At virtual memorial, Georgetown University honors legacy and faith of Coach John Thompson Jr.
Oct 11, 2020
Former President Barack Obama joined those honoring Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson Jr., the former Georgetown University basketball coach, at a virtual memorial on Oct. 3, 2020.
“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,” the former president said of Thompson, who died on Aug. 30 at the age of 78.
During the hour-long tribute hosted online by Georgetown University, Thompson’s former players, friends and his family shared memories and honored the first African-American coach in Division 1 men’s basketball to win the NCAA championship.
“Coach Thompson didn’t like it when people called him a pioneer, but there’s no doubt his example has echoed down the generations,” President Obama said, noting the current “golden-age” of activism on the basketball court seen today.
In a video message, the former president credited Thompson with molding raw talent on the basketball court and helping his players see possibilities for their futures including fighting NCAA rules that would hurt disadvantaged students and chasing off a drug kingpin from interacting with students on his team. “He was brave then – it’s astonishing in hindsight,” President Obama added. “If we really want to pay tribute to John, may we all strive to set an example.”
Former Hoya and NBA all-star Alonzo Mourning said Coach Thompson has left “a legacy of excellence, a legacy of service, a legacy of making a difference in the lives of others and most important a legacy for standing up for what you believe in.”
More than 500 people watched the live broadcast on Facebook which included tributes, musical performances, photographs, and video clips spanning Thompson’s life of coaching and advocacy. The virtual event allowed all to honor Thompson while still maintaining social distancing and following local regulations banning large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The recording of Saturday’s initial broadcast -- still available on the university’s Facebook page and viewable on a special web page and now viewed more than 12,000 times also includes an up-to-date display of hundreds of comments in gratitude for Coach Thompson’s life and legacy of standing up for one’s beliefs.
During the broadcast, one alumni wrote that a simple thank you would not suffice: “You will be remembered for the difference you made in all our lives. To be a Black student at Georgetown is to be eternally indebted to you.”
A native Washingtonian who loved all sports, Thompson already established his basketball bona fides before coaching at Georgetown – contributing to a 55-consecutive win streak while playing for Archbishop Carroll High School; starring at Providence College; and backing up Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics before returning home and compiling a 122-28 record at St. Anthony’s High School.
In 1972, Jesuit Father Robert J. Henle, then-president of Georgetown University, hired Thompson, who led the Georgetown Hoyas to three NCAA championship games, with the Hoyas winning the national championship in 1984. Thompson coached at Georgetown from 1972 until his retirement in 1999, with his teams compiling a 596-239 record and making the postseason in 24 consecutive years.
Georgetown President John DeGioia highlighted the values John Thompson lived, including maintaining a 98 percent graduation rate for his basketball players. “He led us to a place where we might better be able to live up to our ideals,” DeGioia said.
Calling Thompson “a teacher, a mentor, an extraordinary leader,” DeGioia said Thompson “demanded the best of us and brought out the best of us. We are the university that we are today because of John Thompson.”
Even after his retirement student athletes continued to receive support and advice from “Big John” or “Big Coach” as he was known -- standing at 6 feet 10 inches. “Big Coach was an inspiration,” said Roy Hibbert, a member of the 2007 Final Four team who now works for the NBA in player development.
Hibbert said Thompson “unknowingly” led him into coaching by always calling on Hibbert to give back. “These young kids need you, they need to learn what you know,” Hibbert recalled Thompson telling him. “I want to have the same effect,” Hibbert said. “I want to hold guys accountable but also build them up as well.”
Monica McNutt, a game and studio analyst for the ACC Network, graduated from Georgetown in 2011 and played on the Women Hoya’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen team. “Big John sat in a big wooden chair inside McDonough Arena,” McNutt described. “He was available to us, he encouraged us, he was thrilled for our success and got on us when we weren’t playing well,” McNutt said.
Thompson who later in his retirement hosted a radio program and provided commentary for basketball games, helped McNutt advance her career. “He was willing to give me contacts, to put my name out there on his behalf, to push me forward,” McNutt said. She recalled one of their last conversations. “He told me he was proud of me and to keep going.”
Rick “Doc” Walker, Thompson’s radio program co-host and former NFL tight-end with the Washington Football Team, served as host for the virtual program. In addition to the extraordinary influence Thompson exhibited, “he cared for his players, he cared for his community and he cared for his family,” Walker said. “He was a man of deep faith.”
In a letter to her dad, Tiffany Thompson promised to share her father with everyone although not having him here will only “get better but not easier … Your love is stuck in my throat without words to translate emotion,” she continued. “I hope that you feel that your presence here with us is exactly what prepared us to live out your legacy.”
As part of the legacy, the Thompson family requests memorial contributions to the John R. Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award at Georgetown University. Established in 2003, the award is presented each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to an impactful local leader working to address issues of racial and social justice in the Washington D.C. community.
Tiffany Thompson also promised to lean on her faith and pray to Mary because of the special devotion for the Mother of God her dad exemplified.
Father Raymond Kemp spoke from a courtyard outside the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletics Center featuring a life-size statue of the Blessed Mother next to one of Coach Thompson’s favorite quotes, “Say One to the Lady.” Father Kemp – the former pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Washington, D.C., where Thompson regularly attended Mass -- urged people to follow the coach’s lead and pray the “Hail Mary for John, for Georgetown, for all the good that can come from organized sport.”
The priest reminded viewers Thompson was named after St. John the Evangelist whose Gospel showed Jesus teaching – even from the cross. “That’s the invitation today – that as we remember John, we take Mary, the Mother of God, and all that represents into our hearts and into our homes. That we come together and understand that Mary is with us, that God is with us regardless of where we are, what we did, whether the score is, not where we want it to be – we call on Mary. We call on Mary to lift us, to help us, to hold us.”