John Thompson Jr. won a single NCAA basketball title. He never appeared in another Final Four after his Georgetown teams reached three national title games in four seasons from 1982 through 1985. And he hadn’t coached a team in more than two decades, since stepping away from Georgetown in 1999.
But that, ultimately, never mattered. His power never waned. Thompson, who was the first Black coach to win an NCAA basketball title, died Sunday at age 78. Other coaches have hung more banners. But no coach of his generation, in any sport, was more influential than the 6-foot-10 man who roamed the sidelines of the Big East conference with a white towel draped over his shoulder in the 1980s and 90s. His rise signaled the emergence of college basketball as a multi-billion dollar enterprise—and helped to usher in a new Black influence on American culture that was as unmistakable as it was irreversible.
Thompson’s all-Black teams, who came to prominence in President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America, relished playing an uncompromising full-contact style that made many college basketball fans, in particular white ones, uncomfortable. While hip-hop ascended in the entertainment sphere, Georgetown made its statement in the sports world: Thompson touted how Georgetown sold more hats, jackets and other merchandise than any other program. And when racial resentment came his way, he didn’t play nice. Thompson fought it head-on.
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He spotted systemic racism far before the term became part of the vernacular, walking off the court right before a game in 1989, in protest of NCAA eligibility regulations he felt were inherently stacked against the young Black athletes that college basketball, as an institution, was purporting to uplift. His passing is even more acute, and instructive, in this moment. He took social stances at a time when few sports figures sought to do so.
Today’s athletes walking off the courts and fields of play, in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake and other instances of police violence, are carrying on his legacy. John Thompson helped pave the way. “In the world of college basketball, Coach Thompson is certainly in a class by himself,” says Todd Boyd, professor of race and culture at the University of Southern California and author of Young, Rich, Black and Famous: The Rise Of The NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture. “He didn’t win as any titles as John Wooden and Coach K. But what he meant to the sport of college basketball is in many ways far more important than championships.”
Not that Thompson’s impact on the game itself wasn’t profound. In his nearly 27 seasons as Georgetown coach, Thompson compiled a 596-239 record, winning the 1984 national championship over Houston, and reaching the national title games in 1982 and 1985; for 19 straight seasons, from 1978 through 1996, his teams reached at least No. 16 in the AP national polls; 10 times Georgetown broke the top five.
Teams like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), which won the 1990 NCAA championship; Michigan’s Fab 5, who reached two straight title games in 1992 and 1993—and introduced baggy shorts to gyms across the U.S.; and Arkansas, whose pressing “40 Minutes of Hell” style catapulted the Razorbacks to a national title in 1994 and runner-up the following year, borrowed Georgetown’s DNA. These teams all defined an era of college basketball, and the allure of March Madness, for a generation of fans. “We had a very nasty disposition,” former Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning told TIME in a 2014 interview. “We played hard-nosed, rough, very defensive-minded, in-your-face basketball. But a lot of teams kind of stole that persona to help them win. UNLV. Arkansas. ‘Wow, it worked for them, maybe it’ll work for us too.’”
Thompson can also be credited with helping to build ESPN into the behemoth it is today. In the early 1980s, college basketball games, particularly Big East rivalry matchups like Georgetown-Syracuse, were the crown jewel of the upstart network’s programming: the Hoyas were always a draw. Future NBA Hall of Fame players, like Mourning, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson, were mentored by Thompson. On social media Monday, both Mourning and Iverson said Thompson “saved my life.” Thompson particularly molded Iverson; during his senior year of high school, Iverson was convicted for his role in a bowling alley brawl. For many programs, he became untouchable. Thompson took a chance on Iverson: his convictions were overturned, Iverson was a first-team All-American at Georgetown, and went No. 1 in the loaded 1996 NBA draft.
Mutombo calls Thompson a father figure. Thompson made Mutombo, who didn’t start playing basketball until his late teens, do sprints with the point guards so he could learn how to outrun lumbering big men. “From the day I walked in, he says, ‘Son, I don’t care how many points you score,’” Mutombo told TIME in an interview Monday night. “‘As long as you go out there and block as many shots as you can, and get as many rebounds as you can, I can make you a millionaire.’ And I think he didn’t lie to me.” (When Mutombo’s foundation built a $30 million hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the four-time NBA defensive player of the year who played 18 seasons in the NBA says he personally contributed more than $24 million to the effort.)
