On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
John Thompson Jr. had a global impact on the sport of basketball, as the first African-American coach to lead a team to an NCAA championship, and a mentor to some of the biggest names to ever play the game. But Washington is at the core of Thompson’s story. He grew up in the District, attended Catholic schools, and commanded as much influence as anyone at Georgetown University, the place he coached for three decades.
Former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson Jr. talks about his encounters with racist behavior at both Georgetown and as a player in Boston. Thompson and Kojo talked about racist tweets that surfaced Wednesday in reaction to a series-winning overtime goal by Washington Capitals player Joel Ward against the Boston Bruins. Thompson said that unfortunately, this kind of reaction could happen anywhere and that the actions of a few shouldn’t be associated with a whole city or institution:
Watch The Full Interview
Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson chats with Kojo about his life and career
- John Thompson Jr. Former Basketball Coach, Georgetown University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. John Thompson is a man with a story that's as complicated as Washington, D.C., the city where he grew up and the city where he built a Hall of Fame coaching career at Georgetown University. He's been called a trailblazer, the first black coach to lead a team to an NCAA championship.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd he's been called a bully, an architect of ferocious teams who challenged the culture of collegiate athletics every bit as much as they challenged their opponents on the court. He patrolled the sidelines at Georgetown with a trademark towel on his shoulder for three decades. And his son John Thompson III coaches the team there now.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThrough it all, the city John Thompson calls home continued to change around him, his teams and his school, from the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the riots that devastated much of the District to the recent resurgence of neighborhoods that's coincided with the resurgence of Georgetown basketball itself right in the heart of the city. John Thompson joins us in studio. He was the coach of the men's basketball team at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999, where he remains coach emeritus.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe was born and raised in Washington, D.C., where he attended Archbishop Carroll High School. He played professionally for the Boston Celtics, and he was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team at the 1988 games. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. As we mentioned, his son John Thompson III is now the head basketball coach at Georgetown. Coach Thompson, good to see you again, good to have you in studio.
THOMPSONThank you. It's a pleasure. I assure you it's a pleasure.
NNAMDIA lot of people these days are familiar with the modern-day Big John and Little John. Your son is now the coach at Georgetown and a celebrity in his own right. But they're less familiar with the John who was your father, the mechanic who raised you with your mother in the shadow of Catholic University. How would you describe your father, your home and the city that you grew up in?
THOMPSONWell, probably, I would say loving, you know, because a lot of times when people talk to you and if you grew up and you were in public housing or you were so-called deprived -- I was never deprived. You know, I did live in public housing, but I was never deprived because I had love. And I think my father worked extremely hard. And I tell people, even though I'm John MR. John Thompson and the one that's -- that imposter over there at Georgetown, I tell them that the real John Thompson was somebody who was really special. The two of us are just wannabes.
NNAMDIHe was the real one.
THOMPSONHe was the real one 'cause he had to support -- Kojo, he had to support his family, and he had to work extremely hard without any form of motivation or incentive from others. So I had a great deal of respect and do still today have a great deal of respect for my dad.
NNAMDIIt's often said that you had a strict Catholic upbringing. What did that mean?
THOMPSONWell, I don't know what that means, really.
THOMPSONYou know, they threw me out of Catholic school when I was in the fifth grade. And then I went to Harrison Elementary School right there at 15th -- I mean, 13th and V Street Northwest. That's where I graduated from. And then I went to Browne Junior High School on Benning Road. So, you know, I have been Catholic all of my life and certainly proud of that fact. And the nuns wore me out. Those were the days when child abuse was not illegal.
NNAMDII hear you.
THOMPSONAnd I assure you I got abused.
NNAMDII -- so did I in high schools when there was still corporal punishment in high schools. Talk a little bit about your memories of race growing up in Washington. It's my understanding your father used to take you to Senators games at Griffith Stadium, but that you were more partial to the Cleveland Indians who had players who were breaking down racial barriers like Larry Doby.
THOMPSONWell -- and I think, you know, Washington Senators definitely was a home team, you know, right down there on Georgia Avenue. At that time, I was living at 1425 W St. N.W., you know. And we used to walk, Kojo, to the Griffith Stadium anytime the Cleveland Indians came in town because that was a team that had an African-American -- in fact, the second African-American who came into baseball several weeks after Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, number 14, center fielder.
THOMPSONSo we would go to Griffith Stadium, and that was probably my first introduction to major league sports, period. My dad would be in the bleachers, yelling and screaming for Doby and arguing with the guy behind him. We had a lot of fun. But that probably gave me the sports bug as much as anything.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation with John Thompson 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. When basketball came into the picture for you, you started spending a lot of time at local playgrounds and a lot of time at Police Boys Club No. 2, a place where a few legendary players like Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing grew up as well. What drew you to the Police Boys Club?
