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John Thompson, Georgetown and Nike

Image via Nike.

Shortly before he cut the ribbon to officially open a three-story, 31,000-square foot Nike store in Georgetown Thursday morning, John Thompson Jr. told an audience of friends, former players and Nike employees about the early days of his Hoyas program.

Basketball coaches, Thompson said, would walk up and down M Street, knocking on doors and asking local business owners to put an ad in a game program, or sponsor a radio broadcast, or otherwise lend their support.

“We had to make it work,” Thompson told me later, sitting a few feet away from the Hoyas shrine that greets visitors to this sparkling new store. “Sitting back and talking about it wouldn’t have done us any good. We had to do what we could to get sponsorship. It didn’t work as well as we thought it would, but we tried.”

Thompson smiled.

“And then along came Phil Knight,” he said.

Georgetown’s relationship with Nike – solidified by Thompson’s friendship with the CEO and his position on the company’s board of directors – is celebrated throughout this new store, which occupies the M Street real estate that formerly housed a Barnes & Noble.

When you walk into the store you’re greeted by a glass case of famed Georgetown jerseys – Ewing and Iverson and so on — and towels commemorating Thompson’s achievements –- “an ode to the legend himself,” as Tim Hershey, the VP of retail for Nike North America, put it. A large poster of the coach overlooks the first floor, as does an illuminated quotation – “Don’t let the sum total of your existence be 8-10 pounds of air.”

The floors – made of reclaimed wood from local gymnasiums – are accented by Georgetown’s colors. The third story has a glass-enclosed display of Hoyas-themed Air Jordans. There are also footprints honoring Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert among a host of more famous Nike athletes, and a large display of Hoyas merchandise.

“We’re continuing the story and paying homage to Coach Thompson’s legacy, what he means to the community, what he means to the brand, the relationship between Coach Thompson and Georgetown and Nike,” said former Hoyas point guard Michael Jackson, now the Vice President and General Manager of North America Basketball for Nike. “I don’t think he got enough credit for what he represented in basketball. Georgetown changed the game, merged culture with sports. Georgetown did that before anyone else in college basketball.”

And a host of heavyweights were on hand to help commemorate that merger, from longtime Thompson attorney David Falk to former players like Mark Tillman, Michael Graham and Ewing.

“Nike and Georgetown, since I’ve been there, have been partners,” Ewing said, coiling two fingers around each other to demonstrate the relationship.

Nike officials presented Thompson with a custom-made jacket in honor of the occasion – “is it money?” the coach dead-panned before the box was opened. And the coach was typically blunt through his brief speech, telling the crowd that “I don’t like to do [stuff] like this,” before asking his former radio producer whether he could go back and bleep out the profanity.

After it was all over, though, after the throng of young sneakerheads had exploded through the front doors and the Nike staffers had finished their group chants, Thompson reflected on the moment.

“It’s not the kind of thing you expect, and when it does happen, it’s flattering,” he said. “My name may be on the wall, but a lot of people – from the custodian to the president of the college and everyone in between – had to contribute for us to have the success we had.”

I’m just speculating here, but it also seems like a celebration of the Hoyas in the middle of D.C.’s most prominent retail strip might not be unattractive to Georgetown recruits.

“Hopefully,” John Thompson III said with a grin. “At least they’ll understand what the program has meant to Nike, and what Nike’s meant to the program.”


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