Big John Thompson took command of any room

My annual round table discussions with former Georgetown coach John Thompson began with an invitation slipped under my hotel room prior to a Final Four showdown.

Thompson wanted to meet with select sports writers to discuss the state of college basketball, his role in it and how the media could better promote and understand the dynamics of the sport.

There were about 20 sports writers, including Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post, Bill Rhoden of the New York Times and Bryan Burwell of the Detroit News. I was honored and humbled to be part of that group and ended up attending five sessions over the years.

Some Detroit high school coaches also made the list. They sat and learned at the knee of one of the greatest. These meetings usually took place on the eve of the National Championship game in some hotel ballroom.

When Thompson arrived he filled the room. He filled the room with his 6-foot-10 frame. He filled the room with his voice and he filled the room with his reputation and knowledge. It was billed as a round table, but the table always tilted toward the chair that Thompson sat in.

There are few in sports who can command a room like this. Michael Jordan could command a room. Tiger Woods could command a room. LeBron James can command a room. You feel their presence even if you do not see or hear them or agree with them.

This is a sad week for college basketball because one of its enforcers and best coaches in history died at age 78.

Once Thompson told us: “I speak two languages — English and profanity.”

Thompson wanted to explain his adversarial relationship with the media. Nothing personal, he said. Just about everybody who covered the Hoyas got a tongue lashing from Thompson. But his job was not to please the media, it was to help young men and make Georgetown the best program it could be.

“He is one of a kind. There is nobody like John Thompson,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said on ESPN. “There really isn’t and I don’t think there ever will be.”

I’ll admit that I wasn’t a big fan of his under I better understood the man. Yeah, he wanted talented players and wanted to win games. But he also wanted to change lives and save lives. Thompson often recruited players other coaches gave up on.

During our meetings he hammered home his disdain for coaches who did not care about their players. He believed some coaches milked players’ talents and pushed them into a world they were unprepared for when their eligibility ended. Thompson did not believe in four year marriages between program and players. You were a Hoya for life.

He pushed education and helping out your community. Thompson took over a program that went 3-23, won 71.4 percent of his games, made three Final Fours and won the NCAA title in 1984 — becoming the first black head coach to do so.

Thompson fought the system and did more than his fair share to make social change. He pulled his team off the floor for a game in protest of Proposition 42, a standardized freshmen were required to pass before they could play in a game. Thompson believed the test to be culturally biased against blacks. He also riled against the criminal justice system. Then he brought a jailed Allen Iverson to Georgetown to give him a chance. Other coaches gave up on Iverson because of a bowling alley brawl.

Now you see why Big John Thompson could command a room. He was big. He was bad. And he was a man you noticed no matter how big or small the room.

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Published by terryfoster8

I am a 58 year old retired sports journalist, husband and father of two living outside of Detroit in search of his next big adventure in life.

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