WASHINGTON (AP) — John Thompson was remembered as a coach but also as so much more during a virtual memorial held on Saturday in conjunction with the Georgetown University and the Thompson Family through Facebook Live.
The 78-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer died on August 30 and was fondly described by those that knew him best – former players, colleagues, and others in the local community – as a leader, mentor, and social activist.
Former President Barack Obama was one of the first speakers and he focused less on Thompson’s impact as Georgetown’s coach from 1972 to 1999 and more on his effect on life in general.
“What made coach Thompson special, what compelled us to celebrate his life today is what he did to build young men,” president Obama said before rattling off the names of all-time Hoyas greats Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.
Obama spoke of the boycott Thompson took in 1989 against NCAA Proposition 42 after he felt it was biased against underprivileged students and also his meeting with local drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III that same year after it was believed that he was fraternizing with his players.
“He was brave then and it’s astonishing in hindsight. We haven’t banished injustice from our society, far from it. But we are living through a golden age of young black activism. We’re living through a golden of activism on the basketball court too," Obama said. "Coach Thompson didn’t like it when people called him a pioneer but there’s no doubt his example has echoed down the generations. There’s no doubt his imprint endures.”
Thompson’s former players Ewing, Mutombo, and Mourning all spoke as well as coaching peers Jim Boeheim and Nolan Richardson and Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Ewing, who was Thompson’s star player on the 1984 National Championship team and is now the current Hoyas coach, started out a theme of the afternoon which was the tough love shown by the 6-foot-10 coach who strolled the sidelines with his signature white towel over his shoulder for three decades.
“I felt like I’ve lost a father,” Ewing said. “I know he’s in heaven looking down on me cursing me out like he does from time to time but also with pride in the work we’re doing here.”
Knight said he knew Thompson in a variety of ways for over 50 years and wanted him early on to be the first African-American on his board of directors when Nike went public because he knew nobody would take him as a token.
“John proved to be a great member and he had a great insight,” said Knight. “He wasn’t just a basketball coach he contributed enormously to society in total.”
Thompson’s Hoyas would be one of Nike’s signature teams as he served on the board for 30 years.
In forming the Big East conference there is no doubt that Georgetown and Syracuse played vital roles as college athletics became more mainstream. Thompson’s biggest challenge came from Boeheim who had nothing but nice things to say.
“He always will be Big John,” Boeheim said. “I’m just proud I had the opportunity to compete against him for so many years.”
Despite retiring as a coach after 27 years, Thompson never left Georgetown and put in 48 years at the school.
Georgetown president John DeGioia described Thompson as one of the most influential figures in school history.
“He led us to a place where we might be better able to live up to our ideals,” DeGioia said.
“He had a very different idea of what it meant to be a head men’s basketball coach. He demanded the best of us and brought out the best of us. He held us true. We were privileged to be at Georgetown at the same time that John Thompson was here. We are the university that we are today because of John Thompson.”