A Teacher of Success, Persistence, Justice, and Compassion

A Teacher of Success, Persistence, Justice, and Compassion

Eric St. John

In his 27-year tenure as Georgetown University’s head basketball coach, John Thompson did more than just win games and graduate student-athletes.

It was the early ’70s, and I was a high school sports reporter for Washington, D.C.’s now-defunct Washington Star. I also was a college student at George Washington University (GWU).

At that time, GWU had a god-awful basketball team of White players, mostly from West Virginia. The University of Maryland’s team was in the Atlantic Coast Conference — which to this Black cub reporter from the Bronx was considered the heart of the Confederacy. Georgetown and Catholic universities played a level of basketball that was barely noticed locally. Howard University’s team was fun to watch, but like all the others, its players came from elsewhere. The University of the District of Columbia was yet to be born. And if you can imagine, American University (AU) was considered an elite team in the area.

As reporter who covered Washington, D.C. high school leagues, I had the opportunity to see many talented kids — boys and girls, in public and private schools — demonstrate the kind of athleticism and determination of which champions are made. It always seemed incredible to me that the local universities would ignore such talent that was right in their own backyards.

Then in 1972, Georgetown hired John Thompson.

Thompson, a native of the nation’s capital, came to Georgetown via St. Anthony’s High School, where as a basketball coach, he compiled a 122-28 record; the National Basketball Association’s champion Boston Celtics, where he played as a back-up center from 1964 through 1966; Providence College, where he also played basketball and graduated with a B.A. in Economics in 1964; and Archbishop Carroll High School, where the basketball teams on which he played won 103 of 111 games — including 55 straight — over a three-year period that ended in 1960.

It’s fair to say that Georgetown hired a winner — someone who had spent a lifetime, thus far, doing nothing but achieving success.

Apart from the racial-pride thing, what intensified my cheering for Georgetown was that Thompson began building his basketball powerhouse with the kids that all the other local universities were ignoring — kids that I had covered when they were in high school. In 1975, Georgetown went to the NCAA national tournament for the first time since 1943. Suddenly, those D.C. kids — who for a long time I considered my kids — were playing on national television.

In 1980, John Duren — GU’s all-time scoring and assist leader who had become the program’s first consensus all-American two years earlier and who had graduated from Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School in 1976 — became the first Thompson-coached player chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. In 1982, after losing the national championship by one point, three more of his players — Patrick Ewing, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, and Anthony Jones — become first-round NBA draft picks. Thompson, it seemed, had found the building blocks for Georgetown’s success, and the quarry from which many of those blocks came was one that had been largely overlooked.

Of course with America being what it is, Thompson had his critics — who were, not surprisingly, mostly White. He would never recruit White kids, they said. He brought in kids who didn’t deserve to attend Georgetown, they cried — especially when Ewing announced his intention to get an education at the university. And the media added a couple of refrains to the song: He was too authoritarian and too paranoid about the press.

Well, Thompson did have White kids play for him. Granted, there weren’t many. But a lot of that had to do with perception. There was always a lot of talk about Thompson not wanting White kids. That wasn’t true. And a lot of White kids were made to believe that they couldn’t get the proper “nurturing” — for lack of a better word — from a Black coach, especially a firebrand like Thompson.

But one of the White kids who did play for Thompson was asked — by Thompson — to return and be his assistant coach. He would sit on the bench beside Thompson for the next 17 years. That “kid” was Chris Escherick — who began playing for Thompson as a freshman in 1974 and now is the new Georgetown coach. At the press conference announcing his retirement, Thompson said that by passing the mantle to Escherick he was keeping things “in the family.” Sounds pretty nurturing to me.

“How are [my critics] going to explain racist John Thompson bringing in a White guy to be the next coach,” laughed Thompson in a Thomas Boswell column in The Washington Post. “I blew their mind!”

And as for whether or not his “kids” deserved to be there, consider Thompson’s graduation rate. If you played basketball at Georgetown for John Thompson, you were expected to graduate. In fact, according to Georgetown’s athletics office, 97 percent of the players who completed the athletic eligibility under Thompson also completed their degree programs.

