Beginning with former president Barack Obama, the hour-long event featured dozens of people who shared stories and lessons learned from the coach. Tied to Thompson in different ways, they reiterated similar ideas: Thompson’s voice carried significant weight as he provided direction to players and others he mentored. Through his thoughtfulness and wisdom, the national title-winning coach transcended sports with his contributions to the community.
“What made Coach Thompson special, what compelled us to celebrate his life today, is what he did to build young men — to turn them into men of character and purpose,” Obama said during the service held by the Thompson family and Georgetown on Facebook Live. “… Coach Thompson molded that raw talent into something better by showing them not just new skills but new possibilities for themselves and for their lives.”
Thompson led the Georgetown basketball program from 1972 to 1999, and he embraced how sports could become a gateway to opportunity for young men. He became the first Black coach to lead his team to an NCAA basketball championship in 1984, when Georgetown beat Houston for the title.
Mark Thompson, a manager at Georgetown from 1986 to 1988, said he called into John Thompson’s radio show on Election Day in 2008, when Obama became the first Black man elected president. Thompson thanked the former Georgetown coach for how he helped lead the way to the historic moment.
“He said, ‘Mark, what in the hell are you talking about?’ ” Mark Thompson said. “I said, ‘Coach, you helped to raise our dream ceiling.’ … Coach said, ‘Mark, get the hell off my show before you make me cry.’ ”
Thompson’s success instilled pride in the Black community. Mark Thompson remembered how many people wondered whether Georgetown was a historically Black school, and he called Georgetown’s 1982 Final Four appearance “a moment of power and pride for African Americans.”
“Coach represented an invincible Black America because he was an invincible Black man,” Thompson said. “And we all needed a father or an extra father because even the fathers in our life were beaten down. He gave even the brothers on the block something better for which to hope. That is why they responded when Coach called.”
Georgetown’s program is now led by Patrick Ewing, one of Thompson’s standout players. Ewing described Thompson as “a proud Black man” and someone whom he, when he was younger, would strive to emulate. After learning of Thompson’s death, Ewing said, “I felt like I had lost a father.”
Other former players, including Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, spoke about Thompson, as did recent graduates of the program who weren’t coached by Thompson but still felt the impact of his 27 years at the school.
“He led us to a place where we might better be able to live up to our ideals,” said John DeGioia, the president of Georgetown. “… We are the university that we are today because of John Thompson.”
Thompson mentored younger coaches and earned the respect of his peers. During the service, they remembered him as someone who stood up for what was right and for his players.
“Coach Thompson meant the world to me,” Providence Coach Ed Cooley said. “He was an African American coach who won a national championship, who put a Catholic school on the national stage. He talked about integrity. He talked about character. He cared about his players.”
Thompson famously met with a drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond III, asking him to stay away from his players. And Thompson boycotted two games in 1989 after the NCAA adopted a proposition that would deny athletic scholarships to players who didn’t meet minimum scores on standardized tests.
“He was brave then. It’s astonishing in hindsight,” Obama said. “And it helped change the NCAA’s stance. We haven’t banished injustice from our society — far from it. But we are living through a golden age of young Black activism. We’re living through a golden age of activism on the basketball court, too.
“Coach Thompson didn’t like it when people called him a pioneer. But there is no doubt his example has echoed down the generations. There is no doubt his imprint endures.”
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