Basketball Hall of Famer John Thompson Dies at 78

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2020

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson, Jr., listens during an NCAA college basketball press conference to formally announce Georgetown's new basketball head coach Patrick Ewing, Wednesday, April 5, 2017, in Washington. Ewing played at Georgetown under coach Thompson. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Legendary Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson died Monday, according to ESPN's Myron Medcalf.  

He was 78.

No cause of death was made public. Thompson retired from Nike's Board of Directors in May, a position he had held since 1991.

A center drafted in the third round by the Boston Celtics in 1964, Thompson won two NBA championships during a brief two-year professional career before moving into coaching. He dominated at St. Anthony High School in Washington, D.C., from 1966-1972 before being hired at Georgetown at just 31 years old—a move that would stabilize the next three decades of Hoyas basketball.

A mediocre program with little history of postseason success before Thompson's arrival, Georgetown became a juggernaut after joining the Big East in 1979. With Thompson recruiting and developing an assembly line of dominant big men that included Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, the Hoyas became a consistent fixture, making deep runs to the NCAA tournament.

In 1984, Ewing and Thompson led Georgetown to the program's first and only national championship. Thompson became the first Black head coach to win a national title. Georgetown also reached the championship game two other times in Thompson's tenure, in 1982 and 1985.

While Thompson's success was more limited on the floor in the 1990s, he was also instrumental in turning around the life of Allen Iverson after bringing him to Georgetown in 1994. Iverson had lost nearly every scholarship offer after he was given a 15-year prison sentence after an incident at a bowling alley. He served four months in prison before being granted clemency; his conviction was later overturned. 

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"I want to thank Coach Thompson ... for saving my life," Iverson said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. "For giving me the opportunity. I was recruited by every school in the country for football and basketball. And an incident happened in high school, and all that was taken away. No other teams, no other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance. And he did."

Michael Jordan, who made the game-winning shot for North Carolina against Thompson's Georgetown team in the 1982 national championship game, released a statement on Thompson's death, via Marc Stein of the New York Times:

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski also released a statement, saying he will miss Thompson "dearly."

An imposing 6'10" man, Thompson was known for his fiery temper, no-nonsense attitude and loyalty to his players. While it wouldn't be a surprise to see Thompson angrily chastising his players on the court, he was just as protective of them off it.

When some Georgetown players, including Mourning, befriended dangerous drug kingpin Rayful Edmond in the 1980s, Thompson brought Edmond into his office and demanded he stay away from his players. Edmond is believed to have never had contact with Georgetown players again after that meeting.

Thompson resigned from coaching midway through the 1998-99 season, concluding his career with a 596–239 record. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, just nine months after his retirement from coaching.