John Thompson was inches away from the basketball mountain top. Instead of beaming in the sunlight, steam arose from his his head like a soon-to-erupt volcano.
Thompson had brought his Georgetown squad to the Final Four in New Orleans to battle for college basketball’s ultimate prize. He sat at the podium answering questions, many of them he’d already undoubtedly answered several times. But there was one question he didn’t want to ever be asked again.
“Reflect on my feeling about being the first black coach to be in the Final Four? I resent that. To tell you the truth, I resent the question because I think the question is very misleading,” Thompson said in 1982. “That implies that I was the first person that was competent, which is a misleading statement.”
You probably could have heard a pin drop in that media room.
“I think that when you are talking about the first black, you better be careful, because I think that is the biggest insult my race can have. There have been several people far more qualified, far more competent than I am, that have been denied the right and opportunity in this country to be here.”
Thompson makes Georgetown in his image
Thompson’s Georgetown program was in its heyday in the 1980s when college basketball exploded on to cable television. He was a tall, towering and imposing figure and so were his teams.
So much so that many younger fans thought the school was a black college. It is far from it, but that’s the visual impact that Thompson and his team had on the youth.
Top coaches looked like Dean Smith, or Bobby Knight or later Coach K. But John Thompson, with his steadily graying, imposing figure stood out as much as his players’ demeanor and bald heads. He looked different. He was something the world had never seen before. Unless, of course, you had seen black college basketball. And because HBCUs didn’t have television contracts and money that big schools and conferences did, many people hadn’t.
If you knew you knew. If you didn’t, it’s understandable. For all you younguns who wouldn’t know a card catalog if it fell on you, you gotta understand. There was no HBCU Gameday to bring you the HBCU basketball highlights. No google. No internet. Unless somebody told you better, it made sense that this black coach and this black team was a reflection of something bigger.
His legend grew to a new generation when he gave Allen Iverson a basketball home after his unfair treatment in Virginia. Not only did the 1990s era of Georgetown basketball include the future icon, the team also wore a kente clothe accent on their jerseys.