Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, was president of Georgetown University during much of John Thompson’s career as the head basketball coach. He knew him well and reflects on his recent passing and how he helped shepherd the sport and the players he coached.
Like countless other graduates of Georgetown, citizens of Washington, D.C., and lovers of the game of basketball, I was deeply grieved to learn of the death of Coach John Thompson. He was a man of great accomplishment: a legendary basketball coach, a major citizen in the life of our capital city, a champion of racial equity and inclusion well before it was needed as it so desperately is today, and a model for all young people trying to imagine what to make of their futures. I feel a hole in the fabric of all our lives.
John was born in Washington in 1941. Unusually tall, he was recruited to play basketball at Archbishop Carroll High School. There he led a team that also included the future president of the University of Notre Dame, “Monk” Malloy, to three straight city championships, including an undefeated senior year. With a scholarship to Providence College he led the Friars to their NIT championship in 1963 and first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1964. That year he graduated with a degree in economics and was named an All-American. After two seasons with the Boston Celtics he returned to Washington and coached at St. Anthony High School, posting a 122-28 record there.
In a not small gamble—Georgetown’s basketball team had a 3-23 record for the previous season—Rev. Robert Henle, S.J., in 1972 hired the young coach from St. Anthony’s. Three years later his team was to make the first of 20 appearances in the NCAA National Tournament, including a streak of 14 consecutive turns. He also played a major role in the formation of the Big East Conference in 1979. As a member of the Board of Directors at Georgetown, I knew John in the mid-80’s when he took the Hoyas to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in 1983, 1984 and 1985—winning in 1984 with Patrick Ewing as his star center and becoming the first Black coach to lead his team to a national championship. (He resented the attention this brought him, believing that many another Black coach could have done as well had he been given the right opportunities.)
“Coach” saw the power of basketball to give disadvantaged young men access to a better life. (He kept a deflated basketball on his desk as a reminder that the game was not a destination but preparation for something larger to come.) As his reputation grew, he took the platform readily to demand better opportunities for the education of Black athletes and the further positions they might ambition. His discipline was rigorous: Mary Fenlon, a former nun he had known at St. Anthony’s, became the students’ famous academic guide and they never traveled except in coat and tie. 75 out of the 77 players who stayed for four years at the university received degrees.
One of my most vivid memories from 1989, my first year as president at Georgetown, was learning that the Denver Nuggets were recruiting John to become their General Manager. Thinking it more than unlikely that I could strong-arm John out of leaving the university, I simply asked him several questions: Where would the greater stress be? Would he miss developing his young players? What did the family think? When I arrived a few days later at the gym for John’s press conference about his decision, Frank Rienzo, our also legendary Athletic Director, told me he thought it might be good to take the grin off my face and let John himself make the announcement that he was staying at Georgetown.
Around a man as big as John—in every sense—there cluster countless memories. Another I cherish—though it involved great disappointment—is of the Big East Championship game on March 9, 1996. With four minutes left to play, we were leading Connecticut 74-63. As I walked down to the court on the way to the locker room to congratulate the team, the lead had dwindled to two points and was then erased as Ray Allen hit an off-balance two-pointer to steal what had looked to be our seventh Big East Championship. In the locker room Patrick Ewing sat with his head between his knees, Mary Fenlon looked as though both her parents had died, and John was silent stone. I said something to the young men about every Hoya in America being proud of them.
The next night John called—to apologize for his silence, he said—and told me he had never been so proud to serve Georgetown as in that moment. (A Washington Post reporter had taken to saying I didn’t seem to get along as well with John as had my predecessor.)
He was not only committed to his players, you see. He loved them. He wanted larger lives for them. When Allen Iverson was on the verge of declaring for the NBA after his second year at Georgetown, I know how John grieved—not for the loss of a star who might bring us another championship but for someone who needed more guidance on the way to his true self.
And so it was painful for us all when John decided to resign in 1999, shortly after his divorce from his wife Gwen. That year he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. And the fire of his ambition for his players was not abated. The false charge of racism (“only black players!”)–which was not in any case true–was also again refuted by his ardent support for his assistant coach Craig Esherick to succeed him. As he became Presidential Consultant for Urban Affairs at the university and then a sports talk radio host, and taking great pride in seeing his son John Thompson III succeed Craig as Head Coach, he remained a singular Washington presence. And now, of course, there is at Georgetown the John R. Thompson, Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center that memorializes him.
But his family’s statement on the occasion of his death said it best: “he was a historic shepherd of the sport.” I would underline shepherd. And in entrusting him to God, remember that when he wore a blue shirt while coaching, it was in honor of the Blessed Mother. And that he prayed the rosary regularly.