John Thompson Jr., who died Monday at the age of 78, was a towering figure of unmistakable, unapologetic Blackness. As the head coach of Georgetown University’s basketball program from 1972 to 1999, Thompson was a recognizable presence on sidelines and television screens. He grew particularly famous for three things: his steadfast commitment to winning; his hot-headed emotion on the bench; and his ever-present towel. Every game, he always had a towel over his shoulder. It was a habit he’d picked up from his mother. She always wore one over her shoulder when she was working in the kitchen. It was a family touch.
In 1984, Thompson coached Georgetown to the NCAA championship. It should be noted that he was the first Black coach — in any collegiate sport — to do so. He would never point out that fact, however, because he expected a Black coach to win their sport’s highest prize (if, of course, they were afforded the opportunity). That was a core element of his life and his legacy at Georgetown — Thompson afforded Black men opportunities, in life and in the NBA. As the New York Times reported in its Thompson obituary, “Georgetown has said that of the 78 players who played four seasons under Thompson, 76 received their degrees.”
Long before Thompson was a coach, though, he was a high school basketball phenom who led his team to 55 straight wins. When he reached the pros — after helping win the NIT championship at Providence College — he played for Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics. Drafted in the third round, he was selected to back-up arguably the greatest player ever, Bill Russell, who he learned much more than basketball from. For instance, Thompson recalled that Russell was the first person he ever heard call himself Black. “He was Black before it was fashionable to be Black,” Thompson marveled. In fact, until he met Russell, Thompson had only ever known the word to be an insult.
But as much as he absorbed from Russell, Thompson equally credited Auerbach for pushing him to find new heights as a coach, for teaching him how to think and see the game differently, and most importantly, reinforcing in him the will to win. (Thompson won two NBA championships in his two years in the league — both with the Celtics.)
There was a third formative figure for Thompson in Boston as well — Marty Furesh, whose Jewish family Thompson lived with while on the Celtics. “They treated me as if I were their son,” Thompson later said. “They exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t been exposed to. And I was away from home at the time. I enjoyed most of all, in the evenings, just sitting and talking with them and debating with them, particularly Marty Furesh.”
Thompson’s own father couldn’t read or write. And Thompson didn’t learn to read himself until the fifth grade. Despite his late start, education and learning became the center of his life. He began to ply that part of his trade at Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the U.S., in 1972. When he arrived, it had a Black student population of 2 percent, with an average of 50 Black students applying each year. In his first season, Thompson’s basketball team had five Black starters, which clearly left an impression on the university’s Black student population — and prospective Black student population. Case in point: By 1981, applications from Black students had risen to an average of 550 per year, an increase of 1,100 percent.
This would become Thompson’s most enduring legacy — spreading the word of education and self-improvement. Because everyone knew, if you went to play at Georgetown, Thompson expected you to get your degree. He wasn’t running a farm team for the NBA, he was making men out of boys, while also readying them for the harsh realities of the world, making them strong enough to endure those realities and to succeed, thrive and win. That’s not to say, however, that Georgetown didn’t produce its share of NBA greats — Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning chief among them.
Still, during Thompson’s time at Georgetown, he was known to be a controversial figure. Much like other great college basketball coaches of his era (most notably, Indiana’s Bobby Knight and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian), Thompson was hot-headed and a difficult interviewee — one who would either speak his mind or steadfastly refuse to comment. But while his white coaching counterparts were respected for their mercurial ways, Thompson was often treated as problematic, which always felt like code for “this Black man doesn’t know his place.” He most certainly did, of course. He was the coach. And he wasn’t here for any bullshit. Russell had taught him that, and he went on to impart that same lesson to those who played for him — stay true to yourself because unapologetic Blackness is a superpower in America.
Thompson struck a deal with his players: If they played basketball for Georgetown, he would ensure they got a Georgetown education, which would be more valuable than preparing them for the NBA. Because, ultimately, he knew not everyone makes it. To that end, Thompson kept a deflated basketball in his office at Georgetown — it was the first thing visitors to his office saw — it was a symbol, a reminder to imagine life after basketball.
Thompson was a proud Catholic, which naturally shaped his worldview. And like many Black men of his generation, he was also a small “c” conservative. It’s not about how he voted, it was about the vibe he brought to everything he did. As Thompson once said, “I was there to teach, I wasn’t there to be somebody’s friend. […] Probably a lot of the people who jumped on your butt, you respect a hell of a lot more — now that you’re older — than the people who coddled you.”
In fact, it was his promise to his players: “My philosophy was this — I’m gonna fight with the world to give you a chance. But if you don’t take an advantage of the chance, I’m gonna get you the hell out of here. The people who gave you the chance don’t have to worry, I’m not gonna put that burden on them.”
Interestingly, though, Thompson resented being considered a father figure: “You hear people talk about the father figure thing — I have never embraced that. Because I think who a person’s father is, who their parents are, is something very special and sacred to them. There’s a lot of players that I coached that I hope I never see again in my life. I’m very serious about that now. And people don’t understand when I say that. But there’s a lot of them that I miss seeing. Because you provide them while they’re there with the opportunity to get an education. You work with them as hard as you can. But the player has to take the responsibility for his own education. I resent that mentality that there’s somebody there who’s going to look after me, somebody who’s gonna take after me. I hope to hell that I conveyed to people who I coached that you are responsible for your education. I’m assisting you. Now, after the four years, it’s over, baby. Because four more are coming in here that I’ve got to work with.”
Thompson wanted his players to see and understand their future potential, the harsh realities of the NBA, and equally, life as a Black man in America. When he was recruiting a player whose test scores may have been terrible, he knew that as young Black men, they had been disadvantaged by the racial history of this nation — a history that remains poisonous and often downright murderous. Thompson wanted young Black men to dream big, but also to achieve their dreams. He knew to do that, they had to be able to stand on their own, without coddling, and fight through all the obstacles that awaited them.
It’s like Henry Adams once said, “A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his legacy ends.” By that measure, John Thompson will certainly live on for eternity.