John Thompson’s mates, rivals share untold stories of coach’s life and influence

green grass field near mountain under cloudy sky during daytime

Two weeks ago, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson known as his “buddy” John Thompson immediately after these inside Thompson’s circle had relayed issues about his well being.

When Thompson answered the telephone, nevertheless, he told Richardson to unwind and ignore the rumors.

“He was at a [medical facility],” Richardson mentioned of Thompson, the Georgetown icon whose death at the age of 78 was announced Monday. “Of course, I mentioned, ‘What are you carrying out there?’ He mentioned, ‘Ain’t nothin’ incorrect, Coach. My boys are placing out negative information and facts. I am gonna kick their ass when I get outta right here.'”

Richardson laughed more than the tenacity displayed by the man identified inside the college basketball globe as “Large John.” Then, as Richardson’s thoughts shifted back to the present reality, his voice began to fade.

“It is a negative day,” Richardson mentioned late Monday.

Every person knows Thompson’s résumé, worthy of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. He led Georgetown to a national title in 1984, the initial African American coach to obtain that feat. He pushed Georgetown to 3 Final Fours and seven Large East titles, and he coached the United States men’s national group to a bronze medal in the 1988 Summer season Olympics.

At six-foot-ten, Thompson possessed a presence that would captivate a area and an edge that could even humble an All-American like former Georgetown star Patrick Ewing. Behind the intensity, nevertheless, stood a man whom these about him described as compassionate. Richardson, like so a lot of other folks who discovered from Thompson, knew the coaching icon as a loyal pal and pioneer who applied his influence to open doors for the subsequent generation of minority coaches as they shared a mission to “pave the road” for these who would adhere to them.

Thompson had a college bell attached to his workplace on the second floor of McDonough Gymnasium, former Georgetown player Robert Churchwell remembered, which would ring to herald to Thompson’s players that their coach was coming down to the court. In the course of a single practice, Churchwell recalled, they heard the bell and looked up to see Thompson walking by means of a cloud of smoke.

They had been confused till Red Auerbach, who coached Thompson for the duration of his time with the Boston Celtics from 1964 to 1966, emerged from their coach’s shadow with a cigar in his hand.

Then, Auerbach told Thompson to place his starters on the floor prior to the Celtics legend administered drills for the awestruck Hoyas. Just about every maneuver was crisp, Churchwell mentioned.

Thompson smirked from the sideline as he witnessed his team’s newfound precision in practice.

“Coach Thompson mentioned, ‘I can not get you to run a damn play, but y’all run this completely, huh?'” Churchwell recalled.

About five a.m. Monday, Churchwell checked his Georgetown group chat and study a text from a former teammate about Thompson’s death. Churchwell, a forward for Georgetown in the early 1990s, mentioned he spent his morning reflecting on Thompson’s function in his life and the moments that defined his knowledge with the coach.

Thompson demanded humility and tough function, but he also created area for laughs.

Churchwell, the president of a youth system known as Group Magik in Richmond, Virginia, mentioned Thompson helped him navigate hurdles immediately after basketball, as well.

Two years ago, Thompson invited Churchwell to watch a practice alongside him for the duration of Ewing’s initial year as Georgetown’s head coach. In Thompson’s workplace, he told Churchwell that Ewing “cussed much more than me,” a sign that the former coach’s sense of humor had not wavered. Neither had his loyalty.

“Considering that I graduated, he was constantly a telephone get in touch with away,” Churchwell mentioned. “He’s reached out and helped me on many occasions.”

Thompson’s presence also impacted his rivals.

Gary Williams was a young coach at Boston College for the duration of the school’s years in the Large East. In 1985, the league had won its second consecutive national title immediately after Thompson’s championship run at Georgetown in 1984, Rollie Massimino and Villanova famously upset the Hoyas in the title game a year later.

At that offseason’s league meeting, former Duke coach Bucky Waters had pitched Large East coaches a deal that would give every single of them $five,000 if they applied a precise brand of basketball. Thompson and Massimino, nevertheless, objected.

“John and Rollie fundamentally stood up and mentioned, ‘The rest of you suckers by no means won a national championship, so why are you obtaining the identical income we are?'” Williams mentioned. “It wound up that no one got any income. John and Rollie created their personal offers with other ball businesses.”

Williams mentioned Thompson had a substantial influence on white coaches who witnessed his results at Georgetown. Thompson also reminded them of the possibilities they had failed to give other Black coaches.

“To have the guts to do that, back then, that could have price John his job,” Williams mentioned. “That was constantly the point with John. He wanted factors to be fair.”

Savannah State head coach Horace Broadnax recalled how Thompson, fresh off of Georgetown’s title win, told a area complete of predominantly white reporters that much more Black coaches would have won national championships in the previous if they had been provided the possibilities.

“He was pretty intelligent, he was pretty funny and he was pretty strategic,” mentioned Broadnax, who played for Georgetown from 1982 to 1986. “He was political. He stood up for Black men and women as early as the 1970s and ’80s. He did not have the advantage of just becoming a basketball coach.”

All through his collegiate profession, Broadnax has applied a multitude of lessons from his years with Thompson. He can nonetheless recite some of his favored phrases.