THOMPSONWell, it started -- the Boys Club started for me at U Street Northwest. When I was at 1425 W, as I told you, I was at Police Boys Club No. 13. Then I moved out into far Northeast. But the thing that drew me to the club was the fact that a lot of Washington was segregated at that time. And the players that played with me at John Carroll High School could play in the Jelleff's Boys Club League on Wisconsin Avenue. But the African-Americans had to go to Police Boys Club. So I got attached to Police Boys Club No. 2 with Bill Butler and Mr. Wyatt and spent a lot of time there.
THOMPSONIn fact, I almost lived there when I was not in school or not doing something else. So you just sort of got -- you know, it was a place to hang out. You didn't have a lot of indoor facilities the way kids have today. We played in the backyard there. If you looked at it now, my sons and my grandchildren would look at it and say, "You played there?" You know, it looked like a backyard more than it did a court.
NNAMDIIt's a history of Washington in a lot of ways. It wasn't just the big-time players who gathered at those playgrounds. Red Auerbach, the man who eventually coached you on the Boston Celtics, he used to make the rounds at those blacktop courts, it's my understanding. I read once that you actually ran into some racism as a -- at a court just down the street from here, Chevy Chase Playground at Livingston Street and Western Avenues.
THOMPSONWell -- and what really happened is, first of all, as to Red -- and that was one of the reasons why I respected Red an awful lot -- if you can imagine a guy winning as many championships as he won, Kojo, but yet during his spare time, sitting out on a playground, giving instructions or talking to young people. So I have a lot of love and admiration for Auerbach for doing that, you know?
THOMPSONBut a lot of the guys in the inner-city would come up -- in my latter years, you'd come up to Chevy Chase Playground, where I think it's a library there now.
THOMPSONYou know, and we always said they built a library because too many African-Americans were coming there. But at one point where we would come up there, there was a painting on the ground of the playground: Niggers, go home. You know, and -- at that point, you know, you go through a lot of foolishness. You know, there's always -- I guess, ignorance will always be among us, you know, at some point.
NNAMDIYep. Well, you know, you talked about, during your time at Georgetown, there was a time when somebody had a banner -- hung a banner out a window with the word nigger on it, tell that nigger coach to go back where he came from or worse, to that effect. And your concern was about the young people who may have been seen that sign.
THOMPSONWell -- and I think that it wasn't indicative of the university. You know, my biggest concern with something like that is that you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't, because, first of all, everybody in the school, that didn't reflect their views of me, nor did it reflect their views of black folks. And, generally, when something like that happens, you know, the (word?), the words that were said to you, people tend to generalize and associate it with the entire institution, which would be unfair.
THOMPSONSo I minimized it as much as I possibly could. The other thing which was dangerous about that kind of action is the fact that if you're an African-American parent and you hear about things like that going on, you're going to be a little reluctant to send your child to the school. So recruiting was my lifeline. So you had to sort of minimize something like that.
NNAMDIWell, you know, a lot of people would love to believe that we have entered a post-racial era, but I do have to tell you that when Joel Ward scored the winning goal for the Capitals...
THOMPSONI'm aware of that.
NNAMDI...last night to eliminate the Boston Bruins, Boston Red Sox fans were throwing that nigger word all up and down tweets last night, simply because he happened to be the one who scored to eliminate them from the playoffs.
THOMPSONWell, and, you know, I made a living in Boston, you know what I mean, and being with the Celtics. And that's the thing that bothers me when I see something like that, is the fact that that does not reflect the view of everybody. You know, it reflects the view of a few ignorant people who are still among us. And when something like that happens, you know, I have just as many friends that are white in Boston who are embarrassed about it or angry about it as I do friends that are black.
THOMPSONBut it rips the scab off. You reflect on what has happened to you in the past, and you say, "My God, this still exists. This still happens." You know, here's a guy that scores the final goal for the Caps, and, you know, then you have to be faced with that kind of adversity. You talked about Larry Doby.
THOMPSONWell, Larry Doby, when he came into the league second to Jackie Robinson, he couldn't even get a baseball glove to play first base from his own teammates. He had to get it from -- borrow it from the other team. He couldn't get anybody to warm up with him. But, OK, you said that was the sign of that time. But now, when you hear this happening now, it's really disgusting because it reflects on people that it shouldn't reflect on in some instances.
NNAMDIIt certainly does. 800-433-8850 is the name to call if you'd like to join this conversation. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with John Thompson He was the coach of the men's basketball team at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999. And he started a radio show based here in Washington in 1998, from which he just retired. You eventually starred for a legendary run of teams at Archbishop Carroll. Let's take a look at your Carroll team for one minute, which played in the city title three years in a row.
NNAMDIYou became a national champion as a coach at Georgetown. Now, you're on the board of one of the biggest companies in the world, Nike. Tom Hoover, your teammate, played at Villanova, then for the New York Knicks. And Monk Malloy played at Notre Dame, became a priest, and eventually became the president of the University of Notre Dame. When you guys were all playing together, what sense did you have about where you all might be heading down the road as people? And I can also mention one your opponents at Spingarn, Dave Bing, who's now the mayor of Detroit.
