Big names welcome
Indeed, his second act featured playful banter and frequent laughs, along with entry-level questions about sports outside his expertise.
And along the way, Thompson brought in a caliber of guest rarely seen on local sports shows, from tennis star John McEnroe to basketball legend Bill Russell; from coaching icons Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski to the commissioners of the NFL and the NBA.
Bill Cosby and Spike Lee called in. Michael Jordan gave Thompson his only interview the day he joined the Wizards’ front office. LeBron James went on Thompson’s show while still in high school. Tiger Woods once appeared on Thompson’s program with both his parents.
“We didn’t have to have a guest list,” former co-host Brian Mitchell said, discussing trips to the Super Bowl with Thompson. “They look over, they see Coach, they sit down.”
A few months after Thompson joined the station, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in the news after helping negotiate the release of three U.S. Army soldiers in the former Yugoslavia.
“I remember you very casually mentioning in your office, that [bleep] owes me,” longtime on-air partner Al Koken told Thompson during Wednesday’s finale. “And I’m thinking, what? And sure enough, there’s the number.”
Jackson was on the program then and several other times, and what was once imagined as an hour-long “Timeout With Thompson” became a full-fledged show. Thompson hardly imagined he would spend more than a decade in an industry he called “as dirty and as ruthless as any business I’ve ever been in,” and early on his name would pop up in connection with NBA coaching and front-office openings.
“This is work; basketball is what I do,” he told The Washington Post not long after joining the radio station.
But while he remained a fixture at Georgetown games after his son, John Thompson III, took over the team in 2004, he never re-entered the coaching profession. And so a man whose towering 6-foot-10 frame and occasional scowl once inspired fear became seen as kinder, gentler, more approachable.
“Really, I don’t care how people remember me,” Thompson said Wednesday, just before leaving the station. “Before, it was just a snippet of me that [Washingtonians] were exposed to. I’ve exposed more of myself. I can’t control how people interpret that, but I was just trying to be me. I love the people in this town. They have more than a soundbite, now. How they interpret that is up to them.”
Thompson has frequently joked that he doesn’t believe in retirement, but he said again Wednesday he doesn’t know what he will do next. He reacted with mock outrage when his coaching son offered to take over the late-afternoon time slot — “hey, the seat’s not even cold yet!” the elder Thompson said — and will continue to make both local and national media appearances.
His unexpected second career as a full-time local radio host, though, ended with thanks and hugs on a rainy afternoon.
“It didn’t matter what John did or what he does” next, said Rick “Doc” Walker, one of Thompson’s original co-hosts. “He’s bigger than every arena he gets in. That’s Coach. He could do it just by being John.”