John Thompson carved his name in basketball history when he led the Georgetown Hoyas to the 1984 NCAA championship, becoming the first Black head coach to win an NCAA title.
But to be clear, Thompson didn't wear that achievement like a badge of honour as you might expect.
Thompson felt as though he was just the first Black head coach that was given the fair opportunity to accomplish the task.
"Well, I was very proud of winning the national championship and I was very proud of the fact that I was a Black American, but I didn't like it if the statement implied that I was the first Black person who had intelligence enough to win the national championship," Thompson told ESPN's Gary Miller in an interview years ago.
"I might have been the first Black person who was provided with an opportunity to compete for this prize, that you have discriminated against thousands of my ancestors to deny them this opportunity. So I felt obligated to define that."
Thompson's career as a player helped lead to the rare opportunity of a Black man taking over as Georgetown's head coach. As a superstar centre at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., Thompson received a handful of scholarship offers from various schools in the Northeast of the United States, but Georgetown - a predominantly white school at the time - was not on Thompson's list of offers despite his in-city dominance.
Electing to attend Providence College instead, Thompson helped lead the Friars to the NIT championship as a junior in 1963. The very next season, as a senior captain, Thompson helped Providence reach their first-ever NCAA Tournament. He was then selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1964 NBA Draft where he would become a solid role player in the league for two seasons, backing up the great Bill Russell en route to two NBA championships in 1965 and 1966.
After just two seasons in the NBA, Thompson decided to hang up the sneakers and get into coaching, beginning at the high school level. The two-time NBA champion took the helm at St. Anthony High School in Washington, D.C., where he compiled a 122-28 record over six seasons before receiving interest at the collegiate level in 1972.
After Georgetown went a horrendous 3-23 in the 1971-72 season, the school reached out to Thompson for the head coaching job as the university made its first effort to break the colour barrier in hopes that the local star could help turn the program around.
"Why should I believe you're ready for a Black head coach in 1972 when I know from my own experience that you weren't ready for a Black player in 1960?" Thompson asked search committee chair Charles Deacon upon receiving the job offer, according to an ESPN story by John Gasaway from August of 2020.
Nevertheless, Thompson accepted the position and went on to become one of the most impactful head coaches in NCAA history.
The accolades speak for themselves. Along with being the first Black head coach to win an NCAA title, Thompson led Georgetown to three Final Fours and seven Big East championships, bringing the Hoyas to 24 consecutive postseason appearances (19 NCAA, 5 NIT) during his 27-year tenure.
Even more impressive, 75 of the 77 Georgetown players that stayed all four years under Thompson graduated and received a degree, while 26 different players were drafted in the NBA. Among those 26 players, eight were selected in the first round, including four future Hall of Famers in Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo and Allen Iverson.
While Thompson faced racism and scrutiny for turning Georgetown's basketball program from a primarily white roster to a predominantly Black roster, his team's on-court success matched what was asked of him by the university.
Besides, the footprint he left on the collegiate game went well beyond a national championship and Big East titles. Thompson was viewed by his players as much more than just a head coach - a mentor, teacher, hero and father figure to some.
There were a couple of examples of this behind the scenes, from scaring off a Hoya diehard fan who doubled as a D.C.'s biggest drug kingpin from befriending Georgetown players like Mourning, to standing by and supporting Iverson after the star guard had spent four months in prison for a crime that was later overturned due to insufficient evidence. Thompson was heavily criticized by the general public for these actions, but those same actions replicate just how important he became in these young players' lives, helping steer them in the right direction to maximize their potential as both athletes and people.
It wasn't just behind the scenes stuff, either. Prior to a contest against Boston College in 1989, Thompson walked off the court in protest of Proposition 42, which was an NCAA regulation that would ban academically ineligible freshmen from receiving scholarships. The Hoyas head coach felt as though the proposition aimed to limit opportunities for minority students and his actions helped raise awareness to eventually have the rule rescinded.
Thompson's efforts toward racial equality and social justice even led to his former Celtics teammate Russell, a Civil Rights activist and icon, stating that he and Thompson "had a special relationship and are philosophical allies" following Georgetown's 1984 national championship win, according to the aforementioned ESPN story written by Gasaway.
Thompson was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 for his lasting impact at the collegiate level as a head coach.
When Thompson passed away at the age of 78 in August of 2020, the entire basketball community banded together to honour the life of the incredibly influential coach, particularly his former standout college players like Iverson (above), Mutumbo, Mourning and Ewing.
While his marquee title might be "the first Black head coach to win an NCAA championship," Thompson's everlasting impact on the sport will never be forgotten.