Former NBA players, Georgetown alumni, and basketball fans all over are mourning the death of John Thompson Jr., the iconic former basketball coach of the Georgetown University Hoyas men’s basketball team.
Thompson passed away on Sunday, Aug. 30, at his home in Arlington, Virginia, at 78 years old. Although his family said he’s been suffering from several health issues, his cause of death has yet to be revealed.
“Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court,” said the Thompson family in a statement. “He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else. However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day.”
Thompson was the first Black basketball head coach to win the NCAA National Championship when the Hoyas beat the University of Houston in 1984. Due to his success, he’s credited with paving the way for other Blacks to be given head coaching opportunities in college basketball.
Thompson coached Georgetown from 1972 to 1999, ending his career at the school with a record of 596-239. He also won the national coach of the year three times, the Big East coach of the year three times, and brought the Hoyas to the Final Four three times in the 1980s. Thompson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Known for always draping a white towel over his shoulder when coaching, he also coached some of the NBA’s biggest talents when they were college players, including Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo.
“Very sad news to wake up to on this cloudy morning,” wrote Mutombo on Instagram Monday, Aug. 31. “Our legendary Georgetown coach, John Thompson has passed away. He was my mentor, great teacher, hero and a father figure to so many us who got the chance to play for him. Under coach Thompson, I learned a lot about the game of basketball but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in society. We will really miss him. RIP coach. 💔💔💔”
Iverson posted his message about Thompson on the same day as Mutombo and gave a glimpse into his relationship with the late coach.
“Thanks For Saving My Life Coach,” wrote Iverson on Instagram. “I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, ‘Hey MF’, then we would talk about everything except basketball. May you always Rest in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud. ‘Your Prodigal Son.’”
Thompson, a Washington, D.C., native, was born on Sept. 2, 1941, and played basketball for D.C.’s Archbishop Carroll High School, before playing at Providence College. He was then drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he won two NBA championships in his two-year professional career.
In 1966 he took a head coaching position at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, which he led until landing the Georgetown job six years later.
Thompson once spoke about being the first Black coach to win an NCAA National Championship in an interview with ESPN and said he didn’t care for all of the praise he received.
“I was very proud of winning the national championship and I was very proud of the fact that I was a Black American, but I didn’t like it if the statement implied that I was the first Black person who had intelligence enough to win the national championship,” he explained. “I might have been the first Black person who was provided with an opportunity to compete for this prize, that you have discriminated against thousands of my ancestors to deny them this opportunity.”
Thompson’s family said although they will feel a big emptiness from the beloved coach passing away, they’ll carry his lessons with them for a lifetime.
“We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us,” said the family in their statement. “We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘Big Ace is cool.'”