One cold, dreary winter morning in 1994 I visited a Hardees in Rosslyn, Virginia, before heading to work.
The Georgetown men’s basketball team and coach John Thompson were there. His team had played a road game the evening before and had stopped in for breakfast after their red-eye flight home.
They were a short bus drive across the Key Bridge over the Potomac River to the Georgetown campus. Thompson and the players looked so tired. Yet, he was in total control.
Standing by the door as they were leaving, Thompson said “afternoon classes, practice at 4.” He didn’t yell. But his words resonated with me. After this long night, Thompson was demanding his team not miss any afternoon classes and then be on time for practice.
You had to stand next to Thompson to realize how large a man he was. At 6-10 with broad shoulders, he was huge. After playing at Providence, Thompson would serve as a backup to Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics.
He commanded respect. He was beloved by his players. You didn’t have to be a Hoyas beat reporter to realize that. All it took was a few minutes in a fast-food restaurant.
Thompson died on Sunday, August 30, 2020. He was 78. His family announced his passing at his home in Arlington, Virginia, where he had been dealing with health issues.
When hired in 1972, Thompson inherited a team that won just three games the previous year. The Hoyas had made a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1943, the only time it had happened in the school’s history.
Thompson took Georgetown to the NCAA Tournament 20 times during his 27 years as head coach. He reached the Final Four for the first time in 1982 and won the national championship in 1984, becoming the first Black coach to accomplish the feat. Georgetown could have won back-to-back titles in 1985 had it not been for the shocking upset at the hands of Villanova.
He was asked in 1982 about his feelings on reaching the Final Four and if he felt honored to be the first Black coach to accomplish that. The world got a taste of how serious a man Thompson was.
“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,” he reportedly 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.”
His teams won an impressive 596 games, while losing just 239. The Hoyas captured seven Big East titles and he coached the United States 1988 Olympic team to a bronze medal.
Thompson had the unenviable task of telling America that international professional basketball players had surpassed his team of collegiate youths and that it was time to use NBA stars.
The Dream Team led by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan took over in 1992 and easily won the basketball gold medal.
In a week that saw professional athletes boycott games in protest of the Jacob Blake police shooting, Thompson would be remembered as the first college coach to boycott games in the name of something he believed in.
In January 1999, Thompson walked off the court before a home game against Boston College in protest of an NCAA proposal that would have forbid schools from offering athletic scholarships to freshmen who didn’t meet certain academic requirements. Thompson boycotted the next game against Providence, explaining that the proposal was biased against players from challenging backgrounds.
Alan Iverson was one of those youths. A football and basketball star from Richmond, Virginia, the troubled Iverson had been railroaded by police and prosecutors for his role in a bowling alley brawl. He was being blackballed by most major colleges – until Thompson came to his rescue.
“Thanks For Saving My Life Coach. I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile,” Iverson wrote on Twitter.
“I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, “Hey MF”, then we would talk about everything except basketball.”
St. Louisan Bradley Beal, a star guard with the Washington Wizards, said via Twitter, “RIP COACH JOHN THOMPSON. I was honored to have the opportunity to pick your brain and learn from you while in DC.”
“You had the look of intimidation and focus but had the mindset of a wise man. You’re a legend and will truly be missed!!”
Former Hoya and NBA star Alonzo Mourning also said Thompson “saved my life.”
“The world has lost a revolutionary icon and a leader," Mourning wrote. "Today, I have lost a father figure, lifelong coach, and one of my greatest mentors.”
Maybe the most important statistic of Thompson’s career, according to Georgetown, is that 76 of 78 players who played four seasons under him received their degrees.
Flaherty won’t flinch
After Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty and outfielder Dexter Fowler boycotted last Wednesday’s game against the Kansas City Royals, Flaherty shared his disappointment with Major League Baseball’s decision to not shut down for at least a day.
Flaherty tweeted, “We are the only sport playing today, let that sink in.”
“By the NBA not playing, we literally had to listen,” Flaherty later told reporters. “You had to listen.”
Three games were postponed because six teams decided to not play. But MLB refused to shut down all games.
Flaherty also said during a Zoom interview with reporters that he is speaking with athletes from other pro sports to determine what he can do to change this ugly situation in America – and he wants to do it in St. Louis. But doesn’t know what.
“I’m frustrated that I don’t know what it is,” Flaherty said. “It sucks that that’s still my answer.”
Trust me, young man. You’re doing so much more than you can ever imagine by speaking up and not being afraid.
MLB still too white at top
Major League Baseball received a “B” on the annual report card for diversity hiring practices, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida.
The overall 80.1% score is up from a 79.5% in 2019. The grade was helped by a slight increase in hiring for women. The grade for racial hiring dropped slightly from 89.4% to an 88.7% for a B-plus while gender hiring increased from 69.6% to 72.7% for a C.
“Baseball improved in a lot of areas,” said Richard Lapchick, TIDES director and main author of the report. “It's the leadership at the top that still needs to be addressed.”
MLB received an A-plus grade for diversity hiring in the MLB central office, players and coaches. The league also received an A-plus grade for diversity initiatives.
When the season started in late July, 39.8% of the league's players were of color – down from 41% the past two years.
Only 7.5% of opening day rosters consisted of Black players, the lowest percentage the study has recorded since it was started in 1991.
The Seattle Mariners had nine Black players on its roster, which led MLB.
Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros are the two black managers in MLB, and four are Latino. There are only four minority general managers out of the league’s 30 teams.
The Reid Roundup
NBA immortal Bill Russell reminded America that he once boycotted an exhibition game in recognition of the Civil Rights Movement. “In 61 I walked out if an exhibition game much like the @nba players did (Wednesday). I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young guys.”
As part of a possible civil suit, attorneys for two black plaintiffs have filed briefs alleging that dementia tests in the NFL concussion litigation allow doctors to use different baseline standards for Black and white retired players. As a result, it is more difficult for Black players to show injury and qualify for awards.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban led his Crimson Tide football players on a march for racial justice Monday in Tuscaloosa. The march ended at Foster Auditorium, where the late Gov. George Wallace physically stood in the doorway to block the first two black students at Alabama from enrolling in 1963. He said he felt like “a proud parent.”
Illinois was one of the 11 Big Ten Schools to vote to postpone the fall football season. Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State voted no.
Jeff Lurie, Philadelphia Eagles owner, chairman and CEO, told the NFL Network that he will support players if they should decide to sit out games…CBS Sports will devote five hours of programming to an examination of racism in sports titled, “Portraits in Black,” James Brown of the NFL Today will serve as host.
Alvin A. Reid was honored as the 2017 “Best Sports Columnist – Weeklies” in the Missouri Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest and is a New York Times contributor. He is a panelist on the Nine Network program, Donnybrook, a weekly contributor to “The Charlie Tuna Show” on KFNS and appears monthly on “The Dave Glover Show” on 97.1 Talk.” His Twitter handle is #aareid1