John Thompson Jr. had a number of photos hanging in his office at Georgetown University during his coaching days. They all meant something special.
But one in particular had deep and personal significance for him — a photo that captured one of those defining early-career moments when the District native made it clear he intended to knock down the walls that had kept Black coaches on the outside looking in.
It was a conference title game in 1975, and the 18-10 Hoyas faced the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown, as tough a place to play as there was.
Georgetown was behind 61-60 with five seconds left when Derrick Jackson hit an 18-footer to give the Hoyas a 62-61 win and their first entry into the NCAA Tournament under Thompson, a District basketball legend who took over the program three years before.
“You know who caught that ball for West Virginia when it went through the net?” Thompson said in his conversation with me several years ago for my Cigars & Curveballs podcast. “It was Bob Huggins (who would go on to become one of the great coaches in college basketball and who has coached West Virginia since 2007).
“I always used to tell Huggins that I have a great picture of you,” Thompson said. “You caught one of the most significant shots we ever made. That shot put Georgetown in its first NCAA Tournament and that is when we realized we were getting there with the big boys. That game at West Virginia was a turning point when we thought we could start dancing with the big boys.”
Thompson took a sledgehammer to the wall blocking his way, until nine years later he became the first Black coach to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship.
He lived the life of a trailblazer, and that is a special kind of life.
Everything you do, you have to do it better than anyone before you, because no one else has done it yet. You have to succeed when the walls are built for you to make you fail and battle those who desperately want to see you fail. And there were many when Thompson took his Georgetown team, led by Patrick Ewing, to three NCAA Final Fours from 1982 to 1985 and the 1984 national championship.
When he was done in 1999, Thompson had an illustrious record of 596-239 with seven Big East titles, a conference Thompson helped build. He would be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. And then he embarked on a successful career as a broadcaster and sports talk radio host — ironic for someone who was seen as a foe of the media when he coached.
Thompson did what trailblazers do — they break through barriers, often with their own rules.
There were many great players who wore the Georgetown uniform for Thompson, but the players who defined the iconic coach’s era with the Hoyas were Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.
In our podcast conversation, Thompson recalled the way all three arrived:
“I saw Patrick play when he was in the 10th grade. I went to Boston to see another kid play and was sitting with Red Auerbach and my assistant coach. The game was in the Boston Garden. In watching this other kid play, I saw this 10th grader running up and down the court. I said, Oh my God, the intensity with which he played with. Certainly he was learning at that time but he was still skilled. I said to my assistant coach, instead of the other kid, get me him.
“The biggest thing that helped us get Alonzo was his admiration for Patrick. And he tells me now that occurred mostly when we played in 1982 against North Carolina. He saw Patrick blocking a lot of shots. I had told him (Ewing) don’t let anything go in the basket. I didn’t care whether it was goaltending or not. Alonzo said he saw that and that gave him great admiration for Patrick.
“He (Allen) recruited me, I didn’t recruit him. We laugh now. Boo Williams (the legendary Hampton Roads coach) called me one day that he and some people from that area wanted to come up to talk to me. I guess Allen, it was right at the point he was coming out of prison, and not many schools wanted him. They were very afraid of the perception getting somebody coming out of prison.
“I said, ‘Boo, I don’t know. It is a difficult thing. But if you come up, I will talk with you.’ So they came up and we met in my office, about six people, telling me that he was a nice kid and deserved a chance. I wasn’t buying it. I wasn’t partial, but I don’t know if the school needs that kind of pressure we would be under.
“His mother asked all of them to leave the room. They left, and she just broke down. She told me in essence that if you don’t take my son, they’re going to kill my son. I told her let me think about it.
“They left. I got to thinking I want to take this kid. I don’t know how many doors he’s got to go through, an African-American kid who is in that position. I said I would like to take the chance.”
Of course he would. That’s what trailblazers do. It is the life John Thompson lived.
You can hear Thom Loverro Tuesdays and Thursdays on The Kevin Sheehan Podcast and Wednesday afternoons on Chad Dukes Vs. The World on 106.7 The Fan.