John Thompson was so much more than a great basketball coach
The final buzzer had gone off about 20 minutes earlier and John Thompson, sitting courtside at the Superdome, hadn’t stopped giggling. He was sitting with one of his old coaching rivals and pals, Bill Raftery, and the two of them were giddy that another of their own, Jim Boeheim, had just joined the select club of national championship coaches.
“You know,” Raftery kidded Thompson, in that impish way of his, “if someone in 1982 had said you’d one day be acting this way when Syracuse won the NCAA Tournament …”
“He called me an SOB a thousand times,” Thompson said. “And I can promise you I called him much worse a thousand times more!”
This was a part of Thompson few ever got to see, or hear. For years, he helped cultivate a certain image about himself – aloof, sometimes angry, always protective of his own players and the challenges facing Black athletes – that at times brought him into conflict with other segments of society – opposing fans, sportswriters, critics, cynics.
Once, years ago, with a small gathering of writers at Big East Media Day, Thompson was asked if it wouldn’t have just been easier to be a basketball coach, which is something he was very good at for a very long time, 596 victories in 28 years at Georgetown, the 1982 NCAA title, three Final Fours.
“Maybe,” he said, “but people always ask my opinion. And the thing I’ve always said: Don’t ask me a question if you don’t want to know my answer.”
Thompson’s death was announced Monday morning, two days before his 79th birthday, and it was a full, worthy life, one that brought him to Providence College in the 1960s under the great coach Joe Mullaney, one that brought him to the Celtics where he was Bill Russell’s understudy for three years (and where he won three championships), and ultimately led him to St. Anthony High School in Washington before Georgetown hired him in 1972.
The team he inherited went 3-23 the year before he arrived and had been to one NCAA Tournament. What he soon built was a regional power that slowly morphed into a national one, even before he lured the signature player of his career, Patrick Ewing, out of Cambridge, Mass., in 1981.
“Coach didn’t BS me,” Ewing said a few years ago, inside the room he now occupies as head coach at Georgetown that he still refers to as “Coach Thompson’s office.”
“He said if you want to drive fancy cars, not go to class, and waste your talent I can tell you where to go. I know who’s recruiting you. Go to those places. But if you want to go to work, I can show you how. He made that promise to me, and he never went back on it.”
Thompson famously kept a deflated basketball in his office – as Ewing still does – a reminder that there is life after the shouting and the tumult. He was also famously protective of his players, sometimes sequestering them far out of town for NCAA games, which gave birth to “Hoya Paranoia.”
And his purview stretched beyond the locker room. He fought against Propositions 48 and 42, arguing standardized entrance tests were culturally biased, and walked off the floor before a game against Boston College in 1989. Later, he would discuss these things in greater depth as a radio host after leaving coaching.
“I’m the same old [jerk] I used to be,” he told me the night Ewing’s number was retired by the Knicks. “I just have a microphone now instead of a whistle.”
But the people who knew Thompson best loved him unerringly – his players, yes, but also the men with whom he helped forge the Big East. Lou Carnesecca never forgot the smile on Thompson’s face that matched the fake sweater he wore the night at the Garden when St. John’s and Georgetown, No. 1 and No. 2, met in 1985.
Thompson spent years advocating for Rollie Massimino to join him in Springfield, Mass., at the Basketball Hall of Fame; it was Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats who handed Thompson his most bitter loss, in the ’85 NCAA Final.
“If that’s the greatest upset of all time, and it is,” Thompson said, “then why isn’t my old friend in the same hall where I’m at?”
And that brings us back to courtside at the Superdome. Back in 1980, Georgetown won the last game ever played at Syracuse’s old gym, ending a 57-game winning streak and had thundered afterward, “MANLEY FIELD HOUSE IS OFFICIALLY CLOSED!” Nobody embodied the passions of the vintage Big East like Syracuse and Georgetown, Boeheim and Thompson.
Now, freshly crowned a champion, Boeheim sought out Thompson, the two men hugged, and it looked like Thompson might actually asphyxiate Boeheim he held him so tight.
“I have great players,” Boeheim said through tears.
“They have a great coach,” Thompson said.
“If that’s so,” Little Jim said, smiling at Big John, “I had some great role models.”
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