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John Thompson Jr., Legendary Georgetown Basketball Coach, Dies At 78

Former Georgetown Hoyas men's basketball coach John Thompson Jr., shown here at a game in 2019, has died. He was 78.
Mitchell Layton
Getty Images
Former Georgetown Hoyas men's basketball coach John Thompson Jr., shown here at a game in 2019, has died. He was 78.

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

College basketball has lost a legend. John Thompson Jr., who turned Georgetown University's men's basketball team into a juggernaut and became the first Black coach to win a national men's college basketball title, has died. He was 78.

Thompson's family confirmed his death in a statement released by Georgetown University but did not provide additional details.

"Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court," Thompson's family said. "He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else."

The Hall of Famer led Georgetown's team to 24 consecutive postseason appearances, while also maintaining a player graduation rate of 97%.

When Thompson started coaching at Georgetown in 1972, the team had won only three games the previous season. His leadership culminated with a national championship win in 1984.

"Thanks For Saving My Life Coach," Allen Iverson, who played for Thompson and went on to become an NBA star, said in a remembrance on Twitter. "I will always see your face in my mind, hoping that I made you proud."

In Iverson's 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech, he became emotional as he credited Thompson for giving him a chance when no other school would.

Iverson was one of several players who went on to become NBA stars, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

In their statement, the Thompson family went on to say, "We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers. But don't worry about him, because as he always liked to say, '...."Big Ace" ' is cool."

Georgetown University said Thompson "transformed Georgetown Basketball" and that the school is a "better University because of John's leadership."

"John will be remembered for many things — his historic achievements, the lives he shaped, his advocacy for social and racial justice — but perhaps most of all, for the authenticity through which he lived his life," the school said in a statement.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Thompson a "devoted mentor" who inspired many "by using his powerful voice to fight for social justice and speak out against racial inequality."

During Thompson's time as coach, Georgetown Starter jackets "became symbols of racial pride," according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has oneof these jackets as part of its collection.

Thompson was an "outspoken champion of using universities to create educational opportunities for African Americans," which is part of the reason why "this team became one in which African Americans across the country adopted," the museum said.

In 1989, Thompson famously walked off the court to protest the NCAA's decision to ban academically ineligible freshmen for receiving scholarships, which he believed unfairly targeted minority players.

"I am perceived as a success by standards created by white people. My team wins a lot of games; I make a lot of money. When I'm 80 and look back, is that going to make me think of myself as a success? I don't think so," he told The Washington Post in 1984.

"But if I change some things, even slightly — if I stand up on this platform I've been given and say, 'No, this is wrong,' then maybe I will feel good about myself. I may not change anything, and I know I'm going to upset some people. But I can live with that."

Thompson, who played two seasons for the Boston Celtics, had a successful career as a high school coach before he was tapped to lead Georgetown's team. He resigned as Georgetown's head coach in 1999.

Since Thompson left, the Hoya men have been coached by two of his former players — Craig Esherick and Patrick Ewing — and his son, John Thompson III.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.