Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., left, congratulates his son John Thompson III, right, after the Hoya's 61-39 win over Syracuse in an NCAA college basketball game  in 2013.

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., left, congratulates his son John Thompson III, right, after the Hoya's 61-39 win over Syracuse in an NCAA college basketball game in 2013.

Georgetown University Basketball’s John Thompson Jr., who died this week at the age of 78, made history as the first African American coach to lead his team to an NCAA championship.

But he would have bristled at such a title, as sports journalist John Feinstein recalled. When Feinstein asked Thompson how it felt to be the first Black coach to make it to the Final Four, Thompson didn’t hold back:

“I resent the hell out of that question. It implies that I’m the first Black coach capable of making the Final Four. That’s not close to true. I’m just the first one who was given the opportunity to get here.”

Creating opportunity for Black athletes was a cornerstone of Thompson’s legacy. He saw basketball as a means rather than an end. “Opportunity is what I fight for,” he told Kojo in 2012.

Georgetown’s Maurice Jackson joins Kojo to reflect on Thompson’s life and enduring legacy.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Maurice Jackson Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Georgetown University


  • 12:45:02

    KOJO NNAMDIGeorgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, Jr. made history as the first African American coach to lead his team to an NCAA title in 1984. The larger-than-life force behind Georgetown's rise to national prominence, Thompson died earlier this week at the age of 78. Joining us to discuss his life and legacy is Maurice Jackson, associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. Maurice, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:45:27

    MAURICE JACKSONThank you, Kojo, for having me in. I'd like to express my thoughts to the Thompson family, especially to John III, and to Ryan and other members.

  • 12:45:37

    NNAMDIMaurice, who was John Thompson as a person and as a coach?

  • 12:45:42

    JACKSONWell, when I think of John Thompson, I think of two words, really. I think of dignity and righteousness, and he had both of those. But often, when you speak of people, you know, you think of terms, larger than life and one of a kind. And sometimes they're misrepresented, but in this case, it's absolutely true.

  • 12:46:03

    JACKSONHe was a man who was made from the people of D.C. His father was a (word?). His mother was a domestic worker, and they fought to get him to a Catholic school so he could get a very good education, because the public schools, at the time, weren't addressing his needs. And there, he extended himself and became a star basketball player. And he was between two great legends, Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing. So, he played that role.

  • 12:46:31

    JACKSONAnd then he integrated to baseball -- basketball, because as he's playing with Monk Malloy, who becomes the president of Notre Dame. Then he goes up to Providence and had this -- but you have to look at the development of the man. And he speaks about the Jewish family, the (word?), that he had lived with. And it's very much like Louis Armstrong, who lived with a Jewish couple growing up. And he lived with this family as he got to know Boston. And this is the Providence area.

  • 12:47:04

    JACKSONAnd then he learned from this man, Red Auerbach, who came to Washington, D.C. Often people think of being courageous means that you have to be big. It's overrated because Thompson would've been a courageous man had he been two feet tall. And Red Auerbach is a very small man, but he came to Washington and started recruiting and working with people in the different leagues.

  • 12:47:22

    JACKSONAnd this is Thompson, and the man who had an impact on everywhere he went, first as a coach of high school, then coming to Georgetown. And they're just great articles. Boswell has an article today about Thompson -- the great (word?) camp and how they're speaking about how he's going to work at Georgetown, and the recruitment of young people. Believed the young black man deserved a chance, the inner-city black man, young people deserved the chance...

  • 12:47:47

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Indeed, John Thompson recruited a lot of great players. Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing. They both said that John Thompson saved their lives. It was always about more than basketball to him. Maurice, what is the meaning behind his famous refrain, don't let eight pounds of air be the sum of your existence?

  • 12:48:06

    JACKSONWell, eight pounds of air, it's known that Mr. Thompson had this deflated ball in his office. And he would tell, after this is over, how many of you all are going to make it in pros? And you've mentioned a few of the Hall of Famers, as you know, including Iverson. But most are not going to make it there so you have to have something else. You have to have that education. And he insisted that they do this.

  • 12:48:30

    JACKSONHe gave an example of his father who got up every morning at 5:00. And these kids who didn't meet his criteria would have to get up at 5:00 and play. Then he had this woman, a Ms. Findland who was on the bench as an academic advisor. So, education became the number one thing for him.

  • 12:48:44

    NNAMDICoach Thompson joined us back in 2012 to talk about his coaching and mentorship of young black athletes. Here's what he had to say.

  • 12:48:52

    JOHN THOMPSONSo, 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. If you win, people listen to you. If you lose, they say you're sour grapes, okay. 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.

  • 12:49:23

    NNAMDIMaurice, coach Thompson was, at the same time, known for his tough love and for his empathy. When did you see this in action?