“All of that comes from the work ethic I learned from John Thompson,” Mutombo says. “Five to six hours a day in the gym. Don’t be a quitter. He made me into the famous Dikembe Mutombo I am today.”
And Thompson, according to Mutombo, was fond of reminding of his former center of this, in nearly every conversation they had. “You were his son,” says Mutombo. “Never a stranger.” Mutombo says he wasn’t able to sleep Sunday night or do much on Monday; when he joined a Zoom meeting Monday, he grabbed a sport coat he last wore while visiting Thompson for a Georgetown game in March—before the pandemic shut-down. He found a pass to the Georgetown locker room hanging on the jacket. “Oh, Big John,” Mutombo says. “Big John. Big John.”
Thompson’s influence extended far beyond the court. In the 1980s, “there was a new generation of Blackness that was circulating through the culture,” says Boyd, who walked around campus with a towel over his shoulder to emulate Thompson as a student at the University of Florida during this time. “To own a Georgetown Starter jacket was a huge status symbol. You got all kind of props in the streets. It was a real strong statement of Blackness. Georgetown is the first hip-hop team. It’s that moment when sports and popular culture are coming together, in a way that we kind of take for granted now.”
Thompson had played as a backup to Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in the 1960s and witnessed his legendary teammate advocate against the overt racism of that era. During the conservative Reagan-era, there were few outspoken Black college basketball coaches at the highest level. “Here’s a coach who is unapologetically Black,” says Boyd. “He’s not raising the octaves in his voice when he speaks. He’s not scratching when he doesn’t itch. He’s not laughing when things aren’t funny.”
Georgetown’s style, says Boyd, was “so Black … They played basketball the way it was played in the streets. No easy layups. Hard fouls. There was a swagger to them. It was more than the fundamentals of basketball. It was, ‘We are going to get in your head, and make you uncomfortable to the point where you’re going to question how bad you really want this.’” Boyd doesn’t remember hearing the word “thug” gaining notable usage until it was applied to Georgetown basketball in the 1980s. Thompson, however, used such loaded language to his advantage. “If you’re going to call us ‘thugs’ and ‘brutes’ and ‘animals,’ OK, we’ll embrace that,” says Boyd. “And we’ll use it against you. So you have a reason to be afraid. This was a sentiment that was very popular at that time. And I think that Georgetown informed a great deal of that sentiment.”
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According to Boyd, rappers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, took some cues from Thompson and Georgetown. Thompson, meanwhile, sought to turn stereotypes inside out. “This idea that we’re not going to bend over backwards to prove to you we’re not what you say we are,” says Boyd. “Instead we’re going to embrace that, and now you figure out what you’re going to do.”
“Pops didn’t go out of his way to try to say, ‘We aren’t hoodlums, we aren’t thugs,’” Ronnie Thompson, who played for his father from 1988-1992, told TIME in a 2014 interview. (His other son, John Thompson III coached Georgetown from 2004 to 2017 and reached the 2007 Final Four). “We just did what we did. He would always say, ‘You don’t have to spend a lifetime explaining to people who you are, because they’re going to have their own opinions.’ We would laugh, because we’d hear what we were supposed to be, and we’d go to the Big East banquet and see other teams that just looked horrible, teams that would show up in sweatsuits and T-shirts, and we’d be in coats and ties, and we’re supposed to be the ones with no class.”
During Thompson’s tenure, 97% of Georgetown players who stayed for years earned their degrees. “I couldn’t have given a damn,” John Thompson once told TIME, “what people thought about Georgetown basketball.”
Mark Tillmon, a starting guard for the Hoyas during most of his four years, remembered Thompson conducting “mental practices” with his team; he’d sit down with his players and ask them about issue facing the world. He once asked the team what the thought about the controversy embroiling Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, the NFL studio analyst for CBS who was fired in 1988 after making racist statements about the superiority of Black athletes. “Everyone answered, and I pretty much said nothing,” Tillmon said. “Boy, did he light into me. ‘All you want to do is read your own press clippings. You need to have an opinion about something, whether it’s right or wrong.’ From that day on, I’ve had an opinion about everything.”
