But one memory stands above the others because it says so much about who he was and the extraordinary life he lived.
In 1982, led by freshman center Patrick Ewing and seniors Eric Floyd and Eric Smith, Georgetown had reached the Final Four in New Orleans. During his Friday news conference, Thompson was asked how it felt to be the first Black coach to make it to the Final Four. A look passed over Thompson’s face, one I had seen often.
“I resent the hell out of that question,” he said, his bass-baritone voice raised to an angry pitch. “It implies that I’m the first Black coach capable of making the Final Four. That’s not close to true. I’m just the first one who was given the opportunity to get here.”
That was John. You dare imply that he was somehow better than men such as John McLendon or Clarence “Big House” Gaines, you better duck. You try to claim that you could truly understand what it had taken for him to become the superstar coach he had become, you better duck again.
Plenty in the media — most of them White — didn’t like John. When he had all-Black teams at Georgetown, they accused him of being a racist. By then, I wasn’t covering the team regularly, and John and I had settled all of our once-serious differences, which seem so petty now. I asked him how he felt when he heard and read people who didn’t know him saying he was a racist.
“Look at me: I’m a Black coach,” he said. “I’m a 6-foot-10-inch Black man with a loud voice and, fact is, that scares a lot of White people. Most of the best players — not all but most — are Black. I walk into a Black home to recruit a kid, I have an advantage right away. I walk into a White home, if I’m lucky, I’m not at a disadvantage. A lot of the time, I am. So why wouldn’t I focus my time and effort on recruiting Black kids who are more likely to want to play for me?”
John was always aware of what it meant to be Black, long before he became famous and long before anyone heard the term Black Lives Matter. Dave Gavitt, John’s fellow Hall of Fame coach, was an assistant at Providence when John played there. Years ago, when I was doing a magazine piece on John, he told me a story about the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I walked out the gym door, and John was sitting on the steps with a transistor radio pressed to his ear,” Gavitt said. “He had tears in his eyes. He looked at me and said, ‘I hope and pray a Black man didn’t do this, because if it was a Black man, it’s going to be much, much worse for all of us.’ ”
For all his accomplishments, John knew basketball disappointment. Georgetown appeared to be a lock to win a second consecutive national title in 1985, Ewing’s senior year, but it lost, 66-64, to a Villanova team that shot 79 percent in the last college basketball game played without a shot clock. Losing to the Soviet Union in the Olympic semifinals three years later and settling for a bronze medal was devastating. John had dreamed of following in the footsteps of Dean Smith, his mentor and close friend, by coaching the United States to Olympic gold.
The first year John was eligible for the Hall of Fame, he didn’t get in, which infuriated him. One of the people who publicly expressed outrage at the time was Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. John never forgot.
“I wanted to dislike him because he was Dean’s biggest rival,” he told me once. “But I can’t do it. The man’s a class act.”
John was elected a year later, in 1999. He had retired earlier that year, after Georgetown started 0-4 in the Big East, explaining he was going through a divorce and needed to step aside. He hosted a local radio show here for years, and I often was a guest. Once, when the show was being broadcast from the site of the local PGA Tour stop, John asked me to explain some things about golf, a sport he admitted he knew little about. When I finished, John looked at me and said: “John, you’re one of the smartest people I know. I just don’t understand why you can be such a jackass.”
“I feel the same way about you, John,” I answered — and we both cracked up.
In 2015, I had the honor of informing John that the U.S. Basketball Writers Association had selected him as the winner of the first Dean Smith Award, started after Dean’s death to honor a coach who embodied his qualities as a man. When I called John, he answered the way he always did: “What the hell do you want?”
I told him I wanted to tell him something I hoped would make him happy. “I doubt it,” he said.
Then I told him. There was a long silence and then he said softly: “You got me. You know how I felt about him.”
The presentation dinner was held in the fall in Chapel Hill. John’s diabetes made it difficult for him to stand for any length of time, so he sat on a high stool. He talked at length about Dean, peppering his many stories with his usual profanities. At one point when he heard the audience gasp, he turned to me and said, “John, you may have to explain to these people that I speak two languages: English and profanity.”
The past few years, we talked often, usually when I was seeking guidance or advice. Two years ago, when I wanted to do a book about race in sports but had no idea how to structure or even start the book, I went to see John. I explained my problem.
He looked at me for a moment, then laughed that unforgettable laugh. “You might as well try to explain the Holy Trinity,” he said. Then he turned serious and said, “Which is why it’s a book you absolutely have to do.”
I’m working on it now. There’s a lot of work left, and I’m still not sure where to begin. But at the very least, I have the dedication: “To John Thompson, who taught me about basketball; about how to listen and learn; about race relations and about life.”
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