For two hours a day the past 13 years, sometimes within the same 15-minute segment, he could be biased, socially conscious, whimsical, and — a shocker to some — downright humorous. The man a former small-minded editor of the Salt Lake Tribune once called “The Idi Amin of Big East basketball” actually had a funny bone. And he loved nostalgia.
If you remembered old D.C. — Petey Greene; Chuck Brown; even Elgin Baylor working his game at Turkey Thicket — Thompson transported you back. If not, “The John Thompson Show” was taking you there anyway.
Now it’s time to pop a top, this time for good.
Thompson signs off his local radio show for the last time today, and even an employee of the competing station in town needs to acknowledge the passing of a moment in Washington sports, 13 years after we found out there was so much more to the man than just the growl.
“Did I make a difference? I don’t know,” Thompson said Monday in Rockville between segments with co-host Rick “Doc” Walker, who will continue on with the show. “But I can say this: Thirteen years later, without trying to explain myself — because I don’t think you ever totally reveal yourself to anybody — I feel like people know better who I really am.
“People don’t know I laughed. They didn’t know I joked. They took sound bites out of my life and tried to define me. They didn’t think I sang songs. What the [expletive] did they think I was doing?”
Since March 3, 1999, Thompson has unknowingly acquitted himself of all the lazy characterizations heaped on him during 27 years as a Hall of Fame basketball coach, “including the notion that I don’t like white people,” Thompson said through a laugh.
Who knew, for instance, that America’s foremost black militant sports figure in the early 1980s — when Thompson was walking off the court at the start of a Georgetown game to protest standardized-test requirements he viewed as racially biased — actually has a special affinity for country music?
There was nothing digital about the show’s musical repertoire. All vinyl, baby: James Brown’s “Lickin’ Stick,” the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” and Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give It Up” would be curiously mixed in with George Strait, Alan Jackson and Charley Pride.
For a two hours every day, Motown met the Grand Ole Opry.
Where the show was headed on a daily basis no one knew. For instance, Charles Barkley would be on one line with Thompson and Iverson would call on the other, and for the next hour you would eavesdrop on a surreal conversation among the three of them. Bob Knight, bully that he can be, was once moved to tears weeks after 9/11. Ultra-private George Steinbrenner, Tiger Woods and Pat Riley would give Thompson time, and you could hear the respect and reverence coming through their voices.