THOMPSONDave Bing, Ollie Johnson, you know, there was a lot of fun at that time. Well, I don't think you have a sense at that age of where this would lead you to. You know, you are happy. You were trying to win ball games. It was a new environment to me, going from the D.C. public school system, which I spent more time in probably than I ever did in the Catholic school system.
THOMPSONAnd, you know, going to Carroll and making an adjustment, you start to win ball games. A lot of excitement is involved. You're being recruited. As you say -- said, Tom Hoover was a great player. Monk Malloy became the president of Notre Dame. George Leftwich...
THOMPSON...who is the athletic director now up at John Carroll, was probably one of the most competitive players that I ever played with. So those are refreshing and exciting memories that you have of things like that. But along with all of that, there comes educational situations that you have to learn to adjust to because, see, at that time -- and you touched on it just a little bit. We might have won 55 games in a row here in Washington, D.C.
THOMPSONBut during the summertime, the white players could only play west of the park. You know, they couldn't only play. They played west of the park. But that's how I got attached to No. 2 Sherwood and those places because we couldn't even play in summer league tournaments with the guys that we were winning championships with at a Catholic school. So, you know, you had to adjust to that. You had to be able to digest that and deal with it and put it in a proper perspective as you grow up.
NNAMDII'll get to that proper perspective thing later, but first to the telephones. Here is Elizabeth in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHThank you. John, I doubt that you remember me at all. I was the athletic director at Sidwell Friends School until 1983. And Eddie Saw (sp?) worked for me, and I know he coached in your summer league. And I think you brought your son over to Sidwell at one point to see if you wanted to have him come to the school. So I became a fan of yours then, mostly by talking to Eddie, and have sort of followed you for years.
ELIZABETHYou've been such a wonderful role model. The whole thing was top -- I think was top 49 with the NCAA.
NNAMDIForty-eight, I think.
ELIZABETHAnd your radio show, I've loved listening to, and, if I'm watching a game on the final four, I'd rather turn the radio on to listen to you than listen to the TV people. And it's fascinating to know more about your history. I know you were at Carroll. What are you doing now? Are you totally retired and why did you decide to retire from the radio show?
THOMPSONWell, the word retire is not in my vocabulary. First of all, let me clarify. I resigned.
THOMPSONWhen you retire, people stop paying you.
THOMPSONSo I never retire. I still do some work for the university. I'm still doing some work for TNT Sports with the NBA, and I'm still on the board of directors at -- what do you call it? -- at Nike, as well as I'm doing some Westwood One national radio. So I had about five jobs.
NNAMDIHe's down to four now.
THOMPSONSo I'm down to four, and it's time for me to step back from a daily assignment that I did. I enjoyed the radio immensely and enjoyed learning and hearing perspectives from other people, just as you're calling in.
NNAMDIMm hmm. Thank you very much for your call, and I'm glad he left the radio because that is what allows him to be available to be on this radio show today. So thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation with John Thompson, call us at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Thompson He was the coach of the men's basketball team at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1979 where he remains coach emeritus. He was also the host of "The John Thompson Radio Show" from 1998 until this year here in Washington, D.C. You played your college ball at Providence, but I was also intrigued by the story of who took you in when you lived there. Who are Harold and Marty Furash?
THOMPSONYeah, well, it was a family in Boston, and, really, they took me in more so when I was with the Celtics. But they would come down and watch the games when I was at Providence College. And I spent an awful lot of time and learned a lot of family. They're a Jewish family that was in Westwood, Mass. And they treated me as if I were their son, you know what I mean, and really exposed me to a lot of things that I had not been exposed to. And I was away from home at the time.
THOMPSONAnd I enjoyed, most of all, in the evenings just sitting and talking with them and debating with them, and particularly Marty Furash. But I had a great deal of time. And it's like everything else, Kojo. A lot of people contribute to your education and exposing you to things. I tell people, I went to college to play basketball. I didn't go to college to get an education. I went to play basketball.
THOMPSONBut after meeting people and being exposed to people, the value of being there for something else other than playing basketball connected itself to you. You know, certainly, my mother and my father told me the importance of it. But sometimes, you listen to things more clearly when others say it than when your parents say it to you.
NNAMDIIndeed, listening is one of the things you apparently did very well. You played for two years as a backup to the legendary center Bill Russell.
NNAMDIBut on a philosophical level, you said you learned a lot from him and a quote he said, "Back then, I'd listened a lot." He was black before it was fashionable to be black.
THOMPSONWell, he was. I tell people that, first of all, I played -- I know how the man felt that played behind Michael Jordan. He didn't get in the game. You know, and when you play against guys who are considered to be the best in the world, that's what's going to happen to you. Russell won 11 championships and had only 10 fingers, you know? And so I had an opportunity to take advantage of learning and listening. But one of the things about him that I respected, and I said this to him, Kojo, and I don't think he really comprehended what I was saying to him.
