John Thompson Jr. often said, “I tell everyone I speak two languages fluently—English and profanity.” He used language and stories just like Maya Angelou and Satchel Paige, always with a lesson. “Not only am I Black,” he writes, “but I have dark skin. My feet are big, my body is big. Sometimes I’m loud . . . because I’m composed of big things” (154). In selecting the autobiography’s title from the poem “Nocturne Varial” by his uncle, Harlem Renaissance writer Lewis Grandison Alexander, Thompson shows that his mind is one of the “big things” that make “Big John.”
Thompson was born in Washington, DC, to devout Catholics. His father, John Sr., was from St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where the Jesuit founders of Georgetown University enslaved Black people. He worked at a tile factory and could not read or write but told his son to “always study the white man” and “learn the system” (35).
His mother, Anna, was Washington-born and a graduate of Dunbar High School and Miner’s Teachers college. Thompson explains, “despite the fact that my mother was a trained educator, she took what we called ‘day work’ . . . cleaning white folks houses,” when she, like other Black women, could not find a teaching job (8). When he struggled to keep up, his sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Sametta Jackson, simply said, “You’re not stupid. You just can’t read,” and found a reading specialist. “She saved my life and she had as much influence on my coaching as some of the greatest minds in basketball,” teaching him that all Black kids needed was for someone to believe in them and that given the opportunity, they could succeed (25-26).
Neighborhood men told him to take advantage of his size and he gravitated to basketball. A “lot of Washington was segregated at that time.” Whites “could play in the Jelleff’s Boy’s Club League . . . but the African Americans had to go to the Police Boys Club,” he told radio host Kojo Nnamdi. The first time he spoke to a white person was as a teenager. His parents scrapped to send him to Archbishop Carroll High School where he starred in the integrated Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and twice was named to the all-Metro team.
Thompson honored men like James (Jabbo) Kenner, becoming one of “Mr. Jabbo’s Kids” at the Boy’s club. Others who went through “Mr. Jabbo’s” training school were Marvin Gaye and Sugar Ray Leonard. When Kenner was awarded an honorary degree from Georgetown, Thompson said, “He’s the most Christ-like person I’ve ever met. A lot of people preach the gospel. He lives it—all the time.”
Thompson later played ball at Providence College, earning an economics degree and becoming an All-American before being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1964 and winning two championships playing behind Bill Russell. He said that “Russ was the first person I knew who embraced his Blackness” (65). His coach, “Red” Auerbach, maintained a home in Washington where in summers he went to playgrounds talking with and teaching young people. Like with his father, he deeply admired Red’s work ethic.
In his rookie year he stayed with Harold and Marty Furash, a family who “were wonderful people and treated me like a son” (72). Selected in the supplemental draft by Chicago, in 1966 Thompson decided to move back home and began coaching at St. Anthony Catholic School. In 1972 he was recruited to coach at Georgetown, where he stayed for twenty-seven years. Falsely, he was accused of recruiting only Black players although some thought that the school was an HBCU because of its famed crop of Black players. He counted as friends Black coaches John McLendon and “Big House” Gaines, and his contemporaries John Chaney and George Raveling.
Thompson embodied Du Bois’ double consciousness. Whites “preferred to say I was a bully rather than say that I was intelligent.” He said, “Some white people like to run around saying ‘I don’t see color.’ That’s ridiculous. I’m a large Black person . . . When I meet a white person, I bring all my history and experiences . . . I’m haunted by my past. Maybe my assumptions are wrong, but you better not blame me for having them, because they are based on real history” (52). His kindest words were for coach Dean Smith, of the University of North Carolina, who voiced few opinions on race, but spoke unequivocally for equality for his players like Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Smith impressed on him the importance of dressing nicely, of eating at places other than McDonalds, of never chastising a player’s intelligence “because you are telling the whole arena the boy is stupid” (120). Thompson did not always take that advice: “Some of the things I said to them [the players] was wrong . . . I tried never to curse anyone out who didn’t know I loved him” (105).
His deep respect for women starting with his mother Anna, his sisters, and Ms. Jackson is apparent. He wrote that “to whatever extent I helped women get ahead, I’m as proud of that as I am of what I may have done for Black people” (153). Lorry Michel became the first woman to be head athletic trainer at any men’s basketball program. Mary Fenlon was both the academic coordinator and assistant coach because “she had a deep respect for Black kids but was not afraid to speak up to them” (102). She sat on the bench with the coaches.
In 1988 Thompson coached the US Men’s basketball team at the summer Olympics in South Korea. Returning home, he was alerted by law enforcement officials that his star player, Alonzo Mourning, had been seen with Rayful Edmond, the biggest drug dealer on the East Coast. Thompson told the full story only in 2020. He needed to talk to the kingpin and summoned Edmond to his office. Thompson got to the point: “My player’s careers could be ruined, the school could be hurt . . . Can you stay away from my players?” Edmond answered, “ Oh yea, that’s no problem . . . I got you.” For Thompson, “The conversation was between two Black men from Washington” who “had enough intelligence to work out a solution to our problem” (217).
When his greatest player, Patrick Ewing, was taunted by white Georgetown students, Thompson challenged the University. At opposing arenas signs went up “Ewing Kant Read Dis ” and whites “threw a banana peel on the court” (166). Ewing said, “Pulling us off the floor. Telling them they got to take these signs down . . . death threats . . . just the way he protected us, the way he stood up for us” was all we needed. Thompson boycotted a game, declaring that the NCAA’s “Proposition 42 made it harder for poor kids, most of them Black to receive athletic scholarships” (220).
In the 1982 NCAA championship game against North Carolina, Georgetown guard Fred Brown accidently threw the ball to James Worthy and the Tar Heels won 63 to 62. When front pages pictures showed Thompson hugging an inconsolable Brown, he said, “It was my natural reaction based on what I was taught by my parents, by Sametta Wallace Jackson” (159). In the 1984 championship game his Hoyas defeated the University of Houston for the championship and Coach Thompson “made a beeline for Fred Brown . . . this time our hug was joyful” (179).
One of most anticipated nights in Washington basketball lore occurred on August 4, 1994. In his first organized game, in over a year, Georgetown recruit Allen Iverson (he missed his senior season because of a brawl started by whites, in Hampton, Virginia), scored 40 points. In his 2016 Naismith Hall of Fame induction speech, Iverson credited his mother and Thompson, for “saving my life” just as Thompson credited Ms. Jackson (Thompson, Ewing, Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo have also been inducted).
Thompson died on August 30, 2020, but in a November 15, 2020, opinion piece taken from his autobiography and published in the New York Times, “Drop the Charade: Pay College Athletes,” he explained why he believed players ought to be compensated. Thompson ended the book with a description of driving through his father’s southern Maryland hometown, where he spent youthful summer days. He said, “The same Jesuits who founded Georgetown owned my father’s ancestors . . . Georgetown is not one of those deniers. I was proud of how the school, and especially President Jack DeGioia, faced it head-on” (322). Frederick Douglass died in Anacostia. Thompson spent his first ten years in the Frederick Douglass housing projects in Anacostia. Like Douglass he “came as a shadow” and like Douglass he left as a beaming light, the North Star.