I won’t say that I knew John Thompson. I experienced him.
I covered his Georgetown men’s basketball program for two seasons and had numerous other encounters with him during almost 14 years of working at The Washington Post and nearly a lifetime of living in the Washington area.
Publicly, Thompson – whose family announced his death Monday at age 78 – was a really complicated person. There were all kinds of apparent contradictions in his life. He famously kept reporters as far from his program as possible, except when it suited his purposes. After leaving coaching, he became a Washington-area sports-talk radio host and an analyst, including on NCAA basketball tournament national radio broadcasts. He also maintained an unabiding interest in the personal lives of some of the journalists who covered him well after their professional paths diverged.
To many, he came across as gruff, unfeeling and largely self-interested. And, yes, he could be all of those things. He had no qualms about using his sheer physical size, his booming voice and his propensity for profanity to intimidate. But he also understood how to make an impact when none of those attributes would help him.
As Georgetown’s coach, he had strict rules against trying to directly contact his players or their parents. Practices were closed. Tape covered gaps in the doorways from the foyer of the athletics building to the gym. In-season interviews with players outside of post-game situations were by prior arrangement only, and conducted by telephone only.
While covering the team very early in my career, I got word that one of his players was planning to transfer. When I called the player’s grandmother about it, Thompson, of course, found out. He ordered his players not to speak with me, even during the limited period of time after games in which reporters could interview players. This lasted several games, but he eventually lifted the gag order – and when the player did, indeed, transfer, I was surprised to get a call from a school spokesman notifying me of the transfer and putting me in contact with the player.
In what has become a time of sports figures becoming actively involved in social and racial justice issues, it is important to remember Thompson’s place in that. Not the part about Thompson becoming the first Black head coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1984. It’s the parts that occurred in 1989.
In January, Thompson announced that he would walk off the court at the beginning of a game to protest NCAA Division I schools’recent vote to deny athletic scholarships or any other institutional financial aid to freshmen who failed to qualify for first-year athletic eligibility under the academic standards of what was then known as Proposition 48. It had been one thing for college athletes to be deemed ineligible to play as freshman, potentially because of their score on a standardized test that many viewed – and still view – as culturally and socio-economically biased. It was another to make this a financial burden.
Thompson not only walked off the court at tip-off for that game – a Big East contest against Boston College when the Hoyas were a top-5 ranked team with Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo in their first seasons – he also skipped the next one against Providence entirely.
Thompson’s action brought immediate commitments from NCAA leadership regarding new legislation to delay implementation of the rule. And at a time when NCAA Division I rules changes largely were made on a one-school, one-vote basis, it also forced officials at individual schools to confront, and answer for, their reasons for voting for the change in the first place. In the days after Thompson launched his protest, officials at some schools that had voted for the measure conceded that they didn’t fully grasp the implications and would now be willing to change their votes.
Several months later, Thompson went on ABC’s “Nightline,” and said he had asked to meet with the then-alleged leader of a Washington-area drug operation who had been arrested weeks earlier. Why? Because this person, Rayful Edmond III, had been associating with Mourning and another Georgetown player who was from the Washington area and had known Edmond for years. Thompson’s disclosure drew attention to the depth of drug problems in cities, and to the more nuanced issue of high-profile athletes’ personal associations, how those relationships develop and how athletes manage them.
You never quite knew where or how Thompson would reveal himself next. In 1996, while he was still Georgetown’s coach, it surfaced that he had applied to purchase 10% of a company that owned the slot machine concession at Las Vegas’ McCarron International Airport. (For all the focus that surrounded Thompson on racial issues, he often joked that his view of the world wasn’t through the lens of Black or white, but rather of green.) It made so little sense in the context of a Jesuit institution’s morals and the NCAA’s stance against gambling that Post columnist Thomas Boswell – who knew Thompson going back to Thompson’s days as a high school coach in D.C. – opened his piece on the issue with a one-sentence paragraph: “Has John Thompson lost his mind?”
No matter what, however, you were inevitably drawn to Thompson. His radio show was a novelty for a while, but ultimately I didn’t care much, one way or the other, for most of what he had to say about the daily sports happenings in Washington. But that wasn’t why I listened. The draw was Thompson himself, and the prospect that he might weigh in on something that transcended Washington sports or sports in general. Getting exposed to that – that was the Thompson experience.