THOMPSONI said, the thing I respect most about you is not the fact that you won as much as you won, and I respect you for that, or you played as well as you play. I said, but you made me feel safe. And I think he thought that I was talking about a physical safeness...
THOMPSON...which I was never physically afraid when I was living in Boston or when I was living away from home. But, psychologically, because of what he represented, what he stood for and how he did things, I knew that nobody would fool with me.
NNAMDIYou said, I never heard him give any speeches, but he has very strong feelings that run deep inside, and he does have the courage of his convictions. And that said to me, John Thompson was taking a measure of this man.
THOMPSONNo, there's no question about that. I mean, I wasn't playing. What else could I do, you know?
THOMPSONNo, I did because I respected him. And I noticed how he generated respect from other people, and it just didn't relate to his ability to play the game. Bill Russell was the first person -- African-American person that I ever heard refer to himself as black. To call a person black in those days was an insult. It's very close to the N word at that point in time. But Russell was always extremely proud of calling himself black.
THOMPSONHe's the first person I ever met that gave his kids African names, you know? And he did not intrude upon what you believed in. He did it with self-confidence about that's what he represented. And just in watching him as a young person at that time, I said, this guy is kind of different. But he gave me a certain feeling of psychological security. You see, we're just having a war in Boston.
NNAMDIYeah. Mm hmm.
THOMPSONOK. And I don't think that's just indicative of Boston. I think we'd like to find specific cities and label those cities and, as I said, really generalize.
NNAMDIThat could've happened anywhere.
THOMPSONThat could've happened anywhere. OK. But in the meantime, Russell was the kind of guy that the spillover from that would not have bothered me because I would've known that not only would he protect himself.
THOMPSONHe would allow me to have a certain amount of feeling of being safe psychological. Psychological abuse is sometimes far worse than physical abuse. You can retaliate with physical abuse in many ways. But, psychologically, especially for a young person, it was damaging. And he made me feel comfortable.
NNAMDIAnd that feeling of being safe apparently is what you wanted your players to have when they came, whether it was from St. Anthony's in the early years or other public school systems around the country, to Georgetown University. You wanted to make sure that they not only felt safe, but that they also felt that they were there appropriately. You said -- and I remember this, oh, when there was the debate over Proposition 48...
MR. SCOTT WALLACEForty-two.
NNAMDI...forty-two, that it was not how good you were academically when you came in but when you left. And so you took steps to make sure that your players had the kind of guidance and counseling that would allow them to graduate in what everybody knows is a fairly stringent academic environment.
NNAMDII couldn't help thinking about that when just a week ago, a young man wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post saying that he had gone from D.C. public schools and the charter schools to Georgetown, and that the D.C. public schools were not preparing young people properly for the campus at Georgetown University. He nevertheless made it through his freshman year and looks preparedly -- looks fairly well set to make it through school.
NNAMDIBut I just wanted to hear your own philosophy about that, about young people coming from inner-city schools into an environment like Georgetown, and what it took to have them graduate.
THOMPSONWell, first of all -- and I've said this an awful lot and probably said it too much -- I couldn't read in the sixth grade. I was not able to read. Had there not been for reading clinics that they started, (word?) Wallace-Jackson, Dr. Harry Lewis, Sister Eunice and people who took a chance on me and pushed me, the Furashes, who you cited, people who sat down. A lot of kids in this town, even today, are not educated properly not through their own desire, not through their own doing, that they have not been exposed to, they have not been assisted.
THOMPSONSee, my philosophy was this. I'm going to fight with the world to give you a chance. But if you don't take advantage of that chance, I'm going to get you the hell out of here. The people that gave you the chance don't have to worry. I'm not going to put that burden on them. But if this university takes a chance and gives you an opportunity, there are enough professors, there are enough people to give you support.
THOMPSONBut the bad thing about it is that, once you start to do that, people thought that everybody that I tried to get into Georgetown was somebody who needed help, need a special help. That was not the case. You know as well as I knew that most institutions make exceptions for a lot of people in various categories. I tried to give some kids an opportunity who I thought also could contribute athletically to the university. I wouldn't just -- St. Francis of Assisi is running out here grabbing people that couldn't play ball. That was my specialty.
THOMPSONThat was something that I could use to influence while I won ball games, but I could influence people in trying to get an education. But there were people who help me, Kojo. And I know that I would not have been in a position as a teacher, I would not have been in a position that I was in had someone not given me an opportunity. And that's what you're talking about the young man here in the District. Sure, he can talk about the educational system in a district all you want to, but you still have to survive.
THOMPSONYou know, you can't go back. There's no re-runs. You know, you've got to understand that if you were lucky enough, you're one of the few that came out that system that's lucky enough to get into a Georgetown.
