John Thompson Jr., who died yesterday at age 78, was already a Washington, D.C. legend before he became Coach Thompson. He had starred, and then some, as a high school player on phenomenal teams at Carroll High; starred at Providence College; and been Bill Russell’s backup on championship Boston Celtics teams. Thompson is still one of the best big men to come out of the D.C. area .
In 1966, Thompson became the coach at St. Anthony’s High in D.C. After a while, he was able to challenge the legendary Morgan Wootten of DeMatha (who also died this year) for supremacy in the super-competitive Catholic League. He never quite got that supremacy, but did compile a 122–28 record.
Relations between the two great coaches became quite strained. It’s not an accident that, to my knowledge, no DeMatha player signed up to play for Thompson at Georgetown.
Thompson became Georgetown’s head coach in 1972. It took a while, but eventually he challenged Lefty Driesell’s Maryland program for area supremacy at the college level. If anything, Thompson got along even worse with Lefty than he had with Wootten.
Georgetown surpassed Maryland in 1980, defeating the Terps in the NCAA tournament 74-68. The Hoyas also beat Maryland earlier in the season. During that game Thompson and Driesell had a shouting match. Witnesses said that Thompson swore at Driesell during the exchange. Thompson later apologized, but the two teams didn’t play each other during the rest of Driesell’s time at Maryland and for some years thereafter.
Thompson’s road to area supremacy and national success was a bumpy one. In 1975, during a bad run for the Hoyas, a bed sheet was unfurled at a home game that read: “Thompson the N***** Flop Must Go.” (The N-word was spelled out.)
Long-time D.C. sports reporter Harold Bell, an African-America, has insisted for years that Thompson himself was behind the sign. To my knowledge, however, there is no evidence to support this conspiracy theory.
Looking back at Georgetown in the 1970s, I think of two games, neither of which anyone seems to remember, that helped form the Coach Thompson that America would come to know. In 1977, an unheralded team from Old Dominion blew out Georgetown on the Hoyas’ home court in a play-in game for the NCAA tournament. The score was 80-58.
The next year, an equally unheralded team from Virginia Commonwealth University ended Georgetown’s NCAA hopes. VCU handed the Hoyas a 88-75 loss at the Smith Center in D.C., a mile or two from the Georgetown campus.
In both games, Georgetown had superior talent, but was out-scrapped and out-quicked by a hungrier opponent. I believe the lessons from these losses influenced Thompson’s recruiting and style of play in the 1980s.
Before that happened, though, Thompson endured another galling tournament-related defeat. In 1980 a very talented Hoya team — one that featured three future NBA players (Sleepy Floyd, Craig Shelton, and John Duren) — led Iowa by 14 points in the second half of a Round of Eight game. But the Hawkeyes, coached by Lute Olson who died just a few days ago, rallied to win, 81-80.
All of this set the stage for “Hoya Paranoia” and the Patrick Ewing era. The paranoia was real. It was evident from the way Thompson had the small cracks near the doors of the team gym taped to prevent spying.
But the true story of this era was the excellence of Georgetown’s teams. With Ewing anchoring the defense, Thompson was able to implement a relentless pressuring defensive approach similar to what ODU and VCU had thrown at him a few years earlier. Thompson no longer relied solely on superior talent. Now, he relied on superior talent magnified by a defense that perfectly fit the players he had recruited.
The Ewing teams reached the NCAA final game in three out of their four years. They won one championship. It took a late Michael Jordan shot and a near-perfect game by Villanova to deprive Thompson of two others.
Thompson, Jr. never made it back to the Final Four. Even with Dikembe Mutombo and later Alonzo Mourning at center, the Hoyas couldn’t quite replicate the success and quality of play of the Ewing era. Nor during Allen Iverson’s two-year stint at Georgetown did Thompson reach the heights of that era. In Iverson’s second year, 1996, the Hoyas made it to the Elite Eight, but suffered a 86-62 loss at the hands of John Calipari’s UMass team.
Georgetown missed out on the tournament in 1997 and went out in the first round in 1998. Thompson resigned in the middle of the 98-99 season, citing marital problems. His college coaching record was 596–239 (.714).
Perhaps the most vivid memory of Coach Thompson in the post-Ewing era is of him walking off the court before a 1989 home game to protest the NCAA’s Proposition 48, a prohibition on scholarship athletes playing their freshman year if they failed to qualify academically. Thompson was thus an early combatant in the war on standards.
After retiring from coaching, Thompson became a sports radio host. His program was in the afternoon, so I rarely was able to tune in.
When I did, I was surprised to find a rather jovial incarnation of John Thompson, II. At times, he sounded like a deejay, minus the records. He seemed to have shed parts of the persona he formed during his quest to surpass the Morgan Woottens and the Lefty Driesells, and to reach the top of his profession — a persona that even some of his former players and friends came to dislike.
Thompson did reach the mountain top. He did so while running a clean program and seeing the vast majority of his players graduate. And in a profession full of larger than life characters, Thompson was one of the largest and maybe the most distinctive.