John Thompson’s friends, rivals share untold stories of coach’s life and influence

green grass field near mountain under cloudy sky during daytime

Two weeks ago, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson called his “buddy” John Thompson after those within Thompson’s circle had relayed concerns about his health.

When Thompson answered the phone, however, he told Richardson to relax and ignore the rumors.

“He was at a [medical facility],” Richardson said of Thompson, the Georgetown icon whose death at the age of 78 was announced Monday. “Of course, I said, ‘What are you doing there?’ He said, ‘Ain’t nothin’ wrong, Coach. My boys are putting out bad information. I’m gonna kick their ass when I get outta here.'”

Richardson laughed over the tenacity displayed by the man known within the college basketball world as “Big John.” Then, as Richardson’s mind shifted back to the present reality, his voice started to fade.

“It’s a bad day,” Richardson said late Monday.

Everyone knows Thompson’s résumé, worthy of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. He led Georgetown to a national title in 1984, the first African American coach to achieve that feat. He pushed Georgetown to three Final Fours and seven Big East titles, and he coached the United States men’s national team to a bronze medal in the 1988 Summer Olympics.

At 6-foot-10, Thompson possessed a presence that would captivate a room and an edge that could even humble an All-American like former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing. Behind the intensity, however, stood a man whom those around him described as compassionate. Richardson, like so many others who learned from Thompson, knew the coaching icon as a loyal friend and pioneer who used his influence to open doors for the next generation of minority coaches as they shared a mission to “pave the road” for those who would follow them.

Thompson had a school bell attached to his office on the second floor of McDonough Gymnasium, former Georgetown player Robert Churchwell remembered, which would ring to herald to Thompson’s players that their coach was coming down to the court. During one practice, Churchwell recalled, they heard the bell and looked up to see Thompson walking through a cloud of smoke.

They were confused until Red Auerbach, who coached Thompson during his time with the Boston Celtics from 1964 to 1966, emerged from their coach’s shadow with a cigar in his hand.

Then, Auerbach told Thompson to put his starters on the floor before the Celtics legend administered drills for the awestruck Hoyas. Every maneuver was crisp, Churchwell said.

Thompson smirked from the sideline as he witnessed his team’s newfound precision in practice.

“Coach Thompson said, ‘I can’t get you to run a damn play, but y’all run this perfectly, huh?'” Churchwell recalled.

About 5 a.m. Monday, Churchwell checked his Georgetown group chat and read a text from a former teammate about Thompson’s death. Churchwell, a forward for Georgetown in the early 1990s, said he spent his morning reflecting on Thompson’s role in his life and the moments that defined his experience with the coach.

Thompson demanded humility and hard work, but he also made room for laughs.

Churchwell, the president of a youth program called Team Magik in Richmond, Virginia, said Thompson helped him navigate hurdles after basketball, too.

Two years ago, Thompson invited Churchwell to watch a practice alongside him during Ewing’s first year as Georgetown’s head coach. In Thompson’s office, he told Churchwell that Ewing “cussed more than me,” a sign that the former coach’s sense of humor had not wavered. Neither had his loyalty.

“Since I graduated, he was always a phone call away,” Churchwell said. “He’s reached out and helped me on several occasions.”

Thompson’s presence also affected his rivals.

Gary Williams was a young coach at Boston College during the school’s years in the Big East. In 1985, the league had won its second consecutive national title; after Thompson’s championship run at Georgetown in 1984, Rollie Massimino and Villanova famously upset the Hoyas in the title game a year later.

At that offseason’s league meeting, former Duke coach Bucky Waters had pitched Big East coaches a deal that would give each of them $5,000 if they used a specific brand of basketball. Thompson and Massimino, however, objected.

“John and Rollie basically stood up and said, ‘The rest of you suckers never won a national championship, so why are you getting the same money we are?'” Williams said. “It wound up that nobody got any money. John and Rollie made their own deals with other ball companies.”

Williams said Thompson had a significant impact on white coaches who witnessed his success at Georgetown. Thompson also reminded them of the opportunities they had failed to give other Black coaches.

“To have the guts to do that, back then, that could have cost John his job,” Williams said. “That was always the thing with John. He wanted things to be fair.”

Savannah State head coach Horace Broadnax recalled how Thompson, fresh off of Georgetown’s title win, told a room full of predominantly white reporters that more Black coaches would have won national championships in the past if they had been offered the opportunities.

“He was very intelligent, he was very funny and he was very strategic,” said Broadnax, who played for Georgetown from 1982 to 1986. “He was political. He stood up for Black people as early as the 1970s and ’80s. He didn’t have the benefit of just being a basketball coach.”

Throughout his collegiate career, Broadnax has applied a multitude of lessons from his years with Thompson. He can still recite some of his favorite phrases.