THOMPSONWell, if you got there, make sure you damn sight took advantage of it. And don't worry too much about what it was until you get out of it and then try to politically or economically or whatever way you can change the system.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones 'cause there are a lot of people who want to talk to you. Let's start with Tubby in Washington, D.C. Tubby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. TUBBY SMITHGood morning, John. Kojo, how you doing?
NNAMDIHow are you?
SMITHI'm doing well. I just wanted to tell you how much respect we have for John Thompson as a college basketball coach. He's been a role model to so many coaches, not just African-American but many coaches. And I just want to thank you, John. On my way down to (unintelligible) through Saint Mary's -- into Saint Mary's County, but I just wanted to let you know how much...
NNAMDITubby, tell our listeners what your last name is.
SMITHSmith, Tubby Smith.
NNAMDIThis is Tubby Smith. Coach Tubby Smith, John.
THOMPSONUh oh, watch it. Tubby's been trying to get me for years. Tubby...
SMITHSo I've been trying to be like you, Coach Thompson. But, you know ...
THOMPSONTubby, ladies and gentleman, is one of the finest coaches in America. He won a national championship...
THOMPSON...and he's an educator -- he's an educator himself. And he's been trying to get me to sell him a little piece property that I have down in Solomons Island, but I won't give it to him.
NNAMDIIs this phone call another attempt to cajole him into selling you that property?
THOMPSONIt is, Kojo.
SMITHI'm trying to let people know how great a person he is.
SMITHAnd so when we starting negotiating, it'll be a lot easier.
THOMPSONYou know what you call that, Tubby?
THOMPSONFattening frogs for snakes.
THOMPSONI'm the frog and you're the snake. Nice hearing from you.
NNAMDITubby, thank you very much for your call.
SMITHThank you. It's so good to be hearing you speak, Coach Thompson, and talk about what, you know, living in this area and what it meant to you to go to a Catholic school and what it meant to you to get an education. He's done a fantastic job. And I just want everyone that I can (unintelligible) listening voice to know the importance of John Thompson's life has meant to so many coaches around this country and around the world.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We kind of knew that, Tubby, that's why we wanted to bring him back home in this broadcast so that people who are new to Washington could understand just how rooted John Thompson is in Washington, D.C. And I guess maybe Father John Mudd on the phone may want to talk about that. Father John Mudd, thank you for calling. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMPSONFather Mudd was a student at John Carroll High School when I was there.
NNAMDIWhoa, Father Mudd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FATHER JOHN MUDDA great show, Kojo. I was just going to say that. I was a year behind John at Carroll High School. And I can tell you that I and my classmates, we revered John, and we revered that team. Those days, we had a tremendous respect for John. And I followed his career at Providence at Boston, back at St. Anthony's in Washington, at Georgetown and the radio. I listen to those radio -- I listened to his radio show often. John, I had the greatest admiration for you. I have always respected you. I think you're a great man.
FATHER JOHN MUDDYou've done so much good for this city, so much good for the young people on our city, and I just wanted to say that. Great admiration and great respect, and I know I speak for many people, too, John, not just myself when I say that.
THOMPSONThank you, Father. But do me a favor, will you? Send that message up to God 'cause he knows the bad things I've done in life.
MUDDI can't do that. I can't forgive sin over the phone. You got to come here in person for that one.
THOMPSONI hear you, Father. Thanks so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. It's my understanding that one of the students who tutored your players in the early days of Georgetown was a young man who did a pretty decent job of climbing the career ladder at Georgetown later in life. Jack DeGioia, who's been a guest on this show, eventually became president of the school.
THOMPSONWell, he's special in my life. Jack DeGioia is now presently the president of Georgetown University and is the dandiest thing in the world, Kojo. You try to tell kids, be careful how you deal with people because you never know who you're dealing with.
NNAMDIHe could be your boss later in life.
THOMPSONAnd that's what happened. Jack DeGioia was a football player and a track guy at Georgetown. He and I -- I hang around school late at night because I was worried about getting the program going, and we got involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes together. And it came down to a point that wouldn't be anybody show up but he and I. We would be in the locker room doing what people from the Fellowship of Christian Athlete -- I don't want to say I'm too religious because that's not me.
THOMPSONBut we were praying. OK. And this guy grows up, that I hung out with, just a student, and becomes the president of the university and is presently now my boss. But, you know, he is a special person anyway because he did a lot of work in South Africa. He's done a lot of work and been conscientious about deprived people. And I know that he worked with Mr. Mandela, and he worked with a lot of people. And I can't say enough about President DeGioia, but he was just a kid.
THOMPSONHe was a -- I could very easily said, get the heck away from me. I don't have time for you. But, luckily -- and I'm saying luckily, not spiritually -- luckily, I befriended a guy who turns out now to be my boss at Georgetown University. He's the president of the college.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Father John Mudd. We move on now to Carla in Silver Spring, Md. Carla, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLAHi, Kojo. I met you at the thing in Oxon Hill that you were the moderator for.
