In 1972, Georgetown had a problem. Its basketball program was coming off a 3-23 season, and, one appearance in the 1943 national championship game notwithstanding, the Hoyas were and had long been an afterthought in the sport.
The university’s very location should have afforded it a significant recruiting advantage. Instead, a veritable who’s who of local talent never so much as gave Georgetown a second look. Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and Austin Carr, to name but a few, all came from the Washington area, and they all established their legends elsewhere.
One of those great local players was a 1960 graduate of Archbishop Carroll named John Thompson. The 6-foot-10 Thompson starred for one of the most dominant teams the District has ever produced. He was recruited by Jack Ramsay at Saint Joseph’s, by Joe Mullaney at Providence and by a 34-year-old assistant coach at St. John’s named Lou Carnesecca. But not by Georgetown. Thompson chose to play for the Friars.
Fast-forward a dozen years, and in 1972 that same Georgetown program needed a new head coach. By this time, Thompson had led PC to the 1963 NIT title, played for two seasons as a reserve behind Bill Russell for the Boston Celtics and built the St. Anthony basketball program into a D.C. high school power that rivaled what Morgan Wootten was doing at DeMatha.
Georgetown had cleaned house that spring, firing not only its basketball coach but also its athletic director. The feeling among the Jesuit leadership was that the school needed to reorient more than just its basketball. The university needed to reach out, for the first time, to the African American community in the District that had been on its doorstep all along. The Hoyas contacted Thompson, who was, understandably, skeptical.
Why should I believe you’re ready for a Black head coach in 1972, Thompson asked search committee chair Charles Deacon, when I know from my own experience that you weren’t ready for a Black player in 1960? Georgetown was also looking at Wootten and at Maryland assistant coach George Raveling as potential head coaches, but, in the end, the Jesuits went with Thompson.
“We don’t expect John Thompson to work a miracle,” Frank Rienzo said in one of his first statements as the new athletic director. “But we’ll be happy if he does.”
You can make a case that what the Hoyas had just pulled off was in fact one of the greatest hires in college basketball history. Thompson completely transformed Georgetown, and the turnaround was plain to see even before Patrick Ewing arrived in the fall of 1981.
By 1980, the Hoyas were already playing in their fourth NCAA tournament under Thompson. Georgetown reached the Elite Eight, and Thompson was the hottest young coach in the game. Oklahoma moved heaven and earth to try to lure him away from the Hoyas, and Sooners football coach Barry Switzer personally gave Thompson a tour of the campus in Norman. Instead, Thompson elected to stay put in D.C.
Georgetown entered what was in effect a national competition to sign Ewing, who was hailed as “the next Bill Russell.” When Ewing announced his intention to attend Georgetown in February 1981, Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt immediately got on the phone and, for the first time, reserved Madison Square Garden for his new league’s conference tournament.
The rest is history. Ewing opened the 1982 national title game against North Carolina by giving the Tar Heels their first eight points on four goaltending calls. That was by design, and it was vintage Thompson. Ewing was under standing orders to begin the game by literally blocking any shot he could reach, goaltending be damned. “When Patrick makes an impression early,” Thompson would later explain, “that impression tends to last.”
Jay Bilas reflects on the life and career of legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr.
Famously, the game ended with what turned out to be a game-winning jumper by UNC freshman Michael Jordan followed by a game-deciding turnover by Georgetown’s Fred Brown. When Thompson wrapped up Brown in his arms on the sideline and gave him words of encouragement, the coach left an indelible impression on the national audience — and on recruits. Both Horace Broadnax and David Wingate would specifically cite seeing that hug in real time as a significant factor in their decisions to play for Thompson.
Two years later, Georgetown and Ewing again reached national championship game. The Hoyas were 33-3 after having held fellow No. 1 seed Kentucky to, coincidentally enough, 3-of-33 shooting in the second half of a 13-point win. The stunned Wildcats joined a long line of opponents that could do little or nothing against this Georgetown defense. Ewing recorded zero blocks in the game, underscoring how opposing offenses often conceded the paint and, in an era before the 3-point line, confined themselves to long 2-point jumpers.
Georgetown would go on to win the 1984 national championship by defeating Akeem Olajuwon (only later to become “Hakeem the Dream”) and Houston by nine in the title game. In the final seconds, Thompson walked over to Gavitt, who’d been a Providence assistant coach when Thompson played for the Friars. “Hey,” Thompson said to Gavitt, “how about that Big East now?” Then Thompson was embraced by his onetime teammate on the Celtics, Russell. “I’m more proud of him than if I did it myself,” Russell said. “John and I have a special relationship and are philosophical allies.”
Thompson had built the once forlorn Georgetown program into the most feared and respected team in the nation. The Hoyas opened the 1984-85 season ranked No. 1 and kept that position for all but five weeks throughout the season. Despite midseason losses to St. John’s and Syracuse (by one and two points, respectively), it was universally assumed that Georgetown would repeat as national champions.
When the 35-2 Hoyas faced 24-10 Villanova in the 1985 national championship game, the front-page headline in that day’s USA Today famously read: “Villanova vs. ‘a god.'” Another title for the Hoyas was supposed to be a foregone conclusion. Instead, the Wildcats played what would be called the perfect game, making 22 of 28 shots and winning 66-64.
Georgetown lost the game but had long since emerged triumphant on a larger canvas. A program that was irrelevant and even mired in disarray just 13 years earlier had now played in three national championship games in four years. And it was all the work of one man: John Thompson.
His teams mirrored the man. They played ferocious defense and got into their opponents’ heads. They left it all on the floor, as the saying goes. They projected both confidence and an indifference toward or even defiance of conventional wisdom. Thompson changed Georgetown basketball, and, in the process, he changed basketball — period.