John Thompson, first Black coach to win NCAA championship, dies at 78


John Thompson, the trailblazing Georgetown basketball coach who became the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship, has died at 78. Washington, D.C. news station WJLA reported the news on Monday morning, which was followed by a statement from the family.

We are heartbroken to share the news of the passing of our father, John Thompson Jr. Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else. However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day. We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom, and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, “‘Big Ace’ is cool.”

Thompson is an enormous figure in sports, an athlete who went on to break barriers as a Hall of Fame basketball coach. A native of Washington, D.C., Thompson went to college at Providence and was part of the team that won the 1963 NIT championship. In 1964 he helped Providence reach the NCAA tournament for the very first time, and was also an All-American.

He graduated in 1964 and played two seasons for the Boston Celtics, backing up Bill Russell and winning two championships before retiring in 1966 and becoming the coach at St. Anthony High School in D.C.

John thompson watches a Georgetown game.
John Thompson, trailblazing coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, died on Monday at 78. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Then Georgetown came calling in 1972. Within three years that 3-23 team had made the NCAA tournament, the first of 20 times they’d participate over Thompson’s 27 years as coach. Georgetown made it to the Final Four in 1982, and in 1984 he became the first Black coach to win the NCAA tournament. The following year they were defeated in the national championship game by Villanova.

Thompson amassed a 596-239 record at Georgetown, and 97 percent of his athletes stayed in college for all four years to earn a college degree — but that doesn’t mean he didn’t coach a ton of amazing NBA players. Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson were both first overall picks. Alonzo Mourning was a second overall pick and Dikembe Mutombo was picked fourth. All told, 26 players were selected in the NBA draft during Thompson’s tenure.

He resigned from Georgetown in 1999, the same year he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He stayed involved with the team for the rest of his life, and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Thompson has an autobiography scheduled to be released in January 2021.

Thompson made a tremendous impact

As people woke up to the news on Monday morning, tributes began pouring in on social media. Georgetown winning the 1984 NCAA championship was a cultural event, and Thompson meant a lot to many people.

Former WJLA sports anchor Lou Holder called Thompson “the real life Black Panther” in an interview on WJLA’s morning show on Monday morning.

“He was larger than life for Black people, for mankind, for social justice," he said.

Allen Iverson, who played for Thompson for two years at Georgetown before declaring for the NBA draft, thanked Thompson less than 90 seconds into his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.

“I want to thank Coach Thompson for saving my life,” he said while fighting back tears.

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