For a quarter of a century from the 1947-48 to the 1971-72 seasons, Georgetown was an abysmal failure in basketball, and the pace of integration of its team was as deliberately slow as was that of the South in implementing Brown v. Board of Education. Winning 296 games and losing 302, the Hoyas made the National Invitational Tournament only twice, being eliminated both times in the first round. It never came close to making it into the more prestigious NCAA tournament. As a prelude to the 1980s, the building blocks for Georgetown's emergence as a national basketball power were laid during John Thompson's first eight seasons. The claim that he merely turned around a basketball program is inadequate to explain the full force of his impact, and it is an understatement of his legacy. During those first eight seasons, beginning in 1972, Georgetown appeared in six postseason tournaments - twice with the NIT and four times with the NCAA - posting 156 wins against 72 defeats. It was once ranked as high as 11th in the nation; it appeared in nationally televised games; and two of its players, Craig Shelton and John Duren were among the higher NBA draft picks.1
"Until the past few years," wrote Sports Illustrated in its 1976-77 preview issue, "the only polls that counted in fashionable Georgetown were Gallup and Harris." All of that had changed noted Sports Illustrated, the school "never had a basketball power in its midst. Now it does." 2The prediction was a year premature, but confirmed when a 23 win season was posted in 1977-78, followed by a school record 24-5 mark in 1978-79, with impressive wins over Indiana, St. Johns and cross-town rival, Maryland. Those impressive seasons were, in large measure, the result of Thompson recruiting Shelton and Duren, both from Washington's inner-city Dunbar High School, and sought by nearly all major basketball schools. Those two were guided to Georgetown primarily because of Thompson's close personal relationship with the Dunbar coach, Joe Dean Davidson. Their tenure at Georgetown also signaled the beginning of a Washington, D.C. inner-city fan base, and John Thompson's unique appeal to black high school coaches.
Still, at the beginning of the 1980s, Georgetown, despite its winning record, was not a member of the nation's basketball elite such as University of North Carolina, UCLA, Kentucky, Ohio State, Kansas, Indiana, Cincinnati, Villanova, and Marquette. But even closer to home – only 11 miles distant - University of Maryland with Coach Lefty Driesell and its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule loomed large, and dominated the local college basketball scene.3
Georgetown, of the mid-major Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC), played its games in the small McDonough Gymnasium with a seating capacity of close to 4,000, while Maryland's Cole Field House was the only college gymnasium on the east coast that could seat more than 12,000 - all at a time when college basketball was achieving its most explosive growth - the late 1950s to the late 1970s. For the Georgetown program to become consistently competitive against the better teams, conventional thinking was that it first had to recruit its share of the nation's best players. Driesell seemed to have written the playbook in that regard having signed several of the most highly recruited cagers of the 1970s, Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Moses Malone, Albert King, Brad Davis, Len Elmore and Washington D.C.'s Jo Jo Hunter. Secondly, Thompson identified with the admonishment of police Chief Martin Broady in the 1975 blockbuster movie, Jaws, when he turned to his crew and uttered, "You're going to need a bigger boat." He knew that McDonough would not be able to take the Hoyas to the next level of college basketball; Georgetown needed a large arena.