NNAMDIA moderator, the thing in Oxon Hill?
CARLAFor the book about Henrietta Lacks.
NNAMDIOh, sure. Of course...
NNAMDI...that was with the Creative Dialogues at the university -- with the University of Maryland Clarice Smith Center. Yes. Go ahead, please.
CARLAYeah. That was wonderful. Yeah. My concern is that student athletes, particularly in football and basketball, don't all graduate and that they can't get summer jobs because a lot of schools, like the University of Michigan where my daughter goes, they have to play their sports all year round and condition all year round. And they should be doing something to make money like other kids do and have other life experiences. What do you think, Mr. Thompson?
NNAMDIAllow me to have John Thompson respond. I guess one of his most famous players, Patrick Ewing, worked as a page in the Congress during the time when he was playing at Georgetown.
THOMPSONWell, he did. And, you know, I understand what she's saying, but I don't believe that all students do any more or any less than other athletes do. You know me, I don't see a bunch of students that I know who are non-athletic running around trying to get jobs and trying to work and support themselves. I see a lot of them talking on cellphones, tweeting and doing those other things that we see doing.
THOMPSONBut I understand where you're coming from, but a lot of the young people that you're talking about see athletics as hope -- it is an opportunity to get out of the situations that they're in. And as I indicated, I didn't go to college for an education. I went to college to play ball, but when I encountered people after college who told me the value of also why I was there -- certainly, my mother tried to influence me. My sisters tried to influence me.
THOMPSONBut I was a knucklehead who didn't pay much attention to that because I thought I was going to be a pro. But until you're in these environments, education doesn't stop in college. See, education doesn't start in college, that if they're exposed to that environment -- a lot of the kids who are participating in sports tend to become educated, Kojo, even after they leave college. Certainly a lot of them don't, but people tend to think that this only pertains to athletes. You know what gets me, Kojo? I'ma tell you.
NNAMDIHe's getting started now.
THOMPSONThe -- yeah, you know, folks start talking about the dropout rate in high school. There are more kids that drop out than are in school than leave school. And we statistically count dropouts only as those people who leave the building. But we have a hell of a lot of kids who stay in the building...
NNAMDIAnd have dropped anyway.
THOMPSON...and have dropped out anyway. So don't just put that label on athletes. But I understand what she's saying, and I think that she's not totally wrong.
NNAMDIWell, whether students are making great or not, how do you feel about the status quo when it comes to them not making any of the money that the NCAA makes off of basketball? That's been a big discussion lately, the NCAA making so much money off of basketball especially in the tournament. And a lot of kids who are in dire circumstances and could use a few dollars here and there are not getting any money. Where do you come down on that issue?
THOMPSONWell, I don't think a lot of them deserve to make money. And let me get that very clear -- make that very clear. I think that the whole system has to be redefined, Kojo, that we operate now in a very primitive -- I had my opportunity to talk with the president of the NCAA. He sat down and spoke with me a couple of weeks ago when I was at a convention. And one of the things that I indicated is that I think that we are operating in an antiquated system.
THOMPSONBut I don't want to hear anybody say that an education is nothing. To the lady's point that just called -- and she's absolutely correct to some extent that I never heard anybody tell somebody who is non-athletic that there was no value in getting an education. You can get room, board, books and tuition, but you also can get an education if you apply yourself. But what scares me a lot of times is that it is portrayed, and particularly to African-American kids, that you get nothing. You get an education. First of all, let's start with that.
NNAMDIHow about the one and out kids, the kids who increasingly are only going to college for one year in order to meet the regulations of the NBA and who really don't plan on getting an education?
THOMPSONWell, I go back to what I say to you originally. That's -- is one and out of an institution. When you leave high educational institutions, you don't stop getting an education if you really want to get an education. I don't like one and out. I don't for the reasons I told you earlier because a lot of the kids who are doing the ones have not been exposed to people who really made them aware of the value of getting an education. See, the value economically of the NBA, Kojo, is not how you go in it. It's how you come out of it.
THOMPSONAnd people define it as, oh, he's got millions of dollars. I understand why he's leaving school. Well, how much does he have when he leaves? How much does he have five years after he's out? That's what you need the education for. That's how you need to prepare yourself 'cause I don't think -- I think it's pyrites or fool's gold in telling kids that you need to leave and stop getting an education because you're going to get all this money. You're going to lose it, too, because that guy that stayed in school is going to take it from you.
NNAMDIWe got to take a short break. We're talking with John Thompson, legendary basketball -- men's basketball coach at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999 where he remains coach emeritus. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to as many calls as possible. When we come back, if the lines are busy, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Coach John Thompson He was the coach of the men's basketball team at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999 where he remains coach emeritus. His son John Thompson III is now the coach of that men's basketball team. He says they're both fakes. The real John Thompson is his late father, the original John Thompson. Speaking of fathers, we got an email here from Pierre, who says, "Please ask Coach Thompson how he feels about the AAU and the direction that youth basketball is taking.
