Coach John Thompson Jr., who died Monday two days short of his 79th birthday, was a flawed man, but one of the greatest men I’ve ever met. I had the good fortune to share the duties of sports editor of the Georgetown HOYA student newspaper the year Thompson won the national championship. I send out this special edition of my newsletter to share my column on his legacy before the news of his death recedes from the headlines.

(Aug. 31) From the front row of the Seattle Kingdome on April 2, 1984, Georgetown students felt like we too were being hugged by John Thompson Jr.

First, the huge coach hugged Fred Brown, the hug that brought a great story full circle. Then he hugged star center Patrick Ewing, a hug of unmitigated joy between two people who will be legends as long as basketball is played. The Georgetown Hoyas were national champions at the apex of college basketball’s mid-1980s popularity, and they did it as one of the most controversial teams in history.

Thompson, who died overnight at age 78, was one of the most admirable but most divisive figures in the sport. He was the first black man ever to coach the NCAA champions, but he hated that distinction because he said it implied no other black men before him had been good enough. Every player on his team at the time was black, but that was by happenstance (transfers due to family tragedy), not design. His team played with sharp elbows and chips on their shoulders, along with an attitude Sports Illustrated dubbed “Hoya Paranoia,” but as individuals they were trained to be some of the most gracious of men.

Thompson was known for taking risks on kids who had academic or at times behavioral problems, but nobody in basketball stressed academics more intensely than Thompson did. If his players were not on the road for a game, they attended every single class, without fail. If they didn’t, they were punished. If they repeatedly failed to, they were off the team. But if they stayed four years, then (with only two early exceptions), they graduated. Every single one.

And, as recounted in these pages before, Thompson had the courage and stature to stand up to one of the most dangerous drug lords in Washington, D.C., with one writer saying Thompson “single-handedly scared the s— out of one of the most infamous drug dealers in U.S. history.” The drug lord, Rayful Edmond, never bothered Thompson’s players again, and he turned his life around in prison, becoming a model prisoner who provided great help for years to federal prosecutors….

[The full column is here.]


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