John Thompson Jr., the Hall of Fame basketball coach and Georgetown legend who became the first Black head coach to win an NCAA championship, has died, his family said on Monday. Thompson was 78.
“Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court,” the family said in a statement. “He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.”
A cause of death was not immediately given. He would have turned 79 on Wednesday.
Thompson, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, reached the NCAA tournament 20 times with the Hoyas, capped by the 1984 national championship. He retired after the 1998-99 season with a 596-239 record in 27 seasons at Georgetown.
Thompson was born and raised in Washington D.C. and it was in his hometown where he would build a dynasty in the 1980s. After suffering a one-point loss to Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the 1982 title game, Thompson led the Hoyas, with star center Patrick Ewing, to the championship two years later. The team would also make it to the title game the following year, when they were upset by Villanova.
Thompson, who was 6 foot 10, starred at Providence College, where he played on the team that won the 1963 NIT Championship. The school called him a “legendary player and an even greater person.”
He was drafted by the Boston Celtics, and won two NBA titles as the backup center to Hall of Fame center Bill Russell. He opted to end his professional career after just two seasons and turned his attention to coaching in his hometown.
For six years, he coached St. Anthony Catholic School, posting a 122-28 record. When Thompson arrived at Georgetown in 1972, the team had won just three games.
It was as the Hoyas coach where he would make a lasting impression, often patrolling the sideline with his trademark white towel draped over his shoulder. Thompson is credited with recruiting and teaching four players who went on to the Hall of Fame: Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson.
“I want to thank coach Thompson … for saving my life,” Iverson said in 2016. “For giving me the opportunity. I was recruited by every school in the country for football and basketball. And an incident happened in high school and all that was taken away. No other teams, no other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance. And he did.”
He was named the UPI coach of the year in 1987 and the Big East coach of the year three times.
His son, John Thompson III, also coached the Hoyas, finishing with a 278-151 record over 13 seasons.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser paid tribute to Thompson in a Twitter post on Monday, referencing a famous quote from the longtime coach: “When I’m gone, if I can’t go to Heaven, take me back to Georgetown.”