NNAMDI"I think it's a pretty good question since you had the show about the book 'Play Their Hearts Out' by George Dohrmann. He probably hates AAU coaches because the bad ones like Joe Keller make us all look horrible. They also think that AAU coaches tell their players where to go to college. It might upset him, so be careful. Let him know there are good ones, like me, who pay tutors out of their own pockets and make their players attend mandatory study halls from the third grade and up.
NNAMDI"Weekly study halls before, during and after season, I always have weekly communication with the problem student's teachers to find out what the tutor should focus on that week. Let him know there are good ones who don't want money or fame for their players." Pierre happens to be my son who lives in Florida, who is an AAU coach.
THOMPSONWell, you know, first of all, I try hard, and I guess I'm guilty of it at times, of not generalizing, you know? I think that there's some terrible AAU coaches, and there are some guys who I'm certain are very good. But I'ma tell you what my problem is. And I mentioned this, and I told you I had a meeting with the president of the NCAA.
THOMPSONAnd one of the things that I told him is that they took all of the power away from the college coaches. They took power. The high school federation took power from the high school coaches. Those were people, Kojo, that they had accountability over, and they empowered the AAU people who have no accountability from anybody. We were so concerned about college coaches cheating and high school coaches spending so much time, but we had people who could hold them accountable.
THOMPSONThey had federations. They had the NCAA. But by saying now you can spend time with the kids, we empowered people who have nobody holding them accountable. Certainly, they're great AAU coaches. But let me tell you this, all of us need to have checks and balances in our lives, including John Thompson, to question what you're doing and how you're doing it. I think the NCAA created the problem with AAU coaches.
THOMPSONI think the high school federation did it by limiting the people who they could hold accountable and empowering a bunch of people who nobody holds accountable. So that's my problem. Certainly, there are good people and there are bad people involved. But there are a hell of a lot of bad ones, too, because they understand how to market these young kids' talents. Now, Kojo, when you go to talk to a kid now, very seldom does a college coach even talk to a high school coach.
THOMPSONThe people who are running the lives of these young people now are AAU coaches. And as a result of that, they have a lot of leverage against institutions, against shoe contracts, against a lot of things right now. I just hope that there's something that can hold them accountable and have checks and balances, but certainly there are good ones, too.
NNAMDIHas that worked for you, Pierre?
PIERREThat worked very well for me. Thank you, dad. Thank you, Coach Johnson.
NNAMDIAll right. Thanks a lot for your call and for your email. We move on now to Ed in Berryville, Va. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDHello, Mr. Thompson. I want to thank you for everything that you've done and continue to do.
EDWe used to go to junior high school together, East Providence Junior High School, when you were a student teacher for PC and I was just a regular student.
THOMPSONOh, good for you. No, I tell people about Mrs. Samuelson, (sp?) who was my teacher who supervised my student teaching at that school.
EDAll right. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIEd, thank you very much for your call. Is there anything else you wanted to say? Ed, are you there?
EDI'm still here, yes.
NNAMDIOh, is there anything else you wanted to say?
EDNo, he's a great man. Thank you.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. You talked about when you had a learning disability when you were young in school. And that's one of the things that I thought caused you and Patrick Ewing to get close because Patrick Ewing, it's my understanding, also had a learning disability when he was younger. But you never had any doubt in your mind about whether he and others would be able to matriculate at Georgetown University.
THOMPSONWell, opportunity is what I fight for. See, we don't operate on a level playing field. You know, historically, we can go back and know that something occurred in this country -- and I don't want to belabor it -- that put people at a disadvantage. So now we start testing folks who've been put at a disadvantage, and then after we start testing them, we start labeling them.
THOMPSONAnd the only thing that I'm saying and that I said at that point in time is that if you get enough information from the people who work with them, if you get enough information from interviewing them, then provide them with an opportunity to fail if they don't do what they're supposed to do. If I took a chance on a kid, I would tell whoever was involved in helping me give him a chance that I will correct it if they don't do what they're supposed to do.
THOMPSONYou don't have to worry about it. I will get him out of here because, as I told the kids, if you want to be a slave, I do not want to be your master. So let's understand one thing. We want to play. We want to win. That's very significant because that gives you leverage to walk out on Proposition 42. That gives you leverage to question why there aren't African-Americans refereeing or African-Americans coaching.
THOMPSONIf you win, people listen to you. If you lose, they say sour grapes, OK? But if the opportunity comes for these kids, then they better take advantage of that opportunity or I'm going to tell you that you got to get out of here.
NNAMDIHow do you feel about the characterization that you are a father figure for some of those kids? Indeed, some people think that you are a father figure for them even after they become adults.
NNAMDIWhen Allen Iverson started getting into trouble, people started saying, well, why doesn't John Thompson speak to him? And you pointed out Allen Iverson is a 35-year-old man, OK?
