“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. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else,” the school statement said. “However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear everyday.”
Thompson was born and raised in Washington, D.C. At Archbishop Carroll High School, he emerged as a standout center, playing in three consecutive city championship games. During his senior year, Thompson led Carroll to a 24–0 record, preserving its 48-game winning streak along the way.
After graduation, Thompson went to Providence College, where he played on the 1963 NIT Championship team and was part of the first Providence NCAA tournament team in 1964. He was an All-American in his senior year of 1964.
Thompson was drafted in the third round in 1964 and played two years in the NBA for the Boston Celtics. He then became the head coach at St. Anthony High School in Washington, D.C., from 1966 to 1972, racking up a 122–28 record.
He was then hired to become the head coach of Georgetown’s men’s basketball team, where he spent the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.
One of the most celebrated and polarizing figures in his sport, Thompson took over the moribund program and molded it in his unique style into a perennial contender, culminating with a national championship team anchored by Ewing in 1984.
Georgetown reached two other title games with Thompson in charge and Ewing patrolling the paint, losing to Michael Jordan’s North Carolina team in 1982 and to Villanova in 1985.
At 6-foot-10, with an ever-present white towel slung over his shoulder, Thompson literally and figuratively towered over the Hoyas for decades, becoming a patriarch of sorts after he quit coaching in 1999.
One of his sons, John Thompson III, was hired as Georgetown’s coach in 2004. When the son was fired in 2017, the elder Thompson — known affectionately as “Big John” or “Pops” to many — was at the news conference announcing Ewing as the successor.
Along the way, Thompson said what he thought, shielded his players from the media and took positions that weren’t always popular. He never shied away from sensitive topics and he once famously walked off the court before a game to protest an NCAA rule because he felt it hurt minority athletes.
“I’ll probably be remembered for all the things that kept me out of the Hall of Fame, ironically, more than for the things that got me into it,” Thompson said on the day he was elected to the Hall in 1999.
Thompson became coach of the Hoyas in 1972 and began remaking a team that was 3-23 the previous season. Over the next 27 years, he led Georgetown to 14 straight NCAA tournaments (1979-92), 24 consecutive postseason appearances (20 NCAA, 4 NIT), three Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985) and won six Big East tournament championships.
Employing a physical, defense-focused approach that frequently relied on a dominant center — Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo were among his other pupils — Thompson compiled a 596-239 record (.715 winning percentage). He had 26 players drafted by the NBA.
One of his honors — his selection as coach of the U.S. team for the 1988 Olympics — had a sour ending when the Americans had to settle for the bronze medal. It was a result so disappointing that Thompson put himself on a sort of self-imposed leave at Georgetown for a while, coaching practices and games but leaving many other duties to his assistants.
Off the court, Thompson was both a role model and a lightning rod. A stickler for academics, he kept a deflated basketball on his desk, a reminder to his players that a degree was a necessity because a career in basketball relied on a tenuous “nine pounds of air.”
The school boasted that 76 of 78 players who played four seasons under Thompson received their degrees.
Thompson’s most daring move came when he summoned notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III for a meeting in the coach’s office. Thompson warned Edmond to stop associating with Hoyas players and to leave them alone, using his respect in the Black community to become one of the few people to stare down Edmond and not face a reprisal.
Though aware of his influence, Thompson did not take pride in becoming the first Black coach to take a team to the Final Four, and he let a room full of reporters know it when asked his feelings on the subject at a news conference in 1982.
“I resent the hell out of that question if it implies I am the first Black coach competent enough to take a team to the Final Four,” Thompson said. “Other Blacks have been denied the right in this country; coaches who have the ability. I don’t take any pride in being the first Black coach in the Final Four. I find the question extremely offensive.”
Thompson won seven Coach of the Year awards.