“If you can get through four years of Georgetown and John Thompson, you can get through anything.”

“We’re gonna try to run this thing as a democracy, but if the democracy breaks down, the dictator gotta take over.”

“You’re gonna have to pay for some groceries one day. You’re gonna have to stand up on your own two feet.”

While his messages had a universal appeal, Broadnax said Thompson tailored his coaching style to each player. That was his gift.

During Georgetown’s win over Dayton in the Elite Eight in 1984, teammate Michael Graham sat next to Broadnax on the bench and stewed about his limited playing time.

“I think if [Graham] would have gone out there, he would have picked up a flagrant 2 foul at that particular time,” Broadnax said.

In the team’s wins against Kentucky in the Final Four and Houston in the title game, however, Graham channeled his frustration into critical production once Thompson gave the 6-9 forward key minutes.

“Michael didn’t play that much throughout the whole year,” Broadnax said of Graham, who scored 22 points in the final two games of the season. “When he got to the Final Four, something instinctively within Coach Thompson decided to place him into that lineup. He and Patrick Ewing played well together. That was probably the boost that we needed.”

Coaches throughout college basketball have described the boost Thompson gave to their careers.

A year after he was fired from his post at Howard University in the late 1990s, Mike McLeese had picked up a job coaching the girls’ team at Dunbar High School in Washington. One day, the school’s principal asked him if he wanted to coach the boys’ team.

“[Thompson] had made a call for me,” McLeese said.

Thompson had mentored McLeese, who had worked the legend’s summer basketball camps and also helped the 1988 national team Thompson coached in the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

It was the off-court moments with Thompson, he said, that cemented their relationship.

Thompson once told McLeese that he didn’t recruit Muggsy Bogues, the 5-3 former Wake Forest and NBA standout, because “if you’re gonna make a mistake, it has to be a big mistake.” Thompson was wrong about Bogues. But he was right about many things and often reminded staffers that “assistant coaches make suggestions, but I make decisions.”

That image of Big John stomping around the court and demanding more from his players, however, belied the strong relationships he built with his players. He told a young McLeese, “They gotta love you before you can call them a m—–f—–.”

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Stephen A. Smith addresses the impact John Thompson Jr. had on the Black community and his career.

“When I heard [Monday] morning, it was definitely a gut punch,” McLeese said of Thompson’s death. “I think back to what he did for my career. I was just trying to get into the business. I was so fortunate to have been involved with him.”

Leonard Hamilton had to pause a few times as he talked about his relationship with Thompson. The Florida State head coach said Thompson changed his career. He said Thompson’s recommendation swayed the powerbrokers in his favor when he was hired at Oklahoma State in 1986.

Hamilton said he was also influenced by Thompson’s demeanor. Thompson reminded Hamilton to maintain his poise during emotional moments.

All but a handful of players who had stayed four years under Thompson had graduated, a fact that encouraged Hamilton to stress academic and athletic balance throughout his career.

“He was my rock, he was my confidant, he was a friend, a mentor. … He was my wise counsel,” Hamilton said. “I held him in such high esteem. I almost held him as a father figure when I didn’t realize he wasn’t a whole lot older than me. He was the image. In my eyes, he was so huge and influential with me, I didn’t realize he was only six years older than me.”

Hamilton, 72, said he’d call “the big fella” whenever he had to make a difficult decision. Thompson’s words steered him in the right direction.

But Thompson often influenced those around him without saying a word.

Sure, he was the disciplinarian most knew him to be, Hamilton said. But he was nurturing too.

“If one of his kids made a mistake at a critical part of the game, you’d see him put his hand on his shoulder, hand on his back and encourage him,” Hamilton said. “That always made an impression on me, and I tried to emulate him.”

A few days ago, Thompson hopped onto a call with Black Coaches United, a group of minority coaches led by former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt and including Tubby Smith, Cuonzo Martin, Hamilton and Thompson’s son John, among others.

Thompson had been sick for some time by then, but his personality hadn’t changed. The group listened as Thompson told them to seize the moment and prepare the way for the next generation.

“He was just telling us how important the group was,” Hewitt said.

That sounds like the man Richardson knew for more than 40 years — still fighting even as death approached.

Thompson would sometimes tell Richardson that they had a duty as Black coaches to buck the system, and displaying strength amid the adversity they both faced as African American coaches in the spotlight would enhance their platforms.

That’s why Richardson believed his friend when he told him a few weeks ago that he was on the mend, despite those around him expressing concerns about his health.

When they hung up the phone for the last time, Richardson said he figured Thompson would win whatever battle he had encountered.

“He is that way,” Richardson said. “I said, ‘You sound pretty strong. I’ll talk to you later.’ It’s tough news, losing Big John. I still can’t put it out of my head that he’s gone. He was such an influence on a bunch of us guys.”

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