Transcript: Into More Than a Coach: John Thompson

The full episode transcript for Into More Than a Coach: John Thompson.

Trymaine Lee: It's been a tough year. And along the way, we've had to say goodbye to some of the greats. John Lewis, Kobe Bryant, Little Richard. And over the weekend, the actor Chadwick Boseman, our Black superhero. Then on Sunday, we lost a real life superhero, John Thompson Jr., the renowned Georgetown University basketball coach.

Archival Recording: John Thompson had built his Georgetown basketball team on a simple philosophy. While a hot offense could turn cold at the wrong time, defense remains a constant.

Lee: John Thompson was a towering figure in many ways. He stood 6'10" tall and was a champion as a high school player, then in college. And he won two championship rings with the Boston Celtics. When his playing days were over, Thompson went on to inspire a new generation as the head coach of the Georgetown Hoyas.

When he got there, the team was pretty much irrelevant, a doormat. But he built them into a powerhouse. Seven Big East titles and three Final Fours, including a national championship in 1984, becoming the first Black head coach to win the title.

Archival Recording: Somebody said earlier this week, Billy, only one team's gonna come out of this happy the whole year. Look at the guy that's happy. It's John Thompson. The first national championship for Georgetown.

Lee: In his 27 seasons at Georgetown, Thompson coached 26 NBA draft picks, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and of course the one and only Allen Iverson. And I must admit some bias. I'm a big Sixers fan. So Iverson is the man. Thompson also coached the U.S. Olympic team to gold and bronze medals in 1976 and '88.

But Thompson will be most remembered for what he did when practices wrapped and the games ended. For his Black players especially, he was a mentor, a father figure, and an activist, fighting to make sure his players felt supported and had a shot at a quality education.

I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. John Thompson was 78 years old when he died. He leaves behind three kids, five grandkids, and so many players, fans, and admirers, including me. When I was a kid, I can remember watching Thompson and his Hoyas and knowing even before we had the hashtag that we were witnessing Black excellence.

So today, we're taking a look back at Coach Thompson's life and the striking example of Black leadership he set for us all. This is a basketball story, but it's so much more than that. Jesse Washington is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He helped write John Thompson's autobiography, which is set to be released early next year. It's called I Came As a Shadow.

Like me, Jesse grew up watching Coach Thompson on TV. They first met a few years ago when Jesse was one of several people in the running to be Thompson's book collaborator. He was summoned to the coach's house for an interview with the whole family.

Jesse Washington: You know, I was wearing some casual pants and a short-sleeve polo shirt and some Adidas. And he looked at me and he said, "So why'd you wear that to come over here today?" (LAUGH) And I said, "Well, Coach, this is how I dress every day. So I figured I might as well just be upfront with it." And then his son John III said, "How you gonna wear Adidas over here? You know we're a Nike family." (LAUGH) They wanted to test me to see what I was made of and if I could hang with Coach and keep up.

Lee: When you walked into his house that day, what were you arriving with in terms of what you understood about John Thompson?

Washington: I was somewhat victim to the media perception of him as being a rough and gruff guy because, you know, I had only experienced him through the filter of the media, which was predominantly white when I was growing up in the '70s and in the '80s and watching his teams rise to the top.

So there was a lot that I would come to understand about him that belied all of the perceptions that I had coming in. I also was a little bit in awe (I won't front) because this is John Thompson. I mean, he was our Muhammad Ali. Thompson was that person who stood for resisting, for fighting the power, for not doing what the white man said you were supposed to do. That just meant so much to me and to us growin' up.

Lee: There weren't a whole bunch of Black coaches in college basketball and especially that kind that were so singular in who they were. How rare was John Thompson in the age that he emerged and what he was doing and pushing up against? How rare was that?

Washington: It was unicorn-level rare. You know, I had never seen a Black man in charge like that. He was running things. And that to me, I had never seen an example of Black leadership like that. And that transcended basketball. And that was the context that we all, of my generation all of us young people, we really placed him in a singular position. There was nobody else like him, no Black managers in baseball, no Black coaches in football that we had seen anywhere anyway. And certainly nobody achieving to his level. It was amazing.

Lee: And even before that, I think one thing that I had never spent much time thinkin' about was John Thompson, the basketball player. Talk to us about John Thompson, the player.

Washington: Coach Thompson is one of the only ones to win championships in high school, college, NBA, and the NCAA, you know, as a coach, and the Olympics. Comin' outta high school, he was one of the most highly recruited players in the East Coast, if not the country. Had scholarship offers to all the big schools. But not Georgetown. D.C. was segregated, and Georgetown did not have any Black players on its team in 1960. So let's put a pin in that date. And so then Coach Thompson went to Providence, where he was all All-American, where he averaged 26 and 15 his senior year.

