Jeff Jacobs: John Thompson was an icon and legend, ‘all the things you want in a coach’

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Georgetown coach John Thompson watches a 1996 win over UConn. Thompson died on Monday at 78.

Georgetown coach John Thompson watches a 1996 win over UConn. Thompson died on Monday at 78.

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To James Jones, he was an icon.

To Jim Calhoun, he was a great friend and great Big East rival.

With a 6-foot-10 frame and deep, baritone voice, John Thompson was an intimidating presence. A “force of nature” Calhoun called him. And when news of his death spread Monday morning, so did the tributes of Thompson as a man of intellect, fearlessness, a biting wit, and an unbending will to protect his Georgetown players and fight for what he believed.

His family, in its announcement of his passing at age 78, called Thompson “a shepherd.” And that he was.

“When I first got to Yale, I’d walk by Carm Cozza and be a little nervous,” Jones said. “He was a living legend. I felt the same way about Coach Thompson. I’d go to the (national) head coaches meeting on Friday morning at 8 o’clock just to hear him speak.

“One of the histories we have in our country is systematic racism. There are people who come before you, that look like you. John Thompson looked like me. He gave you that thought in your mind, no, it wasn’t even a thought. Subconsciously you knew you could do it because he could. That blind understanding of what he did and who he was, was truly amazing.”

Jones, who has been head coach at Yale since 1999 — the year Thompson retired from coaching — paused for a moment.

“I can’t tell you I’m a coach because of John Thompson,” he said. “But I certainly felt when I got into this, there was a place for me because of him.”

There was no Black basketball coach at a predominantly white college until John McLendon in 1967. Thompson took over a three-win Georgetown program in 1972, its president hoping only for periodic NIT appearances, and got to the NCAA Finals three times within 13 years. He became the first Black coach to win a national title in 1984 and was insulted by the notion that he was the first capable of such a fete. Rather, he insisted, he was the first to get such a terrific opportunity.

Thompson was a complex man and complexities bring disparate experiences. Growing up in Rhode Island, I was a huge Providence College fan from a young age and Thompson left PC as its all-time leading scorer and a third-round draft pick of the Celtics, where he won a pair of NBA championships as Bill Russell’s backup. Thompson played in an exhibition in my hometown. I rushed to get his autograph afterward. He was only 23. I was 10.

He signed my piece of paper and said, “Now, you make sure you are a good student.”

“And he probably said it in a fatherly way,” Calhoun said.


This also is true. I covered the Philadelphia Flyers, yet because of an illness at my paper, was assigned to cover Villanova in the 1982 Big East Tournament at the Hartford Civic Center. I saw Thompson walking alone in the hallway and was itching to introduce myself and tell him about making good on his advice. Instead, his image as gruff and suspicious, his team’s image as a bunch of toughs, rushed through my mind. Hoya Paranoia. I put my head down and walked past. I was scared.

Suffice to say the Hoyas weren’t the most popular team in America. Their interview time was tightly regulated. Stories of the team lodging miles away from NCAA sites added to an aloof and foreboding mystique. The ugliness Patrick Ewing endured, the jeers and signs at opposing arenas, remain unconscionable.

“I didn’t like being the evil empire,” Thompson later told Dana O’Neil of The Athletic. “But I marketed it.’’

Calhoun, who would build UConn into a Big East power and national champion, arrived in Storrs in 1986.

“I came into the league and no one said, ‘Beat Syracuse. Beat Providence.’ A lot said, ‘Beat John. Beat Georgetown. We’d don’t like him.’ I said I like him a lot,” Calhoun said. “Everyone was a baseball bat. Some have a baseball bat, because they’re small, tall, articulate. Instead of having people use his 6-10, 300 pounds against him, John turned around and used his baseball bat to help his kids, his program and for what he believed.

“The style of ball, you know I loved it. People thought it was thuggery. It wasn’t. They were incredibly aggressive, never backed down. Some teams — not my teams probably — backed down before they even got on the court against Georgetown.

“All those players, I got to know some, they loved John. He was a tough taskmaster, a caring father to his kids, discipline and love when they really needed it. I think people didn’t see that at the time, which was unfortunate. I saw him take this great intellectual community in Georgetown and turn it into a basketball power and people thought it was like the Oakland Raiders.”

Calhoun met Thompson in the ’60’s at Camp Milbrook in Marshfield, Mass., where Red Auerbach ran a camp with former Celtic Bob Brannum. Every summer, draft picks, free agents like Calhoun, young pros like Thompson would gather to work out. Maybe land a job in the Eastern League if no NBA.

“They gave me a room and the room was filled with one thing: John,” Calhoun said. “I bunked with him for a couple days. From that moment, we became very good friends.

“I was fortunate to spend a day with John Lewis a few years ago, getting an honorary degree. He was a tremendous person to be with. On the athletic level, John was similar. He took on difficult positions and was such an articulate spokesman.”

In January 1989, Thompson tossed his famous white towel to an assistant and walked off the court before a game against Boston College to protest an NCAA ruling that would deny athletic scholarships to freshmen under the academic standards of Proposition 42. Ninety percent of the athletes that would have been impacted were Black.

“John was never afraid to stand up for what he believed, and he did it when there weren’t nearly as many people supporting him,” Calhoun said. “He used his position at Georgetown and in the Big East to say it loud and clear, and he put up with a lot of junk about race relations and social justice long before it was fashionable.

“I saw him take apart people intellectually in meetings. I used to mess with him, because I knew him. I’d go, ‘Aren’t these guys fools, John?’ In that deep voice, with a big smile, he’d go, ‘C’mon, Calhoooon.’ He was a tough enemy and great friend.”

A tough enemy? Like when Georgetown ended Syracuse’s 57-game home winning streak in the final game at Manley on Feb. 12, 1980, and Thompson announced, “Manley Field House is officially closed.” Boom!

A tough enemy? Like when matters weren’t going Georgetown’s way in a game.

“John would stand up and throw that big towel over his shoulder,” Calhoun said. “I’d say, ‘Oh, s-it, here we go.’ All the officials were fearful. I remember saying to Jack Hannon and some others, ‘Do not be afraid of him!’ He’s like me. During the game, put your helmet on, put the gloves on, let’s go. Afterward, he’d give you a big smile and wink. I had great respect for him.”

There’s the story of how Thompson called Rayful Edmond, a big-time D.C. drug dealer, to his office. Edmond was such a big Hoyas fan that he not only was a regular at courtside, he buried his murdered drug runners in Georgetown jerseys. Thompson gave Rayful and earful, told him to stay away from his players, especially Alonzo Mourning. Edmond, who listened to nobody, listened to Big John.

One need only watch Allen Iverson’s Hall of Fame induction speech to feel his Hall of Fame coach’s impact on him. Iverson talked about getting hundreds of college offers for football and basketball only to have them all disappear after he was arrested in high school. He recounted how his mother begged Thompson to take him. And through a man’s tears, he thanked Thompson for saving his life.

“I wanted to play for him,” Jones said. “But he was too smart to take me.”

Jones played at Albany.

With 29 percent Black coaches in Division I basketball and less than 19 percent in the six major conferences, the list of Black coach is still too short. Still there are many, including Jones, who know they have reaped opportunities from the greatness Thompson sowed.

“How he handled himself, how he took care of his players, had all his guys graduate,” Jones said. “All the things you want in a coach John Thompson was.”

On Monday, Jones reached out and offered another coach — John Thompson’s son — his condolences.; @jeffjacobs123