The basketball world stood in shock after hearing that a true giant of the game — legendary Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., men’s basketball coach John Thompson — died on Aug. 30 at the age of 78.
The Hall of Fame coach guided the Hoyas to an NCAA national championship victory in 1984 —making him the first Black coach to win a national title in a major college sport. In his 26 years coaching, he led Georgetown to 20 NCAA Tournaments — including a span of 14 in a row — and three trips to the Final Four.
Born and raised Catholic, the 6-foot, 10-inch Thompson starred at Archbishop Carroll H.S. in Washington, D.C. While there, his team squared off against a familiar Brooklyn diocesan face in a matchup that foreshadowed a great rivalry of years to come.
At a National Catholic Tournament in the late 1950s, Thompson’s team faced St. Ann’s Academy — now Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood — coached by the great Lou Carnesecca, who went on to a storied career leading St. John’s University, Jamaica.
“The game was unbelievable,” the 95-year-old Carnesecca recalls. “The gym was packed. You couldn’t get a seat at McDonough Hall. Great game. John was big and was tough to handle underneath.”
When Thompson was a senior the following year, Carnesecca joined head coach Joe Lapchick as an assistant at St. John’s, and he of course tried to recruit Thompson to come to the Big Apple.
“I go in and sit down with his (Thompson) mother, and we had a wonderful conversation as I explained all the positives of St. John’s … the tradition, playing at Madison Square Garden, a great coach in Joe Lapchick,” Carnesecca said. “And she says to me, ‘I’m not going to send my boy to New York.’”
Instead, Thompson played at Providence College, R.I., where he led the Friars to a National Invitation Tournament championship in 1963 and the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid in 1964. He spent two years in the NBA as the backup center to the iconic Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics, and both seasons saw him win NBA titles.
In 1972, Thompson took over a Hoyas program that was 3-23 the previous year. His Providence teammate Bill Stein came aboard as his primary assistant coach.
“John was a great coach and a great person,” Stein said. “We have been special friends since 1960. That’s 60 years. He’s an extremely loyal person. It was a great relationship.”
Stein recalls a trip he and Thompson took to the Boston Garden for a high school tournament to scout a senior from Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin School named Paul Little, who eventually played collegiately at the University of Pennsylvania. On the same team was a sophomore named Patrick Ewing.
During one sequence, Ewing blocked a layup leading to a fast break. His teammate missed a layup down the other end, but Ewing was right there to finish the play with a thunderous dunk.
“John looked at me and said, ‘Get him!’ ” Stein said.
Ewing was an impact player for the Hoyas during some intense games against Carnesecca and the St. John’s Red Men. Carnesecca went so far as to compare the St. John’s-Georgetown rivalry of the 1980s to the rivalry between the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
“I think back and there were classics between St. John’s and Georgetown,” said Carnesecca. “They were so fiercely contested. We went at each other pretty good. After the game, we had great respect for each other.”
In one memorable moment at Madison Square Garden, Carnesecca and Thompson met at halfcourt to shake hands before a game, and Thompson opened his suit jacket to reveal a replica of one of Carnesecca’s famous striped sweaters.
“The place went wild!” Carnesecca said. “It took all the fierceness out of it.”
Just like Carnesecca, all of Thompson’s opponents can vouch for his loyalty and respect for the game of basketball. Though he will be missed, his legacy in the college game will surely live on.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.