Legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., known all over college basketball as simply “Big John,” died at age 78. Thompson, who guided Georgetown to the national championship in 1984, transformed the program into a juggernaut, bringing the Hoyas in the 1980s to three final fours while also winning seven Big East titles and guiding the U.S. national team to a bronze medal at the Olympics in 1988.
“We ‘re heartbroken to share the news of our father’s death, John Thompson, Jr,” said the Thompson family in a statement Georgetown issued. “Our father has been an inspiration to many and has devoted his life to educating young people not only on, but most importantly off the basketball court. He is respected as a pioneering leader of sport, committed above all else to the welfare of his children.
“His greatest legacy, however, remains for us as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. He was our pillar more than a coach. He was the voice in our ears every day than a legend. We will miss him but are grounded in the knowledge that we can bear his confidence and dedication in us. We can forever treasure his strength, bravery, wisdom and bravery, as well as his unfailing love.
“We know everyone will miss him profoundly and our family appreciates your condolences and your prayers. But don’t worry about him because ‘Big Ace is fine,’ as he always liked to say.
The coaching legacy of Thompson includes the recruitment and production of four Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame players: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson.
“This is a person who helped me grow when I came to college — I was 18 —,” Ewing, the new Georgetown coach, said last October during the Big East media day. “While my mom and dad have always been there, he has always been a person I can pick up the phone and call if I have a problem or if I have a question.”
Thompson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, was a visionary who credited a generation of minority coaches with opening the door. His national title run in 1984 was a Black head coach’s first, and changed Black coach ‘s view.
Thompson walked out of court in 1989, not afraid to speak his mind, before a game against Boston College to oppose Proposition 48, an NCAA measure that would prohibit academically ineligible freshmen from receiving scholarships. Thompson said he protested because he believed the plan was aimed at restricting minority student opportunities.
“I’ve done this because you’re limited in your choices, out of indignation, about what you can do in reaction to something that I felt was really wrong,” Thompson told The Washington Post that day. “This is my way to draw attention to a law that a lot of people weren’t aware of — one that would affect a lot of people. I’ve done it to draw attention to the problem in hopes of taking another look at what they’ve done, and if they feel unreasonable, change the rule.”
Born on Sept. 2, 1941, Thompson played in Washington for Archbishop Carroll High School before leading Providence to the 1963 NIT Championship and serving as the captain of the school’s first NCAA tournament team in 1964.
Red Auerbach, of the Boston Celtics, drafted Thompson 6-foot-10 in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft. Thompson was sparingly used as a backup to Bill Russell but won championships in 1965 and 1966 with the franchise.
Thompson said his coaching style had been inspired by Auerbach.
“I’ve never been around a man who handled men better than Red Auerbach in my life,” Thompson told NBA.com following Auerbach ‘s death in 2006. “Especially, the egos with which he had to deal, the cross cultures he had to deal with and all the differences in the kinds of people in which I saw him are connected.”
Thompson’s NBA tenure ended two seasons later. He had the opportunity to join the Chicago Bulls but decided to seek a chance to work with children.
In 1966 he accepted a post at the prestigious St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington as the head coach. During his six-year preparatory coaching career, he was 122-28, before Georgetown hired him in 1972.
The Hoyas had previously won three games the season.
“When I was recruited,” Thompson told Sports Illustrated in 1980, “I had a talk with the president [then Rev. Robert Henle, S.J.]. All that Father Henle said about basketball was that he hoped that every now and then I might take a team to the NIT. I thought to myself that I would eat my hat if I couldn’t do better than that, but I didn’t say anything but, ‘Yes, sir, I’m going to try,’ because you don’t want.
In a pair of tweets on Monday, Iverson thanked Thompson for “saving my life,” adding that he hopes his college coach will always be proud.
Coach assistant Craig Esherick took over until 2004 when John Thompson III accepted the job as the program coach that his father had built up. The younger Thompson guided Georgetown to a 2007 Final Four berth but was shot after a disappointing run in 2017.
Thompson Jr. called Ewing, his former star, on the opportunity and told him “to put his name into the hat.” Ewing, then an associate head coach with the Charlotte Bobcats, said he hadn’t been thinking about the position until Thompson called.
Big John didn’t just run basketball at Georgetown.
He played basketball for Georgetown.
His parents, John Thompson III and Ronny Thompson, and daughter Tiffany Thompson are among the survivors of Thompson.