The phone buzzed on Monday morning, followed by a most uncomfortable hush. No hello. No words. Only moments of silence turning into a muffled heave, and finally, a brokenhearted sob.
“You had to come from Maryland and D.C. and Prince George’s County to know what Coach Thompson meant to us,” Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams finally said on the phone Monday. “I played in his gym one summer, and he cussed me out because I wasn’t doing something right, and man, it was an honor. Patrick [Ewing] and Alonzo [Mourning] were there playing pickup, and I felt for a moment like I was part of their family, because Coach didn’t talk to everyone like that.
“… He looked like my granddad, and every time I saw him …”
The words dissolved into tears. Finally, Williams found five that explained why Thompson meant so much to him — meant so much to so many — and always will.
“He stood up for us.”
John Thompson, a Hall of Fame coach, a cultural icon, an irrepressible force, died on Sunday at 78 years old. He made Georgetown basketball a phenomenon, and he stayed until his retirement in 1996. Although Thompson had several opportunities, he never did become an NBA coach — but he impacted the league far beyond Ewing and Mourning and Allen Iverson. His impact resonated in recent days and weeks and months, the NBA raising its voice in the protest of inequality. The players walked out in 2020, the way Thompson walked out one night in 1989.
There are scores of basketball forefathers to this movement, but none larger than John Thompson. Few had been exposed to Black coaches like Thompson — not because they didn’t exist, but because they didn’t get the opportunities to coach at the highest levels of the sport.
Thompson was a former D.C. high school coach at a small, Catholic college with regional aspirations — and he turned Georgetown into a national champion and a cultural touchstone.
For a moment today, everyone should also reflect on the role Ewing played in Thompson’s life and legacy. His decision to attend Georgetown in 1981 changed everything. Ewing delivered Thompson the platform to reach the masses in a way that inspired and challenged and forced all kinds of people to consider — and reconsider — how inequality was rooted in the fabric of the American experiment.
Now, Ewing is Georgetown’s coach, a most worthy of heirs to a seat Thompson made one of the most influential in sports.
“I wouldn’t be here without John Thompson,” Williams, a Notre Dame graduate, said on Monday morning. “He was a hero for us. We had our parents, and we had Len Bias, and Len died. And then we had John Thompson.
“He was the first, along with Coach [John] Chaney, who stood up and said, ‘That’s wrong.’ They were offended when people tried to put them into a different class, and it gave me confidence to not put up with stuff that I knew was wrong.
“He taught Black kids to believe that they were valuable, and the athletes among us then knew that he was talking about us too.”
Williams watched Georgetown games on the black-and-white television in his childhood home — not far from the Capital Centre in PG County where the Hoyas ran roughshod over the Big East. Williams would’ve picked Georgetown, if only Thompson hadn’t picked one of his high school rivals over him.
“I wanted to go there so badly,” Williams said. “And that lit a fire in me.”
Several years ago, Williams had completed a nine-year NBA playing career, delivered New Orleans to the playoffs as a head coach, and found himself at Georgetown on a scouting assignment for the San Antonio Spurs. The old coach was long retired, but still sat on the court in a chair and watched his son, John Thompson III, conduct Hoyas practices.
“He put his arms around me, and he knew how I grew up, that I was a kid from his area, and had gotten into coaching, and he told me stuff that I knew he wasn’t telling everybody,” Williams said.
“It was like talking to some figure from the Bible who I wanted to meet. Around there, a lot of people called him Big John, but I could never bring myself to do that. I always called him Coach Thompson.
“I just knew that I didn’t have his kind of backbone, and I wish I did. He was like Moses to me.”
And now, Monty Williams was weeping again. Perhaps John Thompson was never his coach, but that’s not exactly how he sees it. Monty Williams was one more kid out of metropolitan D.C. in the ’80s, one more kid out of America, whom the sheer force and will and genius of Big John forever changed. Looking back, Thompson should have offered that scholarship to Monty Williams over a kid who ultimately transferred to James Madison, but perhaps that rejection drove Williams in a way that acceptance never could.
Whatever the reason, Monty Williams, raised on Hoya Paranoia in the shadows of the Cap Centre, runs an NBA team much the way Thompson did a college program: Tough love, higher standards. And it made Williams weep on Monday morning until he repeated again, “I’ll only ever call him Coach Thompson.”