With the passing of John Thompson Jr., it is with a heavy heart I feel compelled to tell my story of the man who helped me to be more open-minded and empathetic in life.
It was basketball season and, as a sports writer for The Hoya, I was thrilled to write about and attend all the games. The season took on new meaning, however, on a Wednesday night, Feb. 5, 1975, during the national anthem, when Georgetown students hung a banner with a racial epithet directed at Thompson from the McDonough Arena rafters before a game against Dickinson College. The following Friday, The Hoya published the article I wrote with input from classmates, titled “McDonough Racism II.”
I ended the article with “our thinking is that the vast majority deplore this sort of attack upon Thompson, a feeling that we hope will be proven tomorrow night when Coach Thompson and the Hoyas are introduced just before tip-off.”
You could have cut the air with a knife in McDonough on that Saturday night as the team warmed up. Thompson was nowhere to be found until he dramatically walked in as the teams set up to start the game at center court. I watched in astonishment as the Georgetown community rushed to its feet and gave Thompson a thunderous five-minute standing ovation. His entrance caused such a commotion that the officials held up the game until the applause was over. Message from the student body to Thompson and the team delivered!
The next day, I received a knock on my dorm room door. It was my resident assistant, who relayed to me that Thompson was on the hall phone for me. He thanked me for the article and invited me to come to his office the following week. Thompson welcomed me into his office, which had incredibly oversized furniture fitting for the 6-foot-10-inch, 269-pound coach. I sat there uncomfortably, reaching my arms up and dangling my feet. He told me about his goal to ensure his players understood that someday they would not be playing basketball and needed a degree and another plan. His goal was to have the players achieve the same graduation rate as the overall university. He used one of his assistant coach positions to hire Mary Fenlon. Fenlon followed the players’ class schedule, homework and activities with great care, ensuring they attended classes and completed their studies. This tracking was no small task since Thompson was known for three-hour double session practices, one starting at 6 a.m. and the other at 5 p.m.
Thompson asked me if I wanted to join Fenlon’s team of tutors for the players. He told me, however, there was a condition: I had to take a test first. He walked me into a room the size of a closet with no windows. The test was titled “Urban SAT,” and I had one hour to complete it. I opened the first page and carefully read each question and the four answer options. The temperature in the room seemed to rise dramatically as I realized I couldn’t answer a single question! As a matter of fact, I didn’t even understand what the question was asking! After some time, Thompson retrieved me and asked me how I felt. I said I was embarrassed, ashamed and anxious, and I wanted to bolt out of his office. After relaying my feelings, Thompson said, “Now you can tutor my kids because now you know how they feel in the Georgetown academic environment.”
It was a lifetime realization for a 20-year-old. In one simple exercise, Thompson had taught me the difference between my life and that of my classmates and what a kid with fewer educational opportunities and some basketball talent felt. Thompson conveyed that, for many players, their previous academic preparation and life experience taught them basketball was their only way out of their circumstances. He was determined to give them options and expand their horizons.
Lastly, Thompson, along with my academic adviser Stanley Nollen, taught me to have the courage to use my writing skills to speak out for others. With input from Thompson, as well as from Jeff Anthony, Reggie Terrell, Samuel Harvey and the 10 other senior Georgetown administrators I interviewed during my 18-month research project, I finished my senior thesis: “Blacks at Georgetown: Unanswered Needs.”
Upon his arrival as Georgetown president, Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., and I spent an entire eight-hour day going over every aspect of the research. He implemented many changes from there. I will also be forever grateful to my late classmate Jim Colaprico (GSB ’77), then editor in chief of The Hoya, who, in 1976, had the courage to publish the entire piece in a three-part series in The Hoya.
It may seem strange that I wrote these pieces 44 years ago, and we are still grappling with issues of race today. Thanks to educators like Thompson, however, we are making continuous progress at Georgetown and in the country. Progress is messy and never at the pace we would desire. I am grateful to Thompson for making me a more empathic and better person by teaching me how to stand in another person’s shoes. Thank you, Coach. Rest in peace.
Tom Bianco graduated from the Georgetown University School of Business Administration in 1977. He is currently a member of the Alumni Board of Governors.