Legendary Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Thompson Jr., who transformed Georgetown University’s program from an afterthought into a perennial powerhouse, passed away on Sunday night at the age of 78.
Family confirms sad news
“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. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else,” Thompson’s family said in a statement provided by Georgetown University. They did not specify the cause of death, but he was reportedly dealing with several health issues.
“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 everyday,” the statement continued.
“We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love,” the family added, according to ESPN. “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.'”
Career at Georgetown
Thompson was born in 1941 in Washington D.C. and became a promising basketball recruit in high school. After playing ball at Providence University and then the NBA for a couple of seasons, he returned to school, earned a degree, and began coaching, ABC News reported.
In 1972 he was hired at Georgetown and whipped the program into shape with a new style of play, strict rules, and a sharp focus on education. His work paid off as the team became a powerhouse in the 1980s, going to three NCAA championship games and winning one in 1984.
Over a 27-year career that ended in 1999, Thompson’s Hoyas appeared in 20 NCAA tournaments and four NIT tournaments. They were crowned champions of the notoriously difficult Big East Conference six times.
He also saw 26 of his players be drafted by the NBA — including Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo — but perhaps more importantly, he guided 76 of his 78 four-year players to a graduate with a degree.
Everything this program is and everything it stands for is because of John Thompson Jr. We will miss him dearly but his legacy will live on forever. 🙏🏾https://t.co/DPzDNDrKtN pic.twitter.com/WYvg0PUKji
— Georgetown Hoops (@GeorgetownHoops) August 31, 2020
Controversy and success
Thompson’s career was not without controversy, however. He was a trailblazer for Black coaches in the NCAA and was outspoken about racial equality and social justice issues throughout his career, even walking off the court one year in protest against an NCAA eligibility rule change that he believed was discriminatory against Black players.
Nevertheless, his skills and success as a coach and his focus on transforming raw recruits into educated young men outshone his critics.
ESPN noted that he is survived by his two sons, John Thompson III — who also coached at Georgetown prior to being replaced by Ewing — and Ronny Thompson, as well as his daughter Tiffany Thompson. He will be missed by his many fans, friends, former players, and even rival coaches.