Lee: That's 26 points, 15 rebounds. That's a lot. (LAUGHTER) Just for those who don't understand, that's puttin' in work.

Washington: And he was a third-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics. The Boston Celtics.

Lee: So he gets to the Celtics, and obviously he's a competitive player, he's a good basketball player, but he's backin' up Bill Russell. Top ten basketball players of all time, but also a civil rights icon in his own right.

Washington: Bill Russell had a profound impact on John Thompson. And he was an example of Black manhood in athlete form, of Black dignity, of refusing to accommodate what was expected of a Black athlete, to be grateful, to be thankful for what he had earned. And so he just had a deep, deep respect and love for that man.

Lee: So obviously he's most notably known as the long-running coach of Georgetown University. Talk to us about his arrival there and how he just changed, you know, the dynamics on that campus.

Washington: So remember that we put the pin in the date of 1960. Georgetown would not recruit him because he was Black. Twelve years later in 1972, they approached him and recruited John Thompson. They wanted a Black coach. The city had rioted when Martin Luther King and X were killed.

Georgetown recognized that they had fallen short of their responsibility to the Black citizens, predominantly Black citizens, of the city that they lived in. The people whose taxes subsidized their university. And so they decided that they were going to hire a Black coach.

And so Coach Thompson was acutely aware of the fact that he had not been allowed to play there only 12 years before. He was acutely aware of the fact that he was being hired because he was Black. And yet, he was obviously tremendously qualified for that job.

So imagine what type of psychological bind that would put you in as a Black man in 1972, knowing that you deserve the job but they didn't give it to you on the basis of your ability. So when he got to Georgetown, Georgetown had a horrible team. They had gone 3-23.

And also, they were not the Georgetown prestigious school on the hill that we know now of presidents, et cetera, et cetera. They were just some old, you know, sorta rich Catholic school that had a lotta guys from the South in it. And so not only did Thompson arrive there and in three years take them to the NCAA tournament and in less than ten years take them to the Elite Eight, but he also lifted the name, and the prestige, and the enrollment, the endowment. Any sort of metric you can think of about Georgetown University, as the basketball team rose, it pulled the university as a whole up with it.

Lee: Talk to us about how his recruiting practices ruffled some feathers.

Washington: There's all these counter-current dynamics going on with Coach Thompson racially in what he wants to do, is expected to do, and should do. He recruited a lotta Black kids. In the beginning, he also recruited plenty of white kids. But over time, he definitely cared about giving Black kids opportunities. And he went out of his way to find these kids.

But as he explained to me very clearly and he says in his book, is that, "I'm from Washington, D.C. It's a predominantly Black city. Basketball is a predominantly Black sport. You don't see us out there playing polo. We hoopin'. And so these are the people that I'm naturally going to get."

Lee: So they wanted a Black coach, but they got more than that. They got a real Black team, right? (LAUGH)

Washington: Years and years of all-Black teams, to the point where many, many people thought that Georgetown was a HBCU. (LAUGHTER) They thought it was a Black college when it was anything but.

Lee: That's funny.

Washington: And so that created a image that discouraged more white players from signing. White kids were scared to come to Georgetown because of the false perception of Coach Thompson as a racist. And you know what? He didn't care. He didn't try to do anything different because of the criticism. He just did what he was gonna do and let the ball bounce where it may.

What he said was, forgive my language here. But he said, "A lot of people saw me and my team as niggers who didn't know their place. Consciously or not, they thought we did not belong there." And when he would point out to them, "Oh, you got plenty of white kids at Georgetown who got in because their parents were alumni, or their parents were congressmen, or they contributed money."

And then people would say, "Well, they come from a good family," or, "Their parents worked hard to earn those opportunities." Like a basketball player doesn't work hard to earn his opportunity, you know? And so he always called out these hypocrisies. And that's why we loved him even the more for it.

Lee: He challenged the system in other ways too, right?

Washington: Oh my goodness. How many ways? He is a contrarian. He is somebody who wants to do what is supposedly not allowed. A great example that everybody knows about is Proposition 42. And this was a rule that was passed by the NCAA that was intended, I believe consciously, to limit the opportunities of predominantly Black athletes.

Archival Recording: Proposition 42 denies any kind of financial aid to incoming freshmen athletes who fail to score at least 700 out of 1600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and graduate with at least a C average from high school.

Washington: And clearly this was discriminatory against Black children and Black athletes. And Coach Thompson was not having it.

