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A Tribute to Georgetown Basketball Legend John Thompson

11/12/1984 President Reagan Patrick Ewing and John Thompson during a photo Op for the cover of Sports Illustrated in the Map Room. Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum/White House

I want to pay a small tribute to Georgetown Basketball legend John Thompson, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 78.

It has been said that the true measure of a human being is how much this person impacted and influenced the lives of others, and for how long this impact remains.

By all measures John Thompson’s life is measured in miles, not feet.

Coach Thompson is a Washington, D.C., legend. At 6’10”, he was literally larger than life.  Figuratively, he is one of the city’s great and lasting monuments. Visit the athletic center on the campus of Georgetown University that bears his name, the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, and you will gain a better understanding of how significant a man he was to that university and beyond.

But it isn’t merely the sight of him or a recounting of his successful sports program that makes him worthy of epilogue and eulogy. Yes, we can look at Coach Thompson’s long-standing prominence in the region to know that he was a man of circumstance. But his enduring impact comes from the role he played in the lives of young men who would otherwise be considered “at risk.”

A short bullet-point listing of his accomplishments tell the story of his character and fortitude:

— He was a black coach who predominantly recruited black players to a white Jesuit institution. Seems rather commonplace now. It wasn’t always.

— Seventy-six of 78 players who played four seasons under him received their university degrees.

— In 1989, he took a dramatic stand against Proposition 42, which would have denied freshmen athletes financial aid if they didn’t meet certain NCAA-designated academic standards. Thompson called the proposal biased against underprivileged students. Thanks to Thompson’s actions, the rule was amended before it went into effect the following year.

— Thompson infamously confronted a notorious local drug kingpin who was trying to gain access to some of his most notable players. In “his way,” he made it clear that those efforts would no longer continue.

— When no schools were willing to offer Allen Iverson a scholarship because of a high school altercation, Coach Thompson stepped in, and in the words of Iverson “saved my life.”

These facts are part of the public record, but this tribute is not merely a public recounting. Personally, I have been friends with the Thompson family for over 15 years. His death feels like experiencing the loss of one of my own extended family. But in more ways than not, I am just another spectator sitting on the sidelines mourning a man who made futures possible for young men who look like me. And I am grateful that he provided to me examples that I have used in my life trying to help youth athletes of all backgrounds.

Coach Thompson’s memory and legacy live on through his children, his grandchildren, and his extended family. Georgetown University, the District of Columbia, and the nation at large have lost a great man but we are all better for having had him around.

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