Coach John Thompson Jr. remembered as ‘giant’ mentor to his players and man of faith
Sep 4, 2020
John Thompson Jr. – the former Georgetown University basketball coach who died Aug. 31 at the age of 78 – was remembered as a giant, not only in stature, but as a mentor who emphasized the importance of education to his players so they could find success in life off the court, and as a man of faith who spoke out about racism in the world of sports and in the Catholic Church.
Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, Thompson 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 1999, with his teams compiling a 596-239 record and making the postseason in 24 consecutive years.
But even before his Georgetown tenure, Thompson was a well-known sports figure in the Washington area, coaching St. Anthony’s High School to a 122-28 record before joining the college ranks. Earlier, he played center for an Archbishop Carroll High School basketball team that from 1958-60 won 55 straight games.
His Catholic high school alma mater honored the coach with a tweet on the day of his death, with the message, “Archbishop Carroll mourns the loss of legendary Georgetown coach and Carroll Lion, John Thompson, Jr. ‘60. We will never forget his contributions to the legacy of Archbishop Carroll, his success at Georgetown University, and his impact on social justice issues of his time.”
As a freshman at St. Anthony’s High School in 1966, John Butler saw a very tall man walking down the street, and he later learned that 6-foot-10 man was his new basketball coach, John Thompson. The coach became his mentor and ultimately his friend, guiding him during his high school years, and offering him advice in college and as he made decisions later in life.
“He was a giant of a man, very impactful,” Butler said. “He certainly provided great guidance to me and everybody else on the team, and you could see that playing out at Georgetown.”
Butler later served as the president of Archbishop Carroll High School from 1995 until 2006, and when he was inducted into Carroll’s Hall of Honor that year, Coach Thompson spoke at the gathering and offered a tribute to his former St. Anthony’s player.
Thompson, who had four of his former Georgetown players go on to star in the National Basketball Association and like him, be inducted into the Hall of Fame – Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson – said at the 2006 Archbishop Carroll event that he was proud of his former players who went on to star in the pros, but he was also proud of his former players who went on to serve others, as Butler did as an educator.
“What stood out foremost was his concern for our education. That was first and foremost,” said Butler, who remembered a time when Thompson, as he typically did, was checking on the academic progress of his St. Anthony’s players, and when he learned that some of them were clowning around in class, he had the whole team run hard during the next practice.
Butler, who played as a guard at St. Anthony’s, graduated from there in 1970, and in addition to leading Archbishop Carroll High School for more than a decade, he later served as vice president for advancement at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, as secretary of development for the Archdiocese of Washington, and now serves as vice president for mission advancement for the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.
He said the coach typically spent time after practices talking with his players about life and discussing current events, encouraging them to prepare themselves so they could give back to their community some day. Thompson famously kept a deflated basketball on his desk at Georgetown, to show his players they had to prepare for life after basketball by concentrating on their education.
“He wanted us to develop as athletes, but first and foremost, he wanted us to develop as good human beings,” Butler said.
Coach Thompson was also a role model for them as a Black man, “a person who looked like me, (was) able to navigate through life, with everything he had to face… and the opportunities he created by hard work and effort,” Butler added. “He modeled for us what we could be.”
As a player at Archbishop Carroll and later as Georgetown’s coach, Thompson heard racist insults directed at him on the court and later for the players he coached. He challenged NCAA regulations that he said made it harder for some Black athletes to earn athletic scholarships and attend college. Thompson was an outspoken critic of racism, which he even experienced as a faithful Catholic.
In a 1995 interview with Carole Norris Greene of the Catholic News Service, Thompson spoke about the racism he encountered while attending Mass in his younger years, and why he stayed Catholic.
“I think we’ve got to challenge. I tell people this, and I constantly remind them that I went to Catholic churches in my lifetime… where I had to receive Communion second,” he said. “I went to Catholic Masses where I had to sit in the back of the church.”
Thompson in that interview also said, “It teaches you, in my opinion, to be a better Catholic than it does to abandon Catholicism – because you challenge the system, you listen to their words, and you make them live by their words… and you don’t run from that.”
Butler remembered his own experience, going off to a Catholic college, St. Michael’s in Colchester, Vermont and being one of a small number of Black students then at the school, and how Coach Thompson offered him words of encouragement when he was contemplating leaving, telling him to buckle down and deal with those challenges, adding, “You’ll be a better man because of this.”
Following his former coach’s advice, Butler stayed there all four years, earning his degree.
“He was a perfect example to us, how do you navigate these waters,” said Butler, saying that personal integrity and care and concern for others were hallmarks of Thompson.
Even before gaining renown as a coach at Georgetown, Thompson was recognized as a local leader in the Catholic community. Msgr. Joseph Ranieri, the Archdiocese of Washington’s coordinator of pastoral care for priests, remembers serving with Thompson around 1970 on a committee of about 15-20 local Catholics, brought together by Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, then the archbishop of Washington, to compile a self-study of the archdiocese, which would later establish an Office for Black Catholics to serve that community.
Thompson first gained fame in the nation’s capital as one of the stars on Archbishop Carroll’s powerhouse 1958-60 team, which some people regard as one of the finest high school basketball teams in the nation’s history.
