They came through Georgetown one after another — Patrick Ewing and all the rest. Teenagers who became adults, prospects who became men. They came to grow, not to mention win a lot of basketball games, and then to be sent into the world by a mountain of a mentor named John Thompson.
He spoke, they listened. That’s what the Hoya program was all about in the late 20th century.
Ask a good many of those Georgetowners today if they can imagine their lives without Thompson, and the guess is, it can’t be done. They learned so many things from the imposing figure before them — from A to Z, with B and basketball happening to come in between. The term student-athlete is out of favor with some in these turbulent days, but consider this:
Could you think of a better way to describe a young man playing for John Thompson? Could any coach want a richer legacy?
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We note his history today, and how he became the first Black coach to win a national championship in 1984. We note his feats at Georgetown, and how he took a program that had been barely a blip on any radar screen and transformed it into a national power to be feared in lots of places, and respected most everywhere. In the first 36 years of the NCAA tournament, Georgetown attended once. The Hoyas of Thompson were in 20 of the next 23. A school that owned two tournament victories in 36 seasons suddenly advanced to seven Elite Eights, or better.
But to get a fuller sense of Thompson, you need to count all the uns.
Uncompromising, unafraid, unflinching, unblinking, unapologetic...and on many nights, very nearly unbeatable. He and that towel. Thompson understood what the world beyond the basketball court should be, and he knew what the Georgetown program would be, and he was never going to back down from saying what he meant and meaning what he said — about either. No matter if his audience was the media, the power structure of college sports, his team — or famously, the time he told a notorious drug dealer to stop hanging around his Hoyas.
Maybe not everyone agreed with him. But everyone heard him.
Of course, winning a national championship didn't hurt, in getting people to listen. Or constructing a juggernaut. Few things were more imposing in 1980s college basketball than the thought of trying to shoot, score, pass — or breathe, even — against the Georgetown defense. Its ferocity and relentlessness helped give wing to a new concoction called the Big East. Really, it is hard to envision the quick blossoming of the league without the fire of the Georgetown Hoyas, or the man who led them.
There was the 1984 Final Four, when Kentucky led the Hoyas 29-22 at halftime. Georgetown turned the switch on its defense the second half, and the Wildcats missed 30 of 33 shots, managed only 11 points and lost 53-40. Afterward, a shaken Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall called the experience some sort of “extraterrestrial phenomenon.”
No, his team had just been Thompsoned.
Closely study the Thompson heyday and something becomes particularly noticeable; how so very close he came to creating a full-blown dynasty. How it took a series of remarkable defeats to keep him from dominating the sport. How it must have been galling, that Georgetown played so well in so many vital games, and still lost.
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There was the 1980 Elite Eight, with the Hoyas on a 15-game winning streak and maybe the scariest team in the nation. Georgetown rolled to a 14-point lead on Iowa and shot 68 percent the second half — the perfect script for a team intending to storm into the Final Four. They lost 71-70 in the final five seconds, as the Hawkeyes scored on 15 of 16 possessions. The coach who beat Thompson that day was Lute Olson, a legend himself who just passed away, as 2020 continues to deliver its hard knocks.
There was the 1982 national championship, another one-point loss, this time delivered by the first truly famous jump shot by a freshman named Michael Jordan. Georgetown shot nearly 54 percent that night, and it wasn’t enough.
There was the 1985 championship game epic, when Villanova magically missed one shot the second half, only six the entire game, enjoyed a massive 22-6 gap in free throws — and still could only beat the Hoyas by two points.
What is there to say when your team brings it’s A game to three moments of truth, and you lose all three by a combined four points? Had Iowa scored on only 14 of 16 possessions, had Jordan been a couple inches off, had Villanova missed two shots the second half instead of just one...Georgetown might have owned four national championships in six years. Just what kind of icon would John Thompson have been then? Not that he wasn’t one, anyway.
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There would be other notable tournament moments. Georgetown lost in the Elite Eight to Duke and a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski, to Providence and a young coach named Rick Pitino, to Massachusetts and a young coach named John Calipari. In 1994, the Hoyas were knocked out in the second round by Arkansas. Two weeks later, the Razorbacks would make Nolan Richardson the second Black coach with a national championship. Richardson not only followed where Thompson led, but had to beat him to get there.
The irony is that the cornerstone game of Thompson’s career — the 1984 national championship win over Houston — was a rather ordinary 84-75 throttling of the Cougars. His most famous games were nearly all defeats.
And yet he will be remembered as a winner, and a leader. There are so many ex-players out there who consider him one of the foundations of their lives. He was equally indispensable to the game he served and loved. No coach could ask for more.