“When I learned to read it was far better than me being in the Hall of Fame,” said John Thompson Jr., far right. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Some of the younger kids at the Capital Sports Complex in District Heights last Wednesday had no idea who John Thompson Jr. was.  “Who did you coach?” asked one elementary-school-aged boy.  From the other side of the bleachers, a high school student, obviously aware of some of the accomplishments of the former Georgetown basketball coach, asked, “Is that the championship ring from the NCAA championship?”

“No, it’s not. It’s the Hall of Fame,” Thompson replied. “That don’t mean nothing son. Trust me.”

The press release heralded the clinic as Thompson’s first time back on the court coaching since his retirement 12 years ago. But it was less a clinic about basketball and more a lesson about life, as Thompson sat down in a chair, grabbed a microphone and started off with a story about himself.

“They tell you that [stuff] about me being a legend,” said Thompson, whose son John Thompson III currently coaches the Hoyas. “This legend couldn’t read in the sixth grade. Do you know how embarrassing it is not to be able to read and write in the sixth grade? To me, when I learned to read it was far better than me being in the Hall of Fame.”

For 40 minutes, “Big John” kept the players’ attention as he doled out life lessons: “The worst thing in the world is not to try. . . . The pathway to winning is losing sometimes. . . . You have to exercise your mind. . . . Don’t be afraid to lose. . . . Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.”

“A lot of people thought he was talking their heads off,” said Brandon Boykin, 16, second from right, a sophomore point guard at Ballou. “When he was talking I really was listening. It inspires me to go learn and be more equipped. You have to be equipped for life.”

“It’s really not just about basketball and putting the ball in the hoop, like John Thompson said today,” Boykin said. “You’ve got to do a lot more things than just run up and down the floor.”  

Wednesday was also about practicing for an upcoming three-on-three tournament. So as the players split into groups and worked through some drills, Thompson made his way across the gym.  He chatted up a few players at one end, and then headed toward the other.

Boykin stood out on the corner, and Thompson walked closer. “He told me, ‘I seen your game young man, and one thing you can do to better your game is think,’ ” Boykin said. “ ‘You always can work hard at your drills, but [you have] to just think.’ ”

Thompson would appreciate Boykin’s efforts off the court too.

“If you live your whole life based on nine or 10 pounds of air in the ball and your life has no other importance or significance than that, excuse me, you’re a  damn fool,” Thompson said.

Boykin couldn’t agree more.  “I always had it in my head, I’m not going to college just for basketball. I wanted to go get an education because I wanted a backup plan. You can’t depend on just basketball.”