Thompson's plans to transition the success of the 1970s into the next decade could not be done in isolation, it was dependent on other conference schools having a shared vision of big-time college basketball. At its fall meeting in 1978, Dave Gavitt of Providence, Thompson and Georgetown Athletic Director, Frank Rienzo and Jack Kaiser and Jack Crouthamel, A.D.'s at St. John's and Syracuse respectively, met to discuss the concept of a new league - that would come to include Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut, Villanova and Pittsburgh - the Big East Conference.4
The metamorphosis of the Georgetown program from 1972 to 1980 had been nothing short of a miracle, and the oldest Roman Catholic university in America, founded in 1789 by the Society of Jesus, basked in the glow of publicity and school pride that it engendered among students and alumni. The graduation rates and decorum of the players pleased administrators, confirming that black student athletes could successfully matriculate in a university whose academic reputation was anchored in nationally ranked departments of law, international affairs, economics, government and the geographical proximity of its faculty to the corridors of federal power and political brokers. Fearful that Thompson would leave Georgetown for lucrative offers from larger schools, and also of retreating to basketball mediocrity, wealthy Georgetown alumni in 1980 purchased a spacious Tudor home for his family in one of Washington's most prominent neighborhoods.5
The racial climate and demographics on the campus had improved since Thompson's arrival, in large part, because school president, the Reverend R. J. Henle, had made affirmative action and targeted recruitment of a diverse student body one of his highest priorities. Though Georgetown never officially sanctioned race restrictions for admissions, its lip- service approach to integration amounted to the school admitting its first black undergraduate student in 1950, and a black enrollment that had reached less than three percent by 1972.6 In the intervening years, Georgetown recruited its first black basketball player in 1966, followed by several others, though none were representative of the best produced by area schools, and certainly not of the blue-chip caliber that Thompson would later covet to solidify a perennial niche among the college basketball elite.
Having appointed the search committee of professors, students and alumni that recommended that Thompson be hired as the Georgetown basketball coach, Henle soon became Thompson's most ardent supporter. The student newspaper, with an all white staff, rushed to welcome the new coach.7 Father Henle recalled receiving only one complaint in the wake of the announcement of Thompson as coach - an anonymous telephone call. "They called and said, 'Now that Father Henle has turned the campus over to blacks, he'd better issue a statement condemning race.'" Thompson remembered an irate white woman calling him his during first year complaining about a photo of two of his athletes standing on each side of a smaller white kid. "The lady said her father, or maybe her brothers had gone to Georgetown, and if I was coach I ought to stop what was happening there - abnormal niggers bullying white students." Thompson replied that things were much worse than she thought, offering to send her tickets to the next game for seats directly behind where he sat. "I wanted her to get a look at the most abnormal nigger of them all." One ugly and controversial incident occurred during Thompson's third year, when after posting sub-par seasons of 12-14 and 13-13, the Hoyas were 8-8 at mid-season, and hosting a game with Dickinson College. As the band started to play the National Anthem, a spray painted bed sheet banner was unfurled through an open window in McDonough gymnasium. The crudely written message read: "Thompson, the Nigger Flop, Must Go." Within seconds the banner was removed, but not before fans in that area of the gym had seen it. Neither Thompson, his players, nor several reporters saw the sign, but Thompson learned about it, expressing disappointment in the postgame interview. What bothered him most was that the inner-city school kids for whom he reserved seats at home games - many never having been on the Georgetown campus - saw the racist epithet. "Those little kids that saw that," Thompson is remembered for saying to a Georgetown administrator, "it'll be in their memory banks forever."8
Perhaps, it was at the moment of this unfortunate incident - more than any other - that black Washingtonians began a special identification with the Georgetown Hoyas. The local black press was outraged, the Washington Post and Star newspapers voiced indignation reaching a boiling point. Later, some would insist that it was the beginning of the "us against the world mentality" that would come to characterize black Hoya fans, first in Washington and subsequently throughout America.9 One unanticipated consequence of the agitation surrounding the incident was a reenergized team. Breaking out of its slump - perhaps attributable to a combination of the players rallying around its wounded coach and the fortuitous break of a soft second-half season schedule - Georgetown went on a tear to win the ECAC tournament and a berth in the NCAA tournament, its first since 1943. It marked the beginning of what would soon become a post-season tradition and rite of passage for Georgetown basketball. And what made it remarkable was that Georgetown had made the tournament with local athletes that were not highly recruited. "While it is always dangerous to speculate about the course of history," recalled Chris Sortwell, a 1978 Georgetown alumnus, "it is not unreasonable to believe that had we not made the NCAA in 1975 that we would not have been able to beat out North Carolina and Notre Dame for Parade All-American Al Dutch, and without Dutch that we would not have made the NCAA in 1976, thus inducing Craig Shelton and John Duren to come to the Hilltop the next year."10 Many factors must be considered in predicting destiny, but Shelton and Duren are among them because the duo led the Hoyas to post season play every year; and the national visibility that came with defeating Maryland in the NCAA semi-finals before suffering a crushing upset loss to Iowa in the 1980 regional finals, made all of the college basketball world take close notice of Georgetown.