Thompson’s critics often pointed to Patrick Ewing as a prime example of someone who didn’t academically belong at Georgetown. While not doubting his academics, my defense of Ewing centered on the purpose of college. Although I acknowledge that higher education was originally designed to stimulate intellectualism — learning for learning’s sake, as it were — I had come to realize that college and earning potential went hand in hand. A successful college career led to a financially rewarding working career. And, it was obvious that the way to get into the NBA — with very few exceptions — was to play college basketball. So, if college was supposed to prepare you for a career in the workforce and a college basketball team was a way to prepare for a career in the NBA, why should Ewing be denied an opportunity to pursue the career of his choice at the school of his choice? And if Georgetown accepts the responsibility, whose business is it anyway?

Not only did GU accept that responsibility, it fulfilled that responsibility — as it did with so many others during Thompson’s tenure. Ewing, like Duren, got his bachelor’s degree in four years — and was another NBA first-round draft selection.

As to the charge of being too authoritarian, consider that the press conference announcing Thompson’s retirement was attended by quite a few of his former players — including NBA stars Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo.

“He’s a teacher, he’s an educator. He tries to prepare you for life after college,” Ewing says.

And about that paranoia? If he didn’t allow his players access to the press their freshman year, if he didn’t want the press watching his practices when he was preparing for a big game, maybe he was more concerned about focusing on getting his players ready for the challenge than he was concerned about a writer’s desire to get something “quotable.”

In the end, Thompson compiled a 596-239 record at Georgetown. That’s a spectacular .713 winning percentage to go with his even-more-incredible 97 percent graduation rate. Think about it. How many coaches can say that their graduation rates are higher than their winning percentage? In fact, the first player to leave Georgetown early to play in the NBA was Allen Iverson in 1996. Sixteen other NBA stars first completed their college education under Thompson’s charge.

If it all ended there, that would be enough to say, “Jeez, that guy was a helluva coach.” But Thompson also used his position as a relentless crusader for equity of access to higher education, unafraid to voice his opinions and take on the likes of the NCAA — as he did over Proposition 42, which tightened requirements for freshmen eligibility for athletic scholarships. In a late-’80s game at Providence University, he walked off the court prior to the contest to demonstrate his displeasure with Proposition 42’s implementation.

I was surprised to find that Thompson’s retirement was such an emotional thing for me. There were tears in my eyes as I read about it. I had never met the man in person before we conducted the interview that appears in this edition of Black Issues, although I did speak with him on the phone a couple of times when I was a sports editor at The Washington Post. But aside from everything I’ve mentioned before, he will always hold a special place in my memory because of what he did one beautifully poignant moment in March 1982.

Georgetown was playing the University of North Carolina for the NCAA championship. In The Post’s annual tournament betting pool, my chances of winning looked better than they had ever looked as far as sports prognostication was involved. If Georgetown won, I’d win the pool’s $200. If North Carolina won, I’d finish in third place — valued at $32. I had promised my kids a popcorn maker with my winnings, sure that the top prize was mine.

Well, Georgetown was down a point with the ball and time running out at the end of the game. I was still confident that I would be the big-money winner. Then, Fred Brown threw the ball to the wrong player — which explains why, to this day, I dislike Michael Jordan who caught the ball — and Georgetown lost. I was mad. I was hot. I was about to go off. My kids would get their popcorn maker, of course. But after that purchase, I would get a measly $5 — if I were lucky.

But then, Thompson did the unexpected. He put his arms around Brown, hugging him and showing him — and all of us watching them on television — that the mistake wasn’t as important as the effort. The agony of excruciating defeat was tempered by a marvelous show of compassion. For me, that moment crystallized everything for which Thompson stands.

Despite his accomplishments on the court, Thompson didn’t really teach basketball at Georgetown. And despite his impressive graduation rate, he didn’t really teach academics. Thompson taught success, persistence, justice, and compassion — and he did it with conviction, strength, and pride. If we’re lucky, there will be more lessons to come.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group