest Proposition 48. The NCAA measure would ban academically ineligible freshmen from receiving basketball scholarships. Thompson said the proposition aimed to cut down on opportunities for minority students.
Thompson would resign midway through the 1989-1999 season, citing problems with his marriage. Two years later, he filed for divorce from his wife, Gwen.
He is survived by his sons, John Thompson III and Ronny Thompson, and daughter, Tiffany Thompson.