The Hoyas were the real deal, and their fan base was beginning to expand well beyond the outer loop of the Washington beltway, particularly among blacks, because its coach was black and his all-black teams were at an intersection of sport, race and society that could not be ignored. While all-black teams were more common at black colleges (HBCU's) than all-white teams at predominantly white schools beginning in the 1970's, there was a Gentleman's Agreement among most Division I schools that more than two black players in a starting line-up would not become a practice. Moreover, as late as 1980, there were only six black coaches at NCAA Division I schools. Georgetown was the only one with all black starting teams.
Two coaches, George Ireland of Loyola University, in the early 1960s, and Don Haskins of Texas Western College, in 1966, broke the gentlemen's agreement. Ireland, in 1962 was the first to play an all-black line-up, and a year later changed college basketball forever by starting four black players and winning the NCAA title. Loyola's upset of Cincinnati, the two-time defending champion, was all the more memorable because Cincinnati fashioned a team starting three black players.11 But those games and significantly integrated teams of San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Loyola in the mid ‘50s and early ‘60s, had little national exposure in an era of three networks and once-a-week regionally televised games.
A few years later with an all black line-up, Haskins defeated Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team in a championship game whose race symbolism was more transparent than any collegiate game ever before, in any sport. Pulling strong on human emotions, the game transcended sports. It was reminiscent of boxing champion Jack Johnson's defeat of Jim Jeffries, “the Great White Hope,” in 1910, and the fights of Joe Louis with Germany's Max Schmeling of the mid-1930s.12 Because of primetime television, and the blue-chip credentials of the Kentucky team - rated number one in the country - that single game, more than any other, transformed college sports. Both the Loyola and Texas Western teams fueled the conversation around athletic merit versus quotas, resulting in more aggressive recruiting of talented black athletes to schools committed to having a competitive edge, though most schools remained cautious about recruiting too many. Schools often feared that black student-athletes would not measure up academically, or were apprehensive about how influential alumni might react to too much black athletic brand identity.
Within a few years, black protest, America's burgeoning social consciousness, and the unfettered competitive spirit of sport, combined to begin the process of changing the racial complexion of the college coaching fraternity, with the selective hiring of a few black coaches. What set Thompson apart from the small group of black coaches at Division I institutions in the early 1970s - Will Robinson at Illinois State, George Raveling at Washington State, Tom Sanders at Harvard, Fred Snowden at Arizona, and Bill Cofield at Wisconsin - was that the others were either more sensitive or pressured into having more racially balanced team rosters. Thompson, during his first seasons, started two solid but not exceptional white players, Tim Lambour and Mike Stokes. With those players he won enough games to establish respectability, but by his third season, discontented fans and alumni wanted more. The price for moving in a new direction with the program was clear. Thompson needed to attract better players, and he manipulated the Hoya community's desire to win into support for what gradually became superb, though nearly all black, teams.
