May 31, 1979, was one of the most important days in the history of college basketball, as well as the history of televised sports in America. The formation of a basketball-only conference uniting the sleeping giants of the city universities of the East Coast was not only the best thing to happen to the athletic departments of those schools, but to a small cable start-up named ESPN.
The history of the Big East Conference (not to be confused with today’s version of the league) and its association with ESPN has been brilliantly documented in the 30 for 30 film Requiem for the Big East. In that film the emphasis is not only on the players who made Big Monday on ESPN a must-watch evening of basketball joy, but on the charismatic coaches who were larger than life, and none was more larger-than-life than Georgetown’s John Thompson.
Standing at 6’10” and tipping the scales at 270, Thompson was the most formidable presence among the men who paced the sidelines in those heady days when the Big East ruled college hoops. He was also the most protective of his players, often seen by a somewhat hostile media in negative terms - coining Thompson’s rules against players being interviewed as “Hoya Paranoia”.
In the aforementioned ESPN film the highly respected sports journalist Mike Wilbon, also an African-American like Thompson, rightly pointed out, “What black man born in the 40s or before in this country wasn’t paranoid when he was working in the environment John was working in? Paranoid? Okay, sure. There were some people out to get him, and he was paranoid. What, more than one thing can’t be true?”
Thompson had no time for those who felt he was a racist, and in a 1991 interview he challenged those critics to compare the integration in their lives with the integration in his. Everything about his public and private life pointed to his belief in the sentiment most clearly and eloquently expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
On April 2, 1984, John Thompson led his Hoyas to the NCAA Basketball Championship against “Phi Slamma Jamma”, the high-flying Houston Cougars. After the game an interviewer asked him what it was like to be the first Black coach to win the title, and those watching the interview who understood Thompson’s philosophy waited for a venom-laced answer. Maybe it was the euphoria of the moment, but after saying “I don’t want to be known as the first Black anything,” he went on to talk about how proud he was to represent all of the schools in the East who had been ignored for so long.
He didn’t want to be held up as some sort of token Black trailblazer, and he said that he had no intention to “be a crusader for this cause or for that cause.” But that did not mean that John Thompson would bow to the “powers that be” in the media or in the NCAA. Far from it. He fought for his players and for all of those young men who, like himself, came from poverty and saw basketball and the education that it could afford, as a way to a life of success, including economic success. His goal was to develop “strong young men of great character” to quote Georgetown alum and sports writer Aidan Curran, and he wanted to put them in a position to succeed on the court and in life.
As with Dr. King, the driving force in John Thompson’s life was his faith. Nurtured by his mother’s strong Catholic vision and way of life, Thompson strove to live out the teachings of the Church and of the Gospel and to do that in an environment not very suited to those ideals. He was an enigma to many, being called both “a simple guy” and “very complex” by his friends, but no one wavered in their assessment of him as a person - he was a man of conviction in an occupation filled with chameleons. In this and in so many things, John Thompson is an example of what every American, and especially every Catholic American, should strive to be.