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'Big John Is Still Big John'
'He Had a Voice'
It wasn't always that way, said Wil Jones, one of Thompson's contemporaries and oldest friends. Jones coached UDC to the 1982 Division II national title and recently had his number retired at American University. He played alongside Big John on the city's scorching asphalt courts.
"John was very, very studious," Jones remembered in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. "He was so concerned about education. This was branded on his chest more than anything. He saw that as a way out for blacks -- not basketball.
"I think at some point he changed his philosophy and became more tough and assertive. He got harder and harder as he grew more successful. He felt like he had a voice and he was going to use it."
Doing so brought Thompson both notoriety and gratitude.
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'Your dad stood up for this,' " said Ronny Thompson, who played for his father at Georgetown and now is the head coach at Ball State. "It wasn't until I got older that I understood the impact he had, how he used basketball as a tool for something bigger."
Ronny said that thought was crystallized during a town meeting in Southeast in the late 1980s as the city's drug wars were escalating.
"Everyone who spoke talked about how kids were bad, kids were changing," he said. "My dad got up and said: 'Hold on. We're all saying it's the kids' fault. What options do they have? What boys' clubs can they go to?' The whole thought process changed. He put into words what they were thinking and feeling."
Those words carried weight because they were backed up by actions. Thompson's seminal watchdog moment came in 1989, when a young, impressionable Alonzo Mourning was befriended by the notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III.
"This is a fast city," said John Duren, one of Thompson's first important players in the late 1970s along with Craig Shelton. "When a young kid comes in this city and he's a star -- [Allen] Iverson, Ewing, Alonzo -- the top ballplayer is going to meet the thug, the top drug dealer. They shopped for clothes at the same store and ate at the same restaurant, the old Houston's up on Wisconsin [Avenue]. It was just inevitable."
Thompson invited Edmond to his office and lit into him. He told the drug dealer to stay away from his players or suffer the consequences. Edmond, it was said, never associated with a Georgetown player again. Soon after, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"That's about how it went down," Duren said. "Everybody remembers the day Rayful went to Coach's office."
Emphasis on Education
The same players Thompson fiercely protected were held to a high standard. Dikembe Mutombo, a veteran NBA center and former Georgetown standout, said the only day he ever missed a class at Georgetown, he later showed up to practice to find a one-way airline ticket in his basketball locker. Mutombo was very alarmed to learn he was being sent back to his native Congo that evening.