'A barrier breaker': How Georgetown’s John Thompson inspired generations of Black basketball coaches
Editor's note: Undeniable — The Oklahoman’s four-part series examining the lack of Black coaches in men’s college basketball — continues with Part 3 on the legacy of late Georgetown coach John Thompson.
In the final months of his life, John Thompson Jr. was moved by what he saw across the country.
Athletes and coaches of all races and walks of life tossed any apprehension aside and took a stand.
They marched in peaceful protests. They called for change. They were no longer silent.
“All of a sudden, the things were as horrible as they were but people found their voice and weren’t afraid to speak up,” said John Thompson III, the son of the legendary former Georgetown basketball coach. “That’s something he spoke about and talked about literally right up until his death.
“If the horrible incidents of this summer lead to people not being afraid to take a stand, I think he’d be pleased with that.”
Throughout the past six months, the college basketball world has paid tribute to the elder Thompson, who died Aug. 30 at 78 years old.
Several coaches — including Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton — have worn a commemorative towel over their right shoulders each game, mimicking Thompson’s trademark look. The National Association of Basketball Coaches encouraged all members to wear the towel during games last week.
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He was the first Black head coach to win the NCAA Division-I men's basketball championship, leading Georgetown past Houston in 1984. He never shied from speaking on the racial inequalities in college basketball either.
“He was a barrier breaker,” Boynton said.
Thompson paved the way for other minority coaches with his success — but he did it with his convictions, too.
“Pops had the courage to stand up and fight for what he believed in at all costs,” the younger Thompson said.
In 1989, the elder Thompson walked off the court before a basketball game, refusing to coach a Big East matchup against Boston College after the NCAA approved Proposition 42, an extension of controversial Proposition 48.
Proposition 48 stated that to compete as a freshman, student-athletes must earn a 700 on the SAT and achieve a 2.0 grade-point average. Proposition 42 added that if an athlete did not meet Proposition 48 guidelines, he or she could no longer receive scholarships.
Estimates at the time showed that 90% of the students impacted by the loss of scholarships were Black.
“What I hope to do is to bring attention to the fact that [Proposal 42] is very much discriminatory,” Thompson told Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, in 1989. “I’m beginning to feel like the kid from the lower socio-economic background who has been invited to dinner, had dessert and now is being asked to leave.”
Legendary coaches John Chaney, Nolan Richardson and several others also stood against the propositions.
Only a year later, the NCAA repealed Proposition 42.
“All they were doing was eliminating more Blacks from having opportunities,” said Richardson, who coached Arkansas to the 1994 national title. “We tried to express our opinions on giving our kids opportunities. We were for grades and for standards, but not at the expense of eliminating as many that were eliminated doing that Prop. 48 and Prop. 42 deal.”
Richardson and Thompson remained close throughout the years. Thompson introduced Richardson for his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction.
For a young coach who got his first break in 1980 when he was hired at Tulsa, Richardson found great examples in Thompson and Chaney, who died earlier this year.
“Those were my heroes, man,” Richardson said.
They were also the coaches who made many careers possible.
But the doors are still not open enough to Black coaches. Only 18% of basketball head coaches at all NCAA levels are Black and only 21.5% are a minority, according to the NCAA.
There is progress away from the court, something Thompson saw and relished in the last months of his life.
But he wanted more progress on the court. He didn’t believe one in five head coaches being Black was enough.
“He probably would wonder why that fact was not brought to light more often and more prominently and more aggressively,” the younger Thompson said. “He said when he won the national championship that he wasn’t the first Black coach that was capable of winning the national championship. He was just the first Black coach that was given the opportunity to.
“And if you look now in 2021 heading towards 2022, fewer Black coaches are given the opportunity to. I don’t think he’d be too pleased with that situation and be confused and concerned as to why more people weren’t bringing that to light and speaking on it.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.