THOMPSONRight. And I do speak to him. This is what happens. Folks think, first of all, that the only people that you talk to are your prominent players, you know, the only people you have a relationship with. And I've been accused of that by former players either.
THOMPSONOK. But listen to me. They are the only people that people are interested in hearing about. In other words, if I talk to Lonnie Durham down in Sursum Corda, who I talk to more than any former player I've ever had, who the hell cares? They don't know who he is.
THOMPSONIf I talk to Patrick Ewing and it leaks out, everybody talks about it. If I talk to Allen Iverson, everybody talks about it. And at this point in my life, I want the players to talk to me. I don't want to talk to them. But, no, you have people talking about the father figure thing. I have never embraced that, you know, because I think who a person's father is and who their parents are is something very special and sacred to them.
THOMPSONThere's a lot of players that I coached that I hope I never see again in my life. I'm very serious about that now, and people don't understand when I say that. But there's a lot of them that I miss seeing, OK, because you provide them while they're there with the opportunity to get education. You work with them as hard as you can. But let's understand this, Kojo. The player has to take the responsibility for his own education.
THOMPSONI resent that mentality that there's somebody there who's going to look after me. There's somebody that's going to take after me. I hope to hell I convey to the people who I coach that you are responsible for your education. I'm assisting you. Now, after the four years, baby, it's over 'cause four more are coming in here that I've got to work with.
NNAMDIIt was another one of your star players who ended up challenging your role as a mentor of young people. In the late '80s, you talked in a major TV interview with Ted Koppel about how you had a face-to-face meeting with Rayful Edmond, the well-known, notorious drug kingpin in the District when you learned he was spending time with your star player, Alonzo Mourning, and with another player, John Turner, who apparently knew Edmond from growing up in D.C. What do you remember from your conversation with Rayful Edmond?
THOMPSONToo much to tell you.
NNAMDIHey, because I know how you probably talked to him. We can't say that on the radio.
THOMPSONLook, no, we had a visit with one another. But, you know, the great thing about that -- and that's a perfect example of what I'm talking about -- is that I wanted to win games. I did everything I could and everything I should and probably some things I shouldn't have done to win. But I knew that I had a responsibility also to teach. Alonzo, at that time, was a young man who was making a tremendous mistake in his association with Rayful at the time.
THOMPSONI had to visit with Rayful and talk with him about that. Anna taught me that. That's my mother. Whenever I got in trouble, my mother would take that apron off and deal with the problems that I had. So that's what I attempted to do. But look at Alonzo Mourning. He has a building named after him in Miami. Alonzo Mourning is helping people, kidney -- people with kidney problems. It was worth it for every teacher in Georgetown who invested time in this man because now he is a special individual. And that's all I'm saying.
NNAMDIThere was a moment six years ago when...
THOMPSONYou notice how I avoid talking about Rayful Edmond.
NNAMDII noticed that. I noticed that. Rayful is still incarcerated. There was a moment six years ago when your son was coaching in his second season at Georgetown. They weren't ranked at the time, but they beat the number one team in the country, Duke, at home, on national television, in an arena in a part of town that resembled so little of what that part of town looked like just 20 years before throngs of people pouring out onto 7th Street to celebrate.
NNAMDID.C. Councilmember Jack Evans once said on this show that that game wasn't just a great moment for Georgetown basketball, but it was a great moment for this city. This is your city. What were you feeling when that happened?
THOMPSONWell, I feel great. You know as a parent yourself, there's nothing more gratifying. I love my kids dearly. I have three of them and probably 100 others, and I probably abused them verbally growing up.
THOMPSONBut I am -- really, the greatest feeling of satisfaction is when you can look at your child and -- doing something and accomplishing something. I knew what it meant to him when I'm not involved. It's worse to him when I was involved. So when he accomplished that -- and I knew it was extremely important for him -- it made me feel good. But anytime my kids do things that -- out of the public eye or in the public eye is very gratifying. I don't always let them know it, though.
NNAMDIYou went away to play for Providence. You went away to play for the Boston Celtics, but, in a way, you've always stayed home. What is it about Washington that keeps you here?
THOMPSONI don't know. I ask myself that. I love this area. I love this Maryland-Washington-Virginia area. And I was lucky that I was able to make a living and able to do my thing at home. And I like it here. I love it here. And I love the people who are here, and they have been very supportive of me most of the time. But I couldn't tell you why. I just like -- this is a great city.
NNAMDIAnd he's still working here. Only four jobs now, but he's doing -- John Thompson, Washingtonian.
THOMPSONAnd willing to take others.
NNAMDIHe was the coach of the men's basketball team at Georgetown from 1972 to 1999. And now he has more time to join us on a more frequent basis. We'll be calling you.
THOMPSONRight. It's truly a pleasure to be here with you. I have enjoyed listening to you during my spare time. That's one of the things I do. I never told you that, though.
NNAMDII appreciate that.
THOMPSONSo I enjoyed it, and thanks so much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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