To place winning with black players in perspective for Georgetown: when Thompson was first hired, he was asked immediately at a press conference if he would recruit more black players. "I would hope so," he replied, "just as I hope white players would want to experiment with a black coach."13 Implicit in that response was the fact that recruiting top white players was going to be more difficult than recruiting black ones, because almost all of them were developed and played under white coaches, and had few, if any, experiences with black authority. This presented a dilemma for black coaches, the prevailing wisdom being that an all-black team would be politically incorrect, and the subtle reality that competitive white coaches would use race against them in the recruiting wars for the best white players. The other side of that coin and one favorable for Georgetown was that playing with a winning black coach in a sports-media-saturated environment appealed to many inner-city black recruits, especially those with black high school coaches. This supplied Thompson with a decidedly recruiting advantage and he made the utmost of it. Besides, by 1980, he and his full-time academic advisor, Mary Fenlon, a white female, could demonstrate to parents, coaches, and recruits that 35 of Thompson's first 37 scholarship players had graduated from Georgetown, one of the nation's most elite academic institutions.14 But the irony would be that Thompson's academic success with student-athletes, never appealed to potential top-flight white recruits. In retrospect, that race-tinged dynamic has not changed much over the years. For illustration, not only is John Thompson the only black to have coached first team All-American players – Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Pat Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Reggie Williams and Allen Iverson - but he, and no other black coach, has recruited a white player good enough to make the Associated Press first team All-American.
In the aftermath of the strong showing in the 1980 NCAA tournament, and the print and broadcast media exposure that came with Big East Conference's television deal with ESPN, Georgetown became well- known and popular in the Northeast market. Top black high school cagers, particularly those with black coaches, started to give more scrutiny to the style of play of the "black team" and its black coach. Though not considered an annual top-tiered team at that time, Georgetown was on the rise and had proved it could compete with the best. In Washington, Georgetown had begun to eclipse Maryland, with its strong hold on the loyalty of black fans, and local high school players. Thompson's skills were proven in tapping the loaded talent pool of D. C. players, on which he had built the program, but he had only moderate success in signing major recruits beyond the city. During the 1980-81 season, however, Thompson set his sights on Patrick Ewing, a 7-foot center from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his black coach, Mike Jarvis. Ewing was the consensus number-one scholastic player in America, and the most promising center recruit since Lew Alcindor, Moses Malone, and Ralph Sampson.15
Jarvis organized a committee, on which Ewing's mother sat, to review the bevy of offers and to reduce the field to a manageable number for consideration. Georgetown made the list of the final six schools and each was invited to meet with the committee. Because Ewing did not have a strong academic transcript, the committee stressed to all prospective schools the importance of addressing his developmental needs. Building his case more on a strong academic record with athletes, the importance of individual accountability, and less on his basketball acumen, Thompson put his cards on the table face-up. When Ewing's mother asked Thompson about what social opportunities the school might provide, he bluntly replied, "Mrs. Ewing, it is not a responsibility of mine to get involved with your son's social opportunities. But the city of Washington is seventy percent black, if that interests you. And if there are not social opportunities that Patrick can find there as a young black man, he has a problem, ma'am, that I frankly can't solve."16
On February 2, 1981, Ewing announced his selection of Georgetown, and it could not be denied that the Hoyas’ winning record, the demographics of Washington, D.C., Thompson's rigid system of academic accountability, and his race were all factors in that game-changing decision. Nothing in sports breeds success like success, and on the coattails of Ewing's commitment, a pair of local All-Americans from D.C.'s public schools, Bill Martin and Anthony Jones, agreed to play for the Hoyas. Washingtonians were euphoric, expectations ran high, and on the heels of a 20-12 season, led by the sensational play of scoring guard Eric "Sleepy" Floyd and the tenacious defensive style of swingman Eric Smith, pre-season polls for 1981-82 placed Georgetown at or near the number one slot. Overnight, the capacity of McDonough Gymnasium could no longer meet ticket demand, and within months Georgetown announced it would be scheduling most of its home games at the Capital Center, a modern 19,000 seat arena in Landover, Maryland, the court of the NBA's Washington Bullets.17 After nine years of nurturing an embattled small-time program into national prominence, Thompson had found the "bigger boat." From that point forward, he, too, became larger than life, and everything that he subsequently said or did would be subject to more focused microscopes, wider-lens cameras, and a more probing press. Georgetown basketball had now become a part of the national sports dialogue.