Archival Recording: It so angered Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson he walked out of one game last winter and sat out another to protest the rule.

John Thompson: This is very much discriminatory. And it is something that, you know, I'm beginning to feel like the kid from the low socioeconomic background has been invited to dinner, had dessert now being asked to leave.

Washington: And he immediately decided that he was going to boycott a game. So this man went to the game. He let everybody know what he was gonna do and why he was gonna do it. Went to the game. And before the tip went up, he walked out and did not coach. And he did that the following game.

And within a week, the NCAA capitulated and said, "You know what? We're gonna take some more time and study this." Let's be clear about who John Thompson defeated in his boycott. It is the presidents and athletic directors and administrators of the biggest, most powerful, wealthiest universities in the country. That is who the NCAA was, that is who was trying to put these rules into place, and that's who he defeated.

Lee: Do you see a clear connection between John Thompson's work at Georgetown University to the protests were seeing now in the NBA with these players? Really, like, harnessing the agency that they have as Black athletes?

Washington: Wow. You know, I hadn't thought of that specifically, but that's a great observation. And I think that there absolutely is a connection because they saw him doing these type of things. Today's athletes understood what he represented. And a lot of that I think really comes from the fact of what he did for Allen Iverson and that if it was not for Coach John Thompson we probably would never have known who Allen Iverson was.

Lee: Allen Iverson was a star high school player in two sports, football and basketball. He had been heavily recruited. But then, there was a brawl at a bowling alley, people got hurt, and Iverson got nailed with three felony convictions and prison time. The convictions were later overturned. And years later, when he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, Iverson recalled that time and was moved to tears.

Allen Iverson: I want to thank Coach Thompson for saving my life, (CHEERING) for giving me the opportunity. I was recruited by every school in the country for football and basketball. A incident happened in high school, and all that was taken away. No other teams, no other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance, and he did. (APPLAUSE)

Washington: You know, long story short, man, Iverson was about to get railroaded and miscarriage-of-justiced into oblivion. They had this boy, they were about to ruin this kid's career. And Coach Thompson was the only one who was willing to give him a shot. So I think that to get back to your original point, so many of today's athletes who are playing now and dominating now and grew up idolizing Allen Iverson, let's not forget that LeBron says he grew cornrows to try to be like AI.

And they saw him being coached by Coach Thompson. They saw him being loved and supported. When everybody was after him, when AI would come into the arenas and they would have "jailbird" signs up and signs like, "Allen Iverson is the next Michael Jordan," and then they would cross out "Michael Jordan" and say "O.J. Simpson," Coach Thompson wasn't having it. He was like, "We are not playing." So today's generation of athletes saw Coach Thompson do that, and their reverence for AI, their connection to him I think has translated over into really understanding that Coach Thompson empowers us.

Lee: When we come back, Jesse breaks down why Coach Thompson was more than just a coach. He was first and foremost a teacher, whether you played for him or not. We'll be right back.

Lee: We're back with Jesse Washington. Part of John Thompson's whole ideal was that you were more than just a basketball player, right? He really believed in the actual educational opportunities, not just giving you an opportunity to play some ball.

Washington: Oh man. I mean, that was his priority. And he said that he had to protect himself from his competitive instincts to make sure the kids studied. Because, as he wrote, "It's easy to care about a math test when you don't have to play Syracuse on Saturday." (LAUGHTER) Of the 78 players who played for him for four years, 76 received a degree.

Lee: How significant is that compared to some other programs?

Washington: It was not unusual for less than half of a particular program's players to graduate, ever, let alone after four years. To have a 97% graduation rate is almost unheard of, particularly for a team that sent as many players to the NBA as Coach Thompson did. So it was such a outlier as to be almost mathematically improbable in college basketball.

If players were not doing their work, if they didn't try their best, he would kick them out in a heartbeat. Georgetown never had to kick anybody out 'cause Coach Thompson did it first. When the college brings you there and doesn't care about education, that's exploitation. Coach Thompson said, "We don't want the kids to graduate. We want them to be educated. We want them to learn something."

Thompson: Well, you have to understand that we talk so much in intercollegiate athletics about kids graduatin' from college, but then we don't provide an atmosphere in which they can graduate and then say that the student is stupid. And I think it's my responsibility to provide them with enough time and enough opportunity to do the thing for which they came to school for. And if that involves me being called paranoid or overly protective, certainly if I had a child, I'd rather somebody overprotect him.

Washington: And so that is the guarantee that you're not going to be exploited. He refused to allow kids to let themselves be exploited. There is a chapter that deals with his encounter with Rayful Edmond.

