The first person John Thompson publicly acknowledged yesterday after his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was a former teacher, Sametta Wallace Jackson, who made him repeat the sixth grade at Harrison Elementary School at 13th and E streets in Northwest Washington.
"Probably one of the most hurtful things in my life," the former Georgetown coach said at the beginning of his radio show on WTEM. "She said: `You failed. Stay back here and learn how to read.' "
That was typical Thompson, who is part of an induction class with former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale, Cleveland Cavaliers President Wayne Embry, former NBA owner Fred Zollner and Billie Moore, the first coach to lead two women's college teams -- UCLA and Cal State Fullerton -- to national titles.
Two active coaches in the Washington area, Morgan Wootten of DeMatha High and Jim Phelan of Mount St. Mary's College, did not receive the necessary 18 votes from the 24-member honors committee. Neither did former Baltimore Bullets forward Gus Johnson.
"It's just an honor to be considered," Wootten said. "Realistically, there has never been a high school coach inducted, so it's no surprise."
The Hall of Fame honored Thompson for staggering accomplishments: a 596-239 record in 26-plus seasons at Georgetown before his abrupt resignation Jan. 8, 24 straight postseason appearances, seven Big East Conference tournament championships, three appearances in the NCAA tournament's title game and the national championship in 1984, coach of the 1988 Olympic team that was upset by the Soviet Union in the semifinals and won a bronze medal.
Thompson, 57, chose to honor several people who pointed him toward education and basketball. Among them were the late Mrs. Jackson, who steered him to the first reading clinic in the D.C. public school system, and Kermit Trigg, his physical education teacher and basketball coach at Brown Junior High.
"They were very significant insignificant people who made judgments, imposed themselves on me," Thompson said.
For all Thompson's successes, which included helping lead Carroll High to a 55-game winning streak in the late 1950s and Providence to the NIT title his junior year and playing two seasons for the Celtics, his legacy probably will be the stances he took on issues of race and education.
In January 1989, he walked off the court before a home game against Boston College in protest of NCAA legislation, known as Proposition 42, that tightened criteria under which students could receive athletic scholarships. He also did not coach the next game, at Providence. The walkout and the national debate that followed led to modification of Prop. 42 at the 1990 NCAA convention.
"I was doing it," Thompson said yesterday, "not by accident but because it happened to me. I've never taken a position on anything in my life for the sake of just being contrary."
Craig Esherick played for Thompson in the mid-1970s and assisted him at Georgetown for 17 years before being elevated to head coach when Thompson stepped down. So he has a unique perspective on Thompson's influence.
"I remember when I was a player here you could count on one hand how many black coaches there were," Esherick said. "You could look at every staff in the country and most had maybe one black assistant. You didn't see any black referees and not many black announcers. Through the positions he took, he changed things."
Thompson, whose name has been linked with NBA coaching vacancies recently, hinted he may return to basketball by the time the Hall of Fame inductions take place Oct. 1 in Springfield, Mass. On Jan. 8, he emphasized that he was resigning instead of retiring and that personal issues were part of the reason. Less than a week ago, a settlement in principle was announced involving divorce proceedings with his wife, Gwen.
"Now that this [the Hall of Fame] is out of the way and some other things are getting out of the way," Thompson said, "I have to reflect on all those [basketball-related opportunities] from a fresh start."
Thompson said he will ask former Celtics coach and Hall of Famer Red Auerbach to present him for induction. Thompson's ties to Auerbach include Thompson's high school and college careers as well as his two seasons with the Celtics as Bill Russell's backup.
"Red Auerbach is the greatest manager of men that I've ever encountered," Thompson said. "He's been a tremendous influence on my life, even when he didn't realize it. I would be extremely honored if he would do this for me."
Auerbach said yesterday that he would accept, adding: "It would be an honor. Tell him to get off his [butt] and ask me."
Thompson made the Hall of Fame on his third try. He was mostly gracious in public but sometimes bitter in private about not being elected earlier. He said yesterday, during a news conference in the reception area of McDonough Gym recently named in his honor, "I'll probably be remembered for all the things that kept me out of the Hall of Fame, ironically, more than for the things that got me into it."
His pleasure was obvious. When the news conference and all the one-on-one interviews had been completed, Thompson smiled and said: "This is the period that ends all sentences. I'm in the Hall of Fame."
Staff writer Michael Rosenberg contributed to this report.