Media interest in Georgetown exploded and seemingly not enough could be written or broadcast about the Hoyas and the prospects of a team with Ewing and other excellent players. Some of the press about Ewing, raising questions about his academic abilities, was unflattering; and other stories about Thompson's policy of limiting media contact with his players - which the local media already knew - irritated some of the national media dispatched to cover the Hoyas. Most had no experience with a non-negotiable black coach establishing the rules for media engagement. Protective of his players and basketball training environment, Thompson responded to the encroaching media by tightening the circle of his insiders, and becoming manipulative with reporters. It was as if the coach and his team had upped the ante in shrouding the team in a web of secrecy. It was precisely this multi-layered complexity associated with the program that gave rise to initial detractors, many of whom were uncomfortable with the unorthodox black coach, the exceptional all-black team he assembled, and the Svengali-like control he had on his players.
The distance that Thompson had traveled for the membership card reserved for basketball royalty has to be measured several ways. In terms of mileage, the Georgetown campus was less than five miles from the location of his upbringing, but for a man of his race and modest family background, the socio-economic gap he had narrowed with the Georgetown community was enormous. Forty years earlier, Thompson had been born in 1941, in a segregated Washington, D.C., the son of a domestic worker and an illiterate father, who was nevertheless a skilled factory worker. Maintaining a tight-knit family, both parents were intelligent, uncompromising in the goal for their children to live better lives, and united in espousing the virtues of the protestant ethic: hard work, thrift, and discipline. Raising the family in the Roman Catholic faith, they enrolled their son in a Catholic school, believing it better suited for providing rigorous academic training and reaffirming family values. What Our Lady of Perpetual Help elementary school thought of their son, however, was at odds with what they hoped, and at the end of the fifth grade, convinced that Thompson was mildly retarded, school officials asked that he be withdrawn. The family never came close to agreeing with the diagnosis, and exercised their only option, by sending him to the segregated public schools of Washington. There he met one caring teacher who invested enough time to improve his basic skills, and raise the self-confidence he had lost from the shame of being rejected from the Catholic school, and from the humiliation of repeating the sixth grade.18
By age thirteen he had grown to 6-foot-6, had become a good student, and was learning the game of basketball at school, on the playgrounds, and at the Police Boys Club when D.C. pundits of the game began to take notice, not so much of the raw talent they saw at the moment, but more of what they thought it might become. Soon Thompson was a fixture on the outdoor asphalt courts of Spingarn High School, where some of D.C.'s best players, such as Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, John Tresvant, and Ollie Johnson, attended high school before college and the NBA. The quality of the play was so good on the Spingarn courts that two interracial contests were staged between a team from the neighborhood in Northeast D.C., and one of the area’s white collegian teams. Baylor, a young phenom, and Gene Shue, a Maryland star and all-conference player, were the drawing cards. Baylor's squad, the Stonewalls from Southeast, won both games, one at Terrell Junior High, dubbed as a "Mixed Race Battle," and the other at Turner's Arena with a paying crowd numbering several thousand. These wins validated the level of play on black D.C. courts where Thompson was observing and learning his trade. Within months, Shue would be the NBA's third overall pick, and Baylor would be graduating from high school. D.C. was the Mecca for playground basketball in the United States and the reputations built on those courts carried athletic weight in the black community. At that time, many of those legends never played college sports, most were never seen by white college coaches, and some never even finished high school. But in D.C. the memories continue to pass from one generation to another. For some the public past is crucial in constructing word-of-mouth contemporary social identity, because a half century later, Thompson continued to take pride in his D.C. playground reputation and exploits, as much as he did with his more traditionally documented basketball résumé. There were many paths to manhood for black D.C. adolescents in the 1950s, Thompson's route was through the playgrounds.19