“If you can get by means of 4 years of Georgetown and John Thompson, you can get by means of something.”

“We’re gonna attempt to run this point as a democracy, but if the democracy breaks down, the dictator gotta take more than.”

“You happen to be gonna have to spend for some groceries a single day. You happen to be gonna have to stand up on your personal two feet.”

Although his messages had a universal appeal, Broadnax mentioned Thompson tailored his coaching style to every single player. That was his present.

In the course of Georgetown’s win more than Dayton in the Elite Eight in 1984, teammate Michael Graham sat subsequent to Broadnax on the bench and stewed about his restricted playing time.

“I believe if [Graham] would have gone out there, he would have picked up a flagrant two foul at that distinct time,” Broadnax mentioned.

In the team’s wins against Kentucky in the Final 4 and Houston in the title game, nevertheless, Graham channeled his aggravation into vital production as soon as Thompson gave the six-9 forward important minutes.

“Michael did not play that considerably all through the entire year,” Broadnax mentioned of Graham, who scored 22 points in the final two games of the season. “When he got to the Final 4, some thing instinctively inside Coach Thompson decided to location him into that lineup. He and Patrick Ewing played effectively collectively. That was almost certainly the increase that we required.”

Coaches all through college basketball have described the increase Thompson gave to their careers.

A year immediately after he was fired from his post at Howard University in the late 1990s, Mike McLeese had picked up a job coaching the girls’ group at Dunbar Higher College in Washington. One particular day, the school’s principal asked him if he wanted to coach the boys’ group.

“[Thompson] had created a get in touch with for me,” McLeese mentioned.

Thompson had mentored McLeese, who had worked the legend’s summer season basketball camps and also helped the 1988 national group Thompson coached in the Summer season Olympics in Seoul.

It was the off-court moments with Thompson, he mentioned, that cemented their partnership.

Thompson as soon as told McLeese that he did not recruit Muggsy Bogues, the five-three former Wake Forest and NBA standout, due to the fact “if you are gonna make a error, it has to be a major error.” Thompson was incorrect about Bogues. But he was suitable about a lot of factors and generally reminded staffers that “assistant coaches make ideas, but I make choices.”

That image of Large John stomping about the court and demanding much more from his players, nevertheless, belied the powerful relationships he constructed with his players. He told a young McLeese, “They gotta adore you prior to you can get in touch with them a m—–f—–.”



Stephen A. Smith addresses the influence John Thompson Jr. had on the Black neighborhood and his profession.

“When I heard [Monday] morning, it was certainly a gut punch,” McLeese mentioned of Thompson’s death. “I believe back to what he did for my profession. I was just attempting to get into the small business. I was so fortunate to have been involved with him.”

Leonard Hamilton had to pause a couple of instances as he talked about his partnership with Thompson. The Florida State head coach mentioned Thompson changed his profession. He mentioned Thompson’s recommendation swayed the powerbrokers in his favor when he was hired at Oklahoma State in 1986.

Hamilton mentioned he was also influenced by Thompson’s demeanor. Thompson reminded Hamilton to preserve his poise for the duration of emotional moments.

All but a handful of players who had stayed 4 years beneath Thompson had graduated, a reality that encouraged Hamilton to tension academic and athletic balance all through his profession.

“He was my rock, he was my confidant, he was a pal, a mentor. … He was my sensible counsel,” Hamilton mentioned. “I held him in such higher esteem. I just about held him as a father figure when I did not comprehend he wasn’t a entire lot older than me. He was the image. In my eyes, he was so big and influential with me, I did not comprehend he was only six years older than me.”

Hamilton, 72, mentioned he’d get in touch with “the major fella” anytime he had to make a tough choice. Thompson’s words steered him in the suitable path.

But Thompson generally influenced these about him without the need of saying a word.

Certain, he was the disciplinarian most knew him to be, Hamilton mentioned. But he was nurturing as well.

“If a single of his youngsters created a error at a vital component of the game, you’d see him place his hand on his shoulder, hand on his back and encourage him,” Hamilton mentioned. “That constantly created an impression on me, and I attempted to emulate him.”

A couple of days ago, Thompson hopped onto a get in touch with with Black Coaches United, a group of minority coaches led by former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt and like Tubby Smith, Cuonzo Martin, Hamilton and Thompson’s son John, amongst other folks.

Thompson had been sick for some time by then, but his character hadn’t changed. The group listened as Thompson told them to seize the moment and prepare the way for the subsequent generation.

“He was just telling us how vital the group was,” Hewitt mentioned.

That sounds like the man Richardson knew for much more than 40 years — nonetheless fighting even as death approached.

Thompson would from time to time inform Richardson that they had a duty as Black coaches to buck the technique, and displaying strength amid the adversity they each faced as African American coaches in the spotlight would boost their platforms.

That is why Richardson believed his pal when he told him a couple of weeks ago that he was on the mend, regardless of these about him expressing issues about his well being.

When they hung up the telephone for the final time, Richardson mentioned he figured Thompson would win what ever battle he had encountered.

“He is that way,” Richardson mentioned. “I mentioned, ‘You sound fairly powerful. I will speak to you later.’ It is hard news, losing Large John. I nonetheless can not place it out of my head that he’s gone. He was such an influence on a bunch of us guys.”

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