Lee: Rayful Edmond, one of the biggest drug dealers in the country, one of the most violent.

Washington: Yes. This man was movin' major, major tonnage up and down the East Coast, based outta Washington. And he was associating with some of Coach Thompson's players.

Lee: Talking about the '80s, right?

Washington: Correct.

Lee: He's connected to Alpo and everyone, all the drug dealers in New York. And he's a wild character. He's gettin' too close to Georgetown University basketball players at the time--

Washington: Right. And these dudes were so famous. I lived in Poughkeepsie, New York 300, 400, 500 miles away and I know who Rayful Edmond was. (LAUGH) And so then when he's hangin' out with Coach's players, this is a big thing. This is a big thing. It coulda brought down the program. It coulda cost Coach Thompson his job.

And when he found out, he immediately dealt with his players. And the next thing he did was sit down and talk to Rayful Edmond. And a lot of people were really surprised by that, that he would dare to do such a thing. And they met. Rayful Edmond came to Coach Thompson's office in (LAUGH) McDonough Gymnasium at Georgetown University. And then I'll let Coach say what happened there. But the problem was solved. I'll leave it at that. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: I want to get to I Came As a Shadow, your book that's coming out in 2021. So how much time did you actually end up spending with Coach Thompson?

Washington: We began working on it almost exactly two years ago. And we sat down and felt each other out. And, you know, it was a process for him to figure out what it was that he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. This was a man who had spent his entire life protecting and guarding his feelings and emotions as a defense mechanism.

That's the only way he could have dealt with all of the racism, and the racial profiling, and the stereotypes, and the abuse that he received. It was a tremendous education for me. I mean, I got to sit with John Thompson for two years, for hours at a time, day after day and hear not only his life story but why he did the things he did, and the thought and the strategy that he put into it, and the way that he was always concerned about other people.

Lee: But what was it about the life he lived that so shaped him in that singular way, that had such a big impact on our culture?

Washington: In the first chapter of the book he describes going to visit his father's family in southern Maryland (St. Mary's County, Maryland) in the 1950s. Maryland was a Jim Crow state. When he went down there when they attended the Catholic church, Coach Thompson had to sit in the back.

So he's five, six, seven years old. And somehow, he was like, "Okay, what's goin' on? Why are we sitting in the back and the white people are in the front? Why when they come around to take communion the white people get to give their money first and we give ours second?" And he understood on a even childlike level that this is not what Jesus is really talking about. And so that is the origin story of Coach Thompson's racial consciousness.

Lee: So many people would say that John Thompson had a chip on his shoulder. Is that true?

Washington: I think it shoulda been there. He deserved to have a chip on his shoulder. So this was a person who when he was in elementary school, he had some sort of reading disability and he was expelled from his school because the nuns there said he was, quote, "retarded."

And when he got to his next school, a Black teacher told him, "Oh no, you're not dumb. You just can't read." And she got him a reading specialist and then he became the John Thompson. So this is something that Coach Thompson carried with him for the rest of his life.

Don't just look at a kid and make a snap judgment based on his SAT score or his grades. Don't look at a kid and assume he's stupid because he may not be fitting in or he may be a little behind. You really have to try to get to know somebody and dig deeper. That is your responsibility as a educator.

And so when he went to recruit kids, he looked for a lotta guys who may not have had great grades but he could find intelligence in there. And he said, "I think I was qualified to find it because I'm the kid who couldn't read." He was a rebellious person. He had something inside him that would not allow him to keep quiet. He felt compelled to fight, to struggle, to speak up.

Lee: How have you been changed or moved by your experience with Coach Thompson?

Washington: I'm moved by the sacrifices that he made, the things he had to endure, the strength that he had to possess in order to survive. A lot of people didn't survive. And I'm grateful for everything that he did and gave up and the way he suffered because we don't have to go through as much of that today.

And obviously a lot of the issues that he struggled against are still with us. But he took a lot of that weight for us and he showed us and gave us a blueprint for how to resist and how to do more than resist but to overcome, and to conquer, and to climb the mountaintop. So that's really what I came away, is just a deep, deep gratitude and appreciation for him and his generation, for what they did. We should never, ever forget it.

Lee: Coach Thompson was so much more than an athlete, so much more than a coach. He meant so much to so many people, and I think all of us are under that shadow. Jesse Washington, thank you so much, brother, for your time. I cannot wait to read this book, I Came As a Shadow. Thank you very much.

Washington: Thanks so much, Trymaine.

Lee: That was Jesse Washington, senior writer at The Undefeated. His book I Came As a Shadow that he wrote with the great Coach Thompson will be out in January of 2021. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll catch you tomorrow.