A former Hoya basketball manager (now actor and writer) Markhum Stansbury Jr., wasn’t considering attending Georgetown until he saw how Thompson handled a 1985 incident at Syracuse, when a fan threw an orange towards Patrick Ewing while he was at the free throw line: Thompson took his team off the court. Thompson was a fierce protector of Ewing, the current Georgetown coach, who endured disgusting racist taunting during his playing career. In Philadelphia in 1983, a Villanova fan threw a banana peel on the court when Ewing ran out for pregame introductions. Thompson also took his team off the court after a Providence fan held up a “Ewing Can’t Read” sign that same year. “Sooner or later, I’m going to tell my players to go up and get the sign and then see what happens,” Thompson said.
“It would have been very easy for him to just try and get along,” says Stansbury now. “He stood up for Patrick in that way, when he could have very easily said, ‘Hey, you know, this is what we’ve got to do.’ He used to talk about Jackie Robinson, and how Jackie Robinson wasn’t necessarily the best Black baseball player at the time, but he had the right temperament. Branch Rickey said, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to go through X, Y and Z. There were other guys who were better baseball player, but they weren’t going to take that s—t.’ And when he was at Georgetown, he’d say ‘We’re past Jackie Robinson. We’re not going to take that s—t.’”
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Thompson was also tough on his players. “He wasn’t shy about using his profanity,” says former Hoya Jaren Jackson, who played a dozen seasons in the NBA from 1989 through 2002 and won an NBA title with the 1999 San Antonio Spurs. He recalls Thompson screaming and cursing him out, on national television, for letting out a smile late in a victory by Villanova, even though Jackson had played great, and the game was all but over.
“Anybody you talk to will tell you that for the first year, maybe even two, that they thought that their name was ‘motherf—r,’” says Stansbury.
Mutombo lets out his familiar loud, gravelly guffaw when asked if he agreed with this observation. He heard such language loud and clear when he missed a couple of classes one day. Mutombo says he had tooth pain, and forgot to call the basketball office to report he’d have to miss class. When he arrived for practice, Thompson cursed him out, and told him that there was a cab waiting outside to take him to the airport back home to the Congo. “I thought ‘What the heck, is this man serious?’” says Mutombo. “Or is he playing?” Mutombo cried by his locker when he found a one-way plane ticket home. He went to Thompson’s office and begged, through tears, that Thompson not send him home. Thompson finally said he’d forgive him, before instructing to “Get the f—k out’” of his office. “I never missed class no more,” Mutombo says.
At the same time, Thompson had a light and caring side. He had an ongoing joke with his players, taking credit for their love interests. “You’re a college kid, and you have the interest of girls on the campus or whatever, he felt like the reason [you] got that interest was not because of you, but because of him,” says Jackson. “I’m like, ‘This big dude, he’s talking some stuff; I’m like come on, coach.’”
Thompson put his arm around Fred Brown after the 1982 championship game, when Brown threw a pass right into the hands of North Carolina’s James Worthy in the final seconds, costing Georgetown a shot at the championship. Mutombo insists he was most concerned with his players’ lives after basketball. “For him, it was like what would you do when the ball stops bouncing?” says Mutombo. “Are you secure? Do you have your degree so you can go somewhere and get a job? That was more important to him than anything else. What kind of man are you going to become in society? What kind of contribution will you make?”
After George Floyd died, the Georgetown basketball alumni released a collective statement, demanding, among other things, “increased voter protection, an end to voter suppression and an end to gerrymandering.” Jackson thought of Thompson. “He would be so proud in a moment like this, his players speaking up in this manner,” Jackson says.
It’s not just the Georgetown players inspired by Thompson’s example. On TNT Monday night, former NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, plus studio host Ernie Smith, wore towels over their shoulders as a Thompson tribute. The dramatic actions across sports in the last week—strikes, walkoffs before games, demonstrations on behalf of Jacob Blake—carry Thompson’s imprint.
“Using his platform, using his visibility, coach Thompson famously walked off the court to make a point,” says Boyd, the USC professor. “So he understood that the cameras were on him, people were paying attention. What we saw last week with the NBA, which has been building for several years, is this recognition of the platform that playing professional sports provides someone with. This generation of Black athletes, and others who have decided to follow them, recognize that they’re visible. They have decided to take a stand. Coach Thompson is part of the lineage that brings us to where we are today.”