Friar Basketball

John Thompson and the Beginning of a Hoops Love Affair

John Thompson

I wasn’t always a Friar fan. My love of college basketball started in Providence, but my initial obsession was with Georgetown. 

It could have been different had 16th seeded Princeton pulled off the upset against John Thompson and the top seeded Hoyas in the first round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament. My father and I had tickets to the second round in Providence that year.  

It was my first time ever going to a Division I game, and what a doubleheader we had awaiting us. Georgetown with superstar freshman Alonzo Mourning taking on Notre Dame and their prized freshman LaPhonso Ellis, followed by what would be an incredible double overtime battle between NC State and Iowa.

I was nine years old, grew up watching those great Celtics teams of the ’80s and dabbling in Big East basketball, but after that weekend I was hooked. Hooked on college hoops, but more specifically hooked on the Hoyas.

There was something different about them — from the ferocity with which they defended to how the imposing Thompson and his team carried themselves on and off the floor — that drew me to them. Even at nine years old I felt it. 

A short while after disposing of Notre Dame behind 34 points from the terrifically talented Charles Smith, Thompson led his team out of the locker room and into the stands to take in the remainder of Iowa and NC State. The winner had the unpleasant task of taking on Georgetown in the Sweet 16. 

There was a presence about them as they re-entered the arena. As entertaining as that NC State/Iowa game had been, my eyes were drawn to the Hoyas as they walked to their seats — there was a presence and a professionalism as they emerged in their sports coats. Anything taking place on the court could wait. 

My father loved Thompson. Over the past four months I’ve often thought about lessons my dad taught me about race and equality. I thought today about how some of those lessons were reinforced when we would talk about Georgetown. The way Patrick Ewing was treated during his college career bothered my father deeply, and he later explained to me what Ewing encountered when I was younger.

Ewing had banana peels thrown at him. He saw signs that read “Ewing Is an Ape” and “Ewing Kant Read Dis.” 

“Sooner or later these kinds of things will cause a riot,” Thompson told the Washington Post in 1982. “Sooner or later, I’m going to tell my players to go up and get the sign and then see what happens.”

That was the beauty of Thompson, who passed away earlier today. He was unapologetic. And that’s how his teams played on the floor. He made people uncomfortable. So did the Hoyas.

Growing up in an upper-middle class town, I was teased for wearing Georgetown hats and sweatshirts — the underlying message was clear. Quite often, the message was more overt than underlying. 

I was told Thompson’s players were dirty, they were thugs, it wasn’t fair that Thompson never recruited white players, and that the players he did recruit would have never gotten into Georgetown if they were “regular” students. None of those people seemed so eager to dig into the transcripts of kids who went elsewhere — or to look at how Ewing’s life turned out. 

Ewing, a Jamaican immigrant who moved to America at 13, led Georgetown to three Final Fours and a national championship. He later became President of the NBA Players’ Association.

He was one of four hall of famers Thompson coached during his 27 seasons at Georgetown. On that day in 1989 I saw two of them: Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. When Mutombo, now a well-known humanitarian, came to Georgetown he spoke English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and five Central African languages. 

Of course, Thompson is one of the most famous Friars in program history. He helped lead Providence to the 1963 NIT title and was named 1st Team All American the following season after averaging over 26 points and 14 rebounds per game. A hall of famer himself, Thompson won a pair of NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in the mid-’60s and became the first African-American coach to win the NCAA Tournament when Georgetown defeated a Houston squad led by Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. 

Years pass, yet we all vividly remember the teams and the moments that helped us fall in love with the game. For me, it all began with Big John and his Hoyas in the city that eventually took my passion for the game to another level. 

I was gutted when the Allen Iverson-led group lost to UMass in the Elite Eight, felt helpless seeing Mourning and Mutombo get steamrolled by Larry Johnson’s UNLV club, leaped off my couch and went running out of the house when they beat Weber State at the buzzer in the 1995 tourney, and sat in silence after Ray Allen broke their hearts in the Big East Tournament. 

In hindsight, I’m not sure how I was able to turn that off the moment I stepped foot on campus at Providence, but I did. Still, my most cherished basketball memory ever was the first trip to the Civic Center, taking it all in with my dad and falling in love with John Thompson and his Hoyas. 

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