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Former Georgetown coach John Thompson has died at age 78

Former Head coach John Thompson Jr. watches Georgetown

Former Head coach John Thompson Jr. watches Georgetown during practice for the NCAA Men's Final Four at the Georgia Dome March 30, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

John Thompson’s personality would have been imposing at any size, but attached to his hulking 6-10 frame, the man was imposing in every sense of the word.

No one who dealt with him will forget the experience, which could be inspiring or terrifying, depending in part on Thompson’s mood and in part on with whom he was interacting.

Sometimes it could be both.

The trailblazing coach died at the age of 78, his family announced in a statement Monday morning.

“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. He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else,” the statement said. “However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear everyday.”

In pure competitive terms, Thompson’s greatest achievement was Georgetown’s run to the 1984 NCAA men’s basketball championship, which made him the first Blackcoach to win the event.

But his influence and cultural impact went far beyond that, including his protest in the late 1980s of scholarship eligibility rules that he believed discriminated against disadvantaged young athletes, primarily minorities.

Thompson was born on Sept. 2, 1941, in Washington, D.C., where he played at Archbishop Carroll High School and grew to be very tall, earning him a basketball scholarship to Providence, where he helped the Friars win an NIT title.

The Celtics took him in the third round of the 1964 NBA Draft and he spent two seasons there as Bill Russell’s backup, securing NBA championships in both years.

But Thompson would make his real mark in coaching. After six seasons as a high school coach in Washington, he was hired by Georgetown to take over a nondescript program that had fallen to 3-23 in 1971-72.

Thompson had the Hoyas in the NCAA Tournament within three years and spent 27 seasons at the helm, making 24 consecutive postseason appearances and going 596-239. Thompson led the Hoyas to seven Big East titles and he was named Big East Coach of the Year three times.

The Hoyas’ 84-75 victory over Houston in the 1984 NCAA final was tempered by narrow losses in two other finals during Patrick Ewing’s four seasons. The Hoyas lost by a point to North Carolina in 1982 and by two to Villanova in 1985 in two of the more memorable championship games in tournament history.

Some of his most notable encounters in that era came against St. John’s, especially four games in 1984-85, when Chris Mullin starred for the Redmen. St. John’s won the first. The Hoyas won the next three, including in the Big East final and a national semifinal.

Before the team’s Feb. 27, 1985, game at Madison Square Garden, Thompson revealed he was wearing a shirt under his blazer patterned after an ugly sweater worn by his old friend Lou Carnesecca, the St. John’s coach.

Among Thompson’s stars at Georgetown were Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson. All four players have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, joining Thompson, who was inducted in 1999.

"Thanks For Saving My Life Coach," Iverson wrote on his verified Twitter account. "I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile."

Thompson also coached internationally, guiding the 1988 U.S. Olympic team to a disappointing bronze medal after it lost in the semifinals to the Soviet Union. It would be the last U.S. team led by collegians; the 1992 Dream Team won back the gold medal.

Off the court, Thompson was not afraid to make himself heard.

In the late '80s, he grew concerned about his players associating with notorious drug kingpin and Georgetown fan Rayful Edmond. He demanded an audience with Edmond and told him to back off, which Edmond did.

Before a 1989 home game against Boston College, he walked off the court — dramatically passing the trademark white towel he wore on his shoulder to an assistant — in protest of a new NCAA rule that kept freshmen who had not qualified academically from getting scholarship money. Previously, they had been barred from playing but could receive financial aid.

Thompson fostered an atmosphere of secrecy that led to the phrase “Hoya Paranoia,” severely limiting media access to his players. Thompson himself sometimes would return reporters’ phone calls well after midnight.

He resigned from Georgetown in January of 1999, citing problems in his marriage, and was succeeded by assistant Craig Esherick. Thompson’s son, John III, later coached the Hoyas in the late 2010s. Ewing is currently Georgetown's head coach.

"Georgetown University, the sport of basketball and the world has lost someone who I consider to be a father figure, confidant and role model," Ewing said in a statement. "He has done so much to impact my life and the people he has coached and mentored along the way. However, his reach went well beyond just those who knew him personally, he changed the world and helped shape the way we see it. He was a great coach but an even better person and his legacy is everlasting."

After retiring, Thompson did extensive media work, primarily as a radio analyst.

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