A 2001 Catholic Standard article by Bill Murray chronicled the players of Carroll’s “dream team” of those years, who included Thompson, who went on to star at Providence College and played for two NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics as a back-up center to Bill Russell; Tom Hoover, a 6-foot-9 player who played for seven seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and four other NBA teams; George Leftwich, a skilled passer and shooter whose own potential NBA career was derailed by a car accident while he attended Villanova University; Walt Skinner, a defensive stopper who later built airplanes for the Navy with Lockheed Martin Co.; Edward “Monk” Malloy, who later became a Holy Cross priest and served as president of the University of Notre Dame; Billy Barnes, a guard who later taught for 34 years at Carroll and coached basketball there; John Austin, who later starred for Boston College and also played in the NBA; and guard Kenny Price, who later served as an Air Force captain in Vietnam and ran a financial advisory company.
Carroll’s coach for those years, Bob Dwyer, went on to coach basketball at St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington from 1960 to 1981, and in 2020, he was inducted into the Washington DC Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was focused on being a good player,” said George Leftwich in an interview after Thompson’s death, praising his former teammate. He noted that Thompson and Hoover with their size “controlled just about every rebound and every game we played.”
But Leftwich, who later served as the athletic director at his alma mater, added that the team’s play was the key to its success. “Everybody had a desire to be good, and we knew we could depend on each other. There were five good people who wanted to win,” he said.
Leftwich also later served as an assistant coach with Thompson at Georgetown and noted, “He wanted to win. He could communicate well with his players. He pushed them.”
The coach’s former teammate and assistant praised the role of Mary Fenlon, a former woman religious at St. Anthony’s who served as the academic coordinator for Georgetown’s basketball team when Thompson coached the Hoyas. During that time frame, 75 of the 77 basketball players who stayed there for four years earned degrees from Georgetown.
“She (Fenlon) was the hammer,” joked Leftwich.
During Thompson’s years as a star player at Archbishop Carroll, among the fellow students there cheering him and the team on loudly from the stands was Father John Mudd, a member of the class of 1961 who was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1969.
“I went to many games… Everybody was very proud of our team,” he said.
Archbishop Carroll was founded in 1951 as an integrated Catholic high school for young men, and its championship team included Black and White teammates who contributed to its success and learned together in the classroom.
Father Mudd remembered Thompson as a quiet student. “In retrospect, he was a private person,” he said, adding, “Everybody liked John as a student. He was a good person – quiet, modest, private.”
The priest later became even more of a fan of Thompson as he got to know him as an adult.
Father Mudd served as the pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Washington – the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital whose founders in 1858 included free men and women of color, including people who had been emancipated from slavery – and he remembers how Thompson faithfully attended Mass each Sunday there, often arriving just after Mass began and sitting in a back pew so he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. Thompson, who had become nationally known as Georgetown’s coach, once told a reporter that he came to church to worship, not to be worshipped.
After he became pastor of St. Augustine, Father Mudd launched a capital campaign to renovate the church’s sanctuary and install air-conditioning there, and he said Coach Thompson quietly gave a very generous donation.
Father Mudd said after a priest friend, Father Michael Bryant, spoke at a local church promoting the Welcome Home program he had founded that provides volunteer mentors to help formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives, a very tall man handed him a check with a large donation after Mass. It was Thompson.
Later Father Mudd returned to his alma mater to serve as the director of development, and he said that Coach Thompson was very supportive in providing scholarships for Archbishop Carroll students.
“We were very proud of him throughout his career,” Father Mudd said. “He represented Carroll well. He was an example of an athlete who understood the value of an education.”
Once when the priest visited Thompson at Georgetown, the coach showed him the locker room. “Over the lockers he had a shrine with a statue of the Blessed Mother,” Father Mudd said. “He told me, ‘She’s been my inspiration throughout my life.’” The priest added, “I know he had a great devotion to Mary.”
When Georgetown University opened its new John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center in 2016, in addition to including state-of-the-art training facilities, practice courts and a student-athlete academic center, a wall along the building’s exterior included a seated bronze statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The retired coach posed for photos sitting beside the statue.
After Thompson’s death, John J. DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, said in a statement, “John will be remembered for many things – his historic achievements, the lives he shaped, his advocacy for social and racial justice – but perhaps most of all, for the authenticity through which he lived his life.”
Patrick Ewing, one of Thompson’s star players at Georgetown who went on to a Hall of Fame career as a center for the New York Knicks and who now coaches the men’s basketball team at the university, said his former coach was “a father figure” and a role model to him, adding, “He was a great coach but an even better person.”
Thompson is survived by his three children John, Ronny and Tiffany and by his five grandchildren.
Georgetown announced on Sept. 3 that the Thompson family and Georgetown University are planning a virtual event to celebrate the life and legacy of John R. Thompson, Jr. on Saturday, Oct. 3, with more details will follow. At this time, health experts recommend against large gatherings as a safety precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. Georgetown plans to hold an in-person event in the future, when it is safe to do so.
The Thompson family requests memorial contributions be made to the John R. Thompson, Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award Fund at Georgetown University. The John R. Thompson, Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, established in 2003, 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.
In the days after Coach Thompson’s death, a simple but fitting tribute appeared on Georgetown University’s campus – a white towel, like the towel that was on Thompson’s shoulder during games as he coached the Hoyas – was draped along the shoulder of the bronze statue of Archbishop John Carroll, who founded Georgetown as the nation’s first Catholic college in 1789.
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