  • 12:49:32

    JACKSONWell, I saw it many times. I saw it -- first, you saw it really -- and I wasn't at Georgetown (unintelligible) his love for, let's say, Alonzo Mourning. As you know, Rayful Edmond, the drug kingpin, tried to snare some of the young boys into his feeling. And Thompson put out word that he wanted to see this man, who was a man responsible for, you know, for hundreds of deaths. And Edmond came to Georgetown and saw Thompson, and he said, look, leave these young boys alone. Go about your business, leave them alone. And Edmond -- and you saw that empathy.

  • 12:50:02

    JACKSONYou saw it when Allen Iverson was the number-one football player and basketball recruit in the country. And because of an incident with someone who called him the N word and there was a brawl or something, he was taken off the mat. And John Thompson went and brought the kid, and the young man said, John Thompson saved my life. You saw it in that. You saw it in the love he had for Mutombo, who came to Georgetown from Congo-Kinshasa.

  • 12:50:28

    JACKSONAnd you saw it in love he had for Patrick Ewing. When Patrick Ewing came to Georgetown, people threw banana peels on the floor, as if a monkey. And John Thompson threatened to walk off. So, you saw that in the compassion. I saw it in one other example, and that was his love for a man named Jabbo Kenner. Jabbo Kenner started the Kenner Leagues.

  • 12:50:44

    JACKSONAnd Jabbo Kenner had been his coach in number two boys club. And he said, this man is more like Christ than any man I've ever met. And John Thompson made arrangements for him to get an honorary degree there. Jabbo Kenner, who was training people like Sugar Ray Leonard and so many others in boxing.

  • 12:51:04

    NNAMDIWe've got to talk about that 1984 championship victory over Houston. History will remember John Thompson, Jr. as the first black coach to lead a basketball team to an NCAA title. But he bristled at the implication behind that phrasing. Why?

  • 12:51:19

    JACKSONWell, he bristled because there had been so many other African Americans who had played such great roles and didn't get that opportunity, big house games, McClinton, many others. And he was very close friends to George (word?) and John (word?). There had been many others. So, he was at the right place at the right time, but he did not want to be known just for that. He wanted to know that there had been legendary coaches all along.

  • 12:51:40

    JACKSONAnd the beautiful thing about this, Kojo, especially the '84 championship -- I've been in D.C. a long time -- and it's probably -- the '84 basketball championship in the year that the Washington football team won, had been the year that I've seen more unity amongst people of all races than I've seen in my years. Because people just came out and reveled. And Georgetown became not just a team because they had black faces, but became a team of the whole city and of the whole region.

  • 12:52:07

    NNAMDIWashington, D.C. is at the core of Thompson's story. He grew up here in the District, attended Catholic schools, commanded as much influence as anyone at Georgetown University, where he coached for three decades. What impact did growing up in a segregated Washington have on John Thompson?

  • 12:52:22

    JACKSONWell, as I said, he could not play in old (unintelligible) league at a certain time. He started playing at number two and number 12 Boys Club. And this is where he really learned to become a man. Then when he worked at -- went to Carroll (sounds like) with the integrated teams, and he became all American in that sense. But at first when he was -- he could not play. He saw his father go to work every day in an integrated city.

  • 12:52:44

    JACKSONHe went to the games at the stadium. He grew up around U Street, 1425 W Street, that area which was deeply segregated. And the public schools were -- there's public schools that are segregated today, and they were segregated then. He saw this segregation. So, he saw education as a way out. And his parents, as again, sent him to these schools, the Catholic schools because there was a bit more integration in those schools, but mainly for the education.

  • 12:53:08

    JACKSONAnd then he saw what basketball could do, because he saw Red Auerbach coming in the inner city and started working with these young black kids. And no other white man had ever done that. So, he saw the role that basketball could do in aiding society. And that became -- you know, George -- I'm sorry, Leonard Hamilton who was coach of the Wizards but now he coaches in Florida, Florida State, said something that was -- he said he was so good because he did what was right. And always you know that if you do the right thing, the right will be on your side.

  • 12:53:40

    NNAMDIMaurice Jackson is an associate professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University. Leslie writes on our webpage: Can we correct the record? Thompson was the first African American to win a Division One NCAA basketball championship, but not the first to win a national championship. Six African American men before him won NCAA national championships in men's basketball, women's basketball, soccer and football. All were HBCUs. Thompson was the first to do so at a historically white college. Thanks for sharing that, Leslie.

  • 12:54:09

    NNAMDIThis segment on remembering John Thompson was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about recycling was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up Wednesday, a group of activists in Montgomery County is fighting to preserve the historic Moses African Cemetery. We explore the history behind that burial ground.

  • 12:54:24

    NNAMDIPlus, what role are academic institutions playing in this moment of racial reckoning? We sit down with the president of the University of the District of Columbia, Ronald Mason, Jr., to talk about the university's new Institute for the Study and Elimination of White Supremacy. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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