A lot of folks are talking about basketball right now after The University of South Carolina women’s basketball team beat Mississippi State to earn their first national championship. Two days later The University of North Carolina defeated Gonzaga and won their 6th national championship. I like watching college students play because unlike professional athletes who are play for money, collegiate athletes are playing for nothing more than bragging rights.
There have also been new developments on the coaching front as the University of Georgetown recently selected Patrick Ewing to head up their program. Ewing played for the university when he was a college student and had a storied career in the NBA. But rather than focusing on him I find myself thinking about his former coach, John Thompson, Jr.
Basketball aficionados remember Thompson as the tough, hard-nosed coach of the Georgetown Hoyas between the years 1972 and 1999. At 6’10” he was a towering figure on the sidelines, and during the games he could often be seen with a towel draped over his right shoulder. Thompson lead the Hoyas to the national championship game in 1982, but unfortunately they lost that game after a young Michael Jordan hit the game willing shot with just 14 seconds left. Yet, I would assert that Thompson’s biggest victories took place off the basketball court where he shaped and touched the lives of countless young African American men. For many he was more than just a coach; he was also a mentor and father figure. He made sure his athletes went to class and demanded that the university provide them with tutors so they could keep their grades up when they traveled. In Thompson’s mind it was the least they could do especially since the university was making millions off the players via television contracts, sporting apparel and ticket sales.
In an age where the vast majority of skilled athletes left college early to enter the NBA draft, 97% of Thompson’s players who stayed in school for 4 years received their degrees. This was an incredible accomplishment especially since so many college athletes at that time dropped out of school and never graduated.
I can recall watching John Thompson, Jr. talking to his players before a game in an HBO documentary. In a profanity laced tirade he let his players know that “the only Mutha F’er you need to worry about out there is me.” It was clear that the athletes were used to such language from their coach; none of them seemed shocked by his comments. Surely there were some who thought Thompson needed to tone it down a bit, but in my mind he was simply letting his players know that he expected them to play physical, tough basketball and that he would put them on notice if they didn’t.
Some fans hated the Hoyas because as a team they weren’t afraid to challenge and in some cases downright intimidate their opponents. But there were times when the spectators crossed the line. During one such incident some people in the stands held up racists signs. Thompson took a stance and refused to let his players take the floor until the signs were taken down.
My most enduring memory of John Thompson Jr. came at the end of a big game. His team had just secured a key victory and he was standing on the sidelines smiling with his arms stretched wide. Again, Thompson was 6’10” and with his arms extended he figuratively had the wing span as wide as a 747 airplane. I watched as he bear hugged Patrick Ewing so hard that you could practically feel it through the TV screen. It was vintage Thompson. He was hard on his players, but he was also there to praise them when they overcame obstacles.
Teachers, professors, school administrators and counselors are important. But I would maintain that we also need more good coaches. Like Thompson, we need coaches who are willing to mentor students, demand they go to class, confront them when they are off base and celebrate their victories.