George Solomon: Obama's Election Has Special Meaning for Former Georgetown Coach Thompson

"When they started counting the ballots, I had as many butterflies in my stomach as when my teams played for the national championship," John Thompson said.
"When they started counting the ballots, I had as many butterflies in my stomach as when my teams played for the national championship," John Thompson said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By George Solomon
Sunday, November 9, 2008

The man on the radio Wednesday was once one of the most powerful figures in college sports. A man of principle, conviction and occasional anger. As the basketball coach at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999, John Thompson was fighting for racial equality and other causes he believed to be just.

In 1989, when he felt the NCAA was discriminating against black athletes with what he considered an unfair entrance requirement, Proposition 42, he walked off the court in protest and missed two games.

When someone asked him nearly 25 years ago if he felt pride in being the first black coach just a victory away from an NCAA Division I basketball championship, he responded sharply. He said that was the case only because "other equally qualified African American coaches in an earlier time were not given the opportunity."

When a critic suggested that his salary at Georgetown was excessive, he replied, "I don't apologize for wanting to be rich." And when another critic said Thompson was playing the race card while recruiting a star African American player, he snapped, "It's about time I got something for being black."

But on this Wednesday afternoon, 68-year-old John Thompson, the coach turned inviting sports-talk radio host, was waxing eloquently and emotionally about the previous night's election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president.

"The night before, when they started counting the ballots, I had as many butterflies in my stomach as when my teams played for the national championship," Thompson said in an interview Thursday. "Once I realized he would be elected, I began reflecting on my life and family and how this would have as big an impact on whites as blacks, that we have come this far.

"Not that this is a cure-all," Thompson continued. "But this one act was special -- symbolizing so many just causes and so much effort."

Thompson's guests Wednesday included Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), retired Hall of Fame basketball coach John Chaney and retired Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell. (In 1962, Mitchell, with Leroy Jackson and John Nisby, joined the Washington Redskins, the last team in the NFL to integrate.)

"Eleanor has done so much," Thompson said. "John Chaney stood up for things and was not afraid of confrontation. Bobby Mitchell had to break down color barriers. Remember there is no humor in racism. What he did had significant impact in this city and country."

Fifty-three years ago, Mitchell was an excellent football player at a segregated high school in Hot Springs, Ark. He was good enough to play for Arkansas, but the Razorbacks and other schools in the South were years away from recruiting black athletes. So Mitchell went to Illinois in 1954, where he became a star, and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, for whom he played from 1958 to 1961 before being traded to the Redskins.

I asked Mitchell what went through his mind Tuesday night.

"First, I cried for two hours," he said. "Then I thought about how far we've come in this country. I thought about how when I came into the NFL there were no black coaches, general managers and quarterbacks. I thought about our progress. And now we've elected an African American president."


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