News & Politics

John Thompson III: A Study in Contrasts

An excerpt of Brett Haber’s profile of the Georgetown coach in the March issue of “The Washingtonian.”

Photograph courtesy of Georgetown University.

Ask most DC sports journalists what it was like to cover Georgetown basketball when John Thompson Jr. was the coach, and they are likely to make a face that would suggest they’re suffering from indigestion. It was, to put it mildly, complicated. The elder Thompson did not court the media. In fact, he was moderately disdainful and entirely distrusting of the fourth estate and did the bare minimum to facilitate coverage of his teams. Interviews were rationed sparingly. Access to Hoyas practices was unheard of. Freshmen were barred completely from speaking to the press until at least their second semester on campus. It was a system unlike any other in Washington—and Thompson was just fine with that. The coach preferred an insular environment around his program, which served him well in terms of creating cohesion among his players but made life difficult for those of us whose jobs depended on producing content about the Hoyas. For us, it was a precarious dance involving Thompson, the notoriously prickly Georgetown sports information staff, and our deadlines. The dance often went poorly.

So when The Washingtonian asked me to do a profile of John Thompson III as my first feature for the magazine, I was more than a little apprehensive. I knew the piece I wanted to write would require lots of access to both the program and the coach himself, and I had serious doubts that the culture at Georgetown—even a decade later, with a different Thompson in charge—would allow for that. I had gotten to know John III somewhat during my time at WUSA, in particular during Georgetown’s run to the Final Four in 2007, but I didn’t know whether he would be candid enough to make for the subject of a compelling profile.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Below is an excerpt from my piece, which appears in the March issue of The Washingtonian.

“My name is John Thompson, and I am definitely comfortable in my own skin.”

John III read the words straight into the camera. They were part of the script—a tagline to the Dove soap commercial he filmed in the summer of 2010.

There may not be a more apt way to describe Thompson—comfortable in his own skin. Each day when he arrives at work, he walks through the ornate John Thompson Lobby of McDonough Arena to his office. On the way, he passes a display of the many trophies his father’s teams won over the years alongside a bust of his father’s head in bronze.

Yes, Thompson literally has to walk past a monument to his father to get to his office each day.

“It’s nothing to run from,” John III says. “It’s part of who I am. He was one of the best that ever did it. Do people compare and contrast me with him more because I’m here? Probably. But I’ve been John Thompson’s son my whole life. I’m pretty comfortable with him.”

He needs to be. His father isn’t just a vague presence in Georgetown basketball history. He’s an actual presence—in the building almost every day. He has an office at McDonough and retains both a $500,000 salary and an official title from the university: special assistant to the president and coach emeritus.

When he comes to practice, the elder Thompson stays out of the way. He waits until the session has started before he enters, and he often sits in a wooden chair in front of the collapsible bleachers, his back pressed against the wall as if trying to blend into the woodwork.

Yet his presence is felt.

“He was here every practice,” says Jeff Green. The former Hoyas star is now with the Boston Celtics but is recovering from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. “He took notes, and when we were done we’d walk past and shake his hand and he told us hello, and he would give us his piece,” Green says.

When asked if his son likes having him at practice, the elder Thompson says, “I don’t care if he likes it or not. He lets me in there. I very seldom say anything to him at practice. I just sit there and watch because I enjoy it.”

To see John III at work is to see a man so self-possessed that he’d likely be at ease if basketball inventor James Naismith himself were watching his practices. But when it comes to his father, the younger Thompson says it’s not a question of his own comfort: “That man has earned the right to do whatever the heck he wants.”

The bedsheet unfurled from the stands during a game in February 1975. “Thompson the nigger flop must go,” it said.

It was the elder Thompson’s third season at Georgetown, a decade before he would become the first African-American head coach to win the NCAA championship.

John III was a month shy of his ninth birthday. These were the lean beginnings of his father’s tenure at Georgetown. The elder Thompson had inherited a program that had won just three of 26 games in its final season under his predecessor, Jack Magee.

John Thompson Jr.—known to friends and family as Pops, Big John, or Coach—had grown up in public housing in DC and was a star player at Archbishop Carroll High School, leading the team to an undefeated season in 1960, his senior year.

Thompson was an All-American at Providence College and made it to the NBA, where he had a short and undistinguished career. He played two seasons for coach Red Auerbach in Boston and arguably lasted that long only because he was tall—six-foot-ten. He earned the nickname the Caddy because his lot in life with the Celtics was to back up future hall-of-famer Bill Russell. John was traveling with the Celtics when John III, his first son, was born; his wife, Gwen, drove herself to the hospital, according to a 2005 article in the Washington Post.

“You want to look at me and ask what it was like being the son of John Thompson, the coach of Georgetown, and I don’t have another point of reference,” says John III. “It was just my life.”