Georgetown University honored John Thompson Jr.’s legacy with a virtual memorial service celebrating his accomplishments and contributions to the university as head men’s basketball coach from 1972 to 1999.
Thompson died Aug. 30 at the age of 78. The ceremony recognized Thompson’s accomplishments as a coach as well as his championing of social justice issues and fierce advocacy for his players. The live-streamed video, which included speakers including former President Barack Obama, debuted on Facebook and received over 13,000 views.
The ceremony began with host Doc Walker, who had served as a co-host with Thompson on the John Thompson Radio Show from 1999 to 2012, speaking in Gaston Hall.
“Everyone who worked with John along the way — coaches, media members, businessmen — you knew you were fire-tested because John always worked hard, never took breaks and expected the same from everyone around him,” Walker said.
In 1984, while coaching at Georgetown, Thompson became the first Black college basketball coach to win the NCAA Men’s Division I Championship. While earning this title represented one of his major basketball accomplishments, Thompson was also known for his social justice work within the NCAA. In 1989, the NCAA came out with Proposition 48, an eligibility requirement change that disproportionately disadvantaged student-athletes from low-income backgrounds — something Thompson opposed.
“I had an obligation to say something about it, so I did,” Thompson said in an interview played during the service.
Not only did Thompson say something, he did something. He boycotted two games, during which he walked off the court, drawing national attention to the important issue at hand. This protest ultimately led the NCAA to modify the proposition.
Thompson’s legacy is also evident in the character of those he coached, Obama said.
“What made Coach Thompson special, what compelled us to celebrate his life today, is what he did to build young men, to turn them into men of character and purpose,” Obama said.
Current Georgetown men’s basketball Head Coach Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85) echoed Obama’s message. Ewing was coached by Thompson and saw him as a second father figure. Thompson played a special role in his players’ lives as a protector and role model, Ewing said.
Ewing recalled a time Thompson approached a drug kingpin and told him to stay away from his team, making his best effort to ensure his players avoided drugs and other illicit activity.
The service continued with a video that was originally scheduled to be shown at a celebration for Thompson’s retirement from Nike this September. Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Nike, Inc. Phil Knight explained how, nearly 30 years ago, Thompson was placed on the board of directors at a time when it was composed of only white men, breaking down racial barriers as he did so often.
Nike board of directors member Michelle Peluso commended Thompson for his collaborative spirit.
“I love Coach for his wisdom, his talent, his grit, his passion, his work ethic. But most of all I love him for his deep-seated desire to make sure we all win together,” Peluso said.
As a college basketball coaching legend, Thompson put the Big East on the map and established rivalries that continue today, including the rivalry between Syracuse and Georgetown, according to Syracuse men’s basketball Head Coach Jim Boeheim.
“John Thompson, known as Big John at Syracuse, became someone who our fans couldn’t wait to see and give their ultimate respect to,” Boeheim said.
Retired NBA and Georgetown greats Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning also spoke about Thompson’s influence on their lives. University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) also said Thompson lived out the values the university holds in all of his actions and choices, setting a moral example for everyone on the Hilltop.
The service concluded with a gospel choir performance and a message from Thompson’s daughter Tiffany.
Rev. Mark A. Thompson, a manager for the Hoyas from 1986 to 1988, addressed Thompson directly.
“Coach, you’ve won the greatest victory of all, victory over death. Your name and your legacy will live on forever,” Mark A. Thompson said.
To close out the service, Walker repeated one of Thompson’s most famous quotes: “When I’m gone, if I can’t go to heaven, take me back to Georgetown.”
“While we know he’s up there looking down upon us, there’s always room for him here at Georgetown,” Walker added.