John Thompson didn’t want to be first. Being first wasn’t what validated the discipline, the consistency, the bone-crushing intimidation of “Hoya Paranoia”, the program he spearheaded at Georgetown for 24 consecutive postseason appearances.
In 1984, fielding an all-Black roster, he became the first Black coach to lead his team to the NCAA title. According to Milton Katz’s autobiography of coaching legend and civil rights activist John McLendon, Thompson was asked if he was proud of being first. “If I am a pioneer in 1984,” he replied, “it is only because men more qualified than I were wrongly denied the opportunity.”
Being first, to Thompson, said less about him and more about the racist establishment that locked out his peers and mentors. Thompson’s victory prompted celebration — hope for a more equitable future despite the absence of the self-examination and work required to achieve it. It should have prompted a reckoning with the past.
The legendary coach died at 78 on Monday, at a time, according to NBC, when just 29.2 percent of Division I men’s teams and five of 30 NBA teams are led by Black head coaches. The numbers get worse when HBCU’s are factored out and as programs get bigger. At both levels, Black coaches are rarely asked to coach championship-level talent.
Thompson was unapologetically Black from inside the Ivory Tower, refusing to stick to sports at the Catholic, practically all-white pipeline to the Senate Beltway that was Georgetown in the 1970s. For this, he became a mentor and a hero to aspiring Black coaches. But if Thompson’s ethics— empathy, righteousness, a demand for fairness, for justice — were truly embodied by the basketball world that is celebrating him this week, the need for more heroes, for more Thompsons, wouldn’t persist.
McLendon, Thompson’s mentor, could have been first. He ran roughshod over the rest of the NAIA and was the first to win three consecutive titles, and in 1967 at Cleveland State, he became the first Black person to coach at a white university.
McLendon planted the seeds of the game’s evolution at North Carolina Central University (then the North Carolina College for Negroes) from 1941-52 as head coach. Intrigued by his fast-break offense, coaches at Duke invited him to join them on their bench for a game — but he’d have to wear a white jacket, so the crowd would think he was a steward. He refused, according to Katz’s biography.
If he were white, Duke might have hired him.
The late North Carolina coach Dean Smith first learned of the famous “Four Corners” offense, which he is often credited for, from his friend, McLendon. In Dan Klores’, Jackie MacMullan’s and Rafe Bartholomew’s’ “Basketball: A Love Story”, Philadelphia basketball legend Sonny Hill said, “[The offense] caught on because he was a white coach with a national audience, even though it was something that was done regularly prior to that at the Black colleges.”
The late Ben Jobe, a legendary basketball coach, told Klores and Co. about how Adolf Rupp, who made Kentucky a powerhouse basketball program, used to visit McLendon for advice. Black ideas were valued even if Black people weren’t.
Jobe, in fact, could have been second. He was hired to coach historically black Southern University in 1986, propelling it to the NCAA tournament four times, fueled by a system that implored players to shoot in the first eight seconds of the shot clock. Sound familiar?
Clarence “Big House” Gaines, who coached at Winston-Salem State University for 47 years, posited that after college athletics were integrated and Black players opted for the spotlight and resources of blue-chip programs, Black colleges — and by proxy, Black coaches — lost their power. Gaines, who died in 2005, is the fifth-winningest coach in the history of college basketball.
He might have been first.
Instead, it was Thompson, partially because he was the first to get hired by a high-tier school. Once he got to Georgetown, he worked to uplift Black kids, plucking local talents that were often underprivileged and undereducated. Initially, he took heat for bringing in players whom critics thought couldn’t possibly live up to Georgetown’s rigorous academic standards.
In 1989, Thompson walked off the court, protesting NCAA Prop 42, which would tighten the educational requirements for prospective students to receive athletic scholarships. “What I hope to do is to bring attention to the fact that [Proposal 42] is very much discriminatory,” Thompson said then. “I’m beginning to feel like the kid from the lower socio-economic background who has been invited to dinner, had dessert, and now is being asked to leave.”
“I’m in support of 2.0 [GPA],” he continued. “I’m not in support of SAT scores, which have been proven to be culturally biased. I don’t think that College Boards were ever meant to be used [as exclusion.] I think it was meant to determine where people were, not to determine where people could go.” Thompson preferred to focus on where people could go.
Growing up in segregated Washington, D.C., Thompson knew the system that pigeonholed him as uneducable — instead of digging beneath the surface to unearth his undiagnosed eyesight problem — was gamed against the underprivileged Black men he was recruiting. Thompson’s life — the struggling student turned gifted teacher — was proof of thesis. So was his players’ 97 percent graduation rate.
Thompson never shied away from the lessons of his background. It was, for him, a source of power. It’s part of the reason Patrick Ewing, an all-time Hoya and blue-chip prospect, chose Georgetown. It mattered that Thompson was Black, that he could relate to the plight of the players he recruited. Connection is some ineffable sum of proximity, care and empathy. He had both in droves.
Thompson reached Allen Iverson in a place few people could tap into. He understood what he needed to leave back home, and more importantly, what he needed to take with him. Yes, Thompson famously fended off drug dealers. But he didn’t stereotype the people his players grew up with. As Slate’s Joel Anderson put it, “What a gift it must be for someone to not think of you as a problem in need of solving, or something broken in need of fixing. And that’s the way I thought John Thompson thought of his players.”
Inside the sidelines, meritocracy often prevails because, on the court, talent is self-evident. But the characteristics that make a good coach are harder to identify and explain. The more esoteric a role, the easier it is for PR spin and stereotypes to define what it means to be qualified. Thompson’s success paved the way for his Black contemporaries, like Nolan Richardson and John Cheney, albeit on smaller stages and with less clout. This happens every once in a while: diversity becomes “splashy.” But trends shift. Movements stop being on the front page. When that happens, deserving Black employees become an afterthought.
The same basketball world that is honoring Thompson today still possesses a horrifying disregard for self-examination when it comes to these issues, still believes tacitly that Black people can play better than they can teach, still confuses qualifications with credentialism, despite slapping Black Lives Matters slogans all over courts and social media profiles. Black talent still isn’t recognized, sought out, or rewarded the way white talent is.
The goalposts of what it means to be qualified have shifted not to characteristics that actually suit what white people do well but to stereotypes about what white people do well. The analytics movement has been used to further justify educational credentialism and gatekeeping, while minimizing the importance of playing experience, the most effective avenue for Black people to enter the coaching pipeline. Often, their experience is used against them: It’s said that the requisite psychological characteristics necessary to dominate on the court would be a disadvantage on the bench, that former players would hog too much of the spotlight or need too much credit. Forget the shoddy armchair psychoanalysis for a moment, or the fact that no one ever says this about, say, Steve Kerr. A question that’s hardly ever asked: Why does the NBA only employee two Black coaches who didn’t play professionally? (J.B. Bickerstaff and Dwane Casey.)
I’m glad we know Thompson’s name. But we should also know McLendon and Jobe and Gaines and so many others that have been labeled, shut out, quit, or couldn’t even get in the door in the first place.
John Thompson was exceptional. He shouldn’t be the exception.
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