When college basketball coaching legend John Thompson died on August 30, the game lost an icon — and a person of integrity and faith.
Father Leo O’Donovan, SJ, knew this better than most — he was president of Georgetown University while Thompson coached there, and remembers “Big John” as a lifelong Catholic. Father O’Donovan wrote an insightful remembrance this week in America magazine, which is worth the read.
We spoke with Father Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, former president of the University of Notre Dame, who played on a championship basketball team with Thompson at Archbishop John Carroll High School in Washington, D.C.
“John knew some of the worst things that happened in pre-civil rights D.C., and tried to be an instrument for change,” Molloy said. He recalls Thompson as a smart, team-oriented player who was effective blocking shots and clearing the boards for the undefeated Lions, then ranked first in the country.
“We were the first integrated team in the metro D.C. area. John was with me there for two years, and one more year after me,” said Molloy, who remembered joining the Thompson family for dinner at their home during that time. “We were given a hard time by all Black teams and all white teams. That’s why we hung together so well. We were being held as a model of integrated activity.”
Thompson took Georgetown to the NCAA tournament 20 times in his career, including a streak of 14 years straight. In 1984, he was the first Black coach to lead a team to a collegiate national title. But even more important than his on-court success was the way he cared for his players.
“‘Coach’ saw the power of basketball to give disadvantaged young men access to a better life,” wrote Father O’Donovan. “He was not only committed to his players. He loved them. He wanted larger lives for them.”
“He was always proud his players graduated,” said Molloy. “He knew professional basketball careers didn’t last long, and constantly reminded them there was more out there for them.” Thompson was a star at Providence College before playing for the Boston Celtics for two years behind Bill Russell, winning two NBA titles alongside the Hall of Famer.
In a statement released by Georgetown, Thompson’s family said, “He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.” In his remembrance in America magazine, Father O’Donovan emphasized the image of a shepherd for the way Coach Thompson led his teams, noting that Thompson wore a blue shirt while coaching to honor Mary and regularly prayed the rosary.