The passing of John Thompson, announced by his family in a written statement on Monday, is the physical transitioning of a figurative and literal giant. No details were publicly provided on the cause of Thompson’s death. But it is the immeasurable impact he had on sports, society, and the lives of numerous men and women in his 78 years of life that is far more significant.
“More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear everyday,” read the statement. “We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us.”
As much as being defined as the first Black coach to win the NCAA men’s Division I basketball championship in 1984, a two-time NBA champion as a backup center for the Boston Celtics from 1964 to 1966, recipient of seven Coach of the Year awards while at the helm of Georgetown University’s program from 1972 to 1999, profoundly shaping the lives and careers of Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson among many others, and his own induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, Thompson’s legacy is framed by his activism for racial equality and social justice.
He was unapologetically pro-Black, which some of Thompson’s detractors, of which a plethora were members of the media, dishonestly spun as anti-white. They accused him of using his imposing size of 6-foot-10, 270 pounds, as a stereotypical means of intimidation. Yet those who knew Thompson well understood his position on race wasn’t to deride anyone based on color or ethnicity.
It was to call out systemic racism when and where it existed in his orbit, utilizing his large dimensions not so much as a threat of bodily harm, but a necessary reminder that his words and actions should be heeded in earnest. Like in January 1989, when Thompson walked off the Capital Center court in Landover, Maryland, prior to Georgetown hosting Boston College, to protest Proposition 42.
The rule, established months earlier and scheduled to take effect beginning in the 1990-’91 academic year, would require incoming freshman student-athletes entering Division-I institutions to meet a minimum standard of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or 15 on the American College Test (ACT), and hold a 2.0 grade point average in high school to initially be awarded an athletic scholarship.
There was widespread opposition to a legislation that had implicit racial bias and potential deleterious ramifications for thousands of young Black men whose families were living at or below the poverty line, and unable to afford to pay for their education at leading colleges and universities—even for a single year. Long after retiring from coaching, Thompson reflected and expounded on his demonstration in an interview with journalist Gary Miller on the ESPN show “Up Close.”
“Well, the thing that I felt is this was happening and you were putting in this legislation that would inhibit a lot of young kids from having an opportunity to become doctors, lawyers or whatever else they wanted to be, not just basketball players,” said Thompson.
“Basketball has never been just about basketball,” he elaborated. “It’s a stupid game if it’s just about basketball…But that stupid game has provided a lot of opportunities, and now you go make this legislation, and you deprive a lot of kids from coming through the only tunnel that they might have getting into the world of work or getting into the world of opportunity, so I resented that…”
Those words are the essence of John Thompson, resonating expansively today as athletes exercise their agency to address vast racial and social injustice in America.