News & Politics

John Thompson Jr., The Trail-Blazing Georgetown Coach and Mentor, Has Died

"Big John" was the first African American coach to win an NCAA championship.

John Thompson Jr., left, congratulates his son, then Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, right, after an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 9, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

John Thompson Jr., the longtime Georgetown coach who was the first African American to win an NCAA championship, died Monday. He was 78.

Thompson was born in DC and attended Archbishop John Carroll High School, where he was a key part of the school’s 55-game winning streak on the first integrated Catholic League team in the city. “Big John,” as the 6’10” star inevitably became known, went on to play for Providence College and the Boston Celtics, which won two championships with him in 1965 and 1966.

Thompson retired from playing and began coaching, first at St. Anthony’s in DC, where a long-simmering rivalry with DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten led to one of the most bizarre incidents in DC high school sports: the so-called “Greatest Game Never Played” in 1970.

Thompson moved on to Georgetown and transformed its struggling program into an NCAA powerhouse, coaching players like Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, and Alonzo Mourning. Mourning was indirectly responsible for one of the most famous stories about Thompson: The time the coach called DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III into his office and warned him to stay away from Mourning. Edmond reportedly never approached a Georgetown player again.

Under Thompson, Georgetown went to the Final Four three times in the early 1980s and won the national championship in 1984. Speaking to Washingtonian 30 years later about the team’s incredible run, Thompson said, “We had a hell of a lot of people in those stands cheering for us that weren’t black.” He continued:

But did it have a special connotation for black people? Sure, based on discrimination and segregation and based on lack of opportunity that people had. When I was the first African-American to win a Division I national championship, it had a special connotation because it meant opportunities for other people.

Thompson left Georgetown in 1999 amid a contentious divorce and began a career in broadcasting. He hosted the John Thompson Show on ESPN 980 until 2012. He was also on Nike’s board until May of this year. His son John Thompson III was Georgetown’s coach from 2004-2017, and Thompson helped recruit Ewing once again to take over the team when his son’s tenure ended.

“I’ve had several young coaches come up to me and say they appreciated me winning or something I said or did and that it created opportunities for them,” he told Washingtonian in 2014. “I felt very gratified when they said that.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.