Around the mid-1950s, some of the D.C. Catholic school coaches were beginning to recruit black athletes, but no one was more active than Bob Dwyer, the basketball coach at Archbishop John Carroll High School. Thompson accepted a scholarship from Carroll, where he joined other black inner-city D.C. recruits, Tom Hoover a 6-foot-9 power player from Dunbar, and George Leftwich, a playmaking guard from McKinley Tech. "John lived right across the street . . . and everybody wanted him to go to Spingarn," recalled Don Hicks, a back-court teammate of Bing. "But John could not say no, when a priest came to his door."20
At that time, integration of schools in Washington was a new concept based on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the Bolling v. Sharpe case, which made that ruling applicable to D.C. By Thompson's sophomore season, Carroll went 31-5 before losing the city championship game to all-black Cardozo. After that season, Carroll would not lose another game - 55 wins including several prestigious regional tournaments and the Washington Catholic League title every year - until Thompson graduated. Those Carroll teams on which Thompson played were arguably the best ever, produced in a city known for great teams and players. During that span Carroll became a hope and symbol for the possibilities of integrated schools in D.C., though many whites were uncomfortable with Dwyer starting three black players when most white schools it played had none. 21
Thompson, Leftwich, and Hoover regularly had to endure some of the most virulent verbal racist abuse ever experienced in the annals of D.C. secondary school sports. Each, game by game, became more psychologically immune and indifferent to the racial epithets while on the court, but years later none would forget the ugly occurrences, forever seared into their souls. All three also benefitted from their on-court temperament and basketball skills, and from matriculating in disciplined white Catholic schools, making it all the easier to obtain scholarships from colleges that placed a premium on black athletes who had survived and thrived in such environments, and who came with the endorsements of white coaches. Hoover and Leftwich went to Villanova and Thompson to Providence - both Roman Catholic schools - and each would ultimately be drafted by the NBA. Still, the credit for Thompson's basketball maturity has to be shared with the playground games he played in D.C. at places like Luzon, Happy Hollow, Spingarn, Turkey Thicket, and Kelly Miller, where legends like Bernard Levi, Willie Jones, Ben Warley, William "Chicken Breast" Lee, John Austin, James "Sleepy" Harrison, Everett Lucas, W.W Williams, Gary "One-Arm" Mays, and countless others plied their trade.22
Thompson's grades and academic confidence also improved at Carroll, but it was Kermit Trigg, his junior high school coach, who taught him "that athletics is supposed to be more than recreation or recognition," he remembered. "It was the form of security I needed. He gave us an identity through athletics, and he said you have to do things other than athletics to be successful." Those admonitions from Trigg may have been the most important and life-long lasting for Thompson, and would sustain him over the years as a student-athlete, ex-player, and coach - three completely different dimensions of basketball.23
Notoriety came with Carroll's winning streak and titles, and Thompson, an All-American, received many scholarship offers, particularly from Catholic schools. He and co-All-American Leftwich visited Notre Dame, where former teammate Monk Malloy was on the team for a year. For whatever reasons, the Carroll seniors did not feel that they were welcomed by the coach. Later, Malloy speculated that Notre Dame had second thoughts about fielding a team with too many black players on a campus where two black players may have been one too many. Thompson ultimately decided to attend Providence College for several reasons: its program had several black players; he liked the coach, John Mullaney, and its location. Red Auerbach, Boston Celtic coach, maintained a home in D.C., and had seen Thompson play at Carroll and on the playgrounds that he visited often. Auerbach was shrewd enough to know that Thompson would likely be a pro prospect after a Providence career, and the NBA had a territorial draft, meaning that if a player went to school within a fifty mile radius of an NBA team, that organization had draft rights. Every year, Thompson improved academically and athletically at Providence, where his team won the NIT championship in 1963. Averaging over 26 points a game his senior year, he made All-American, leading Providence to the NCAA tournament.24 He was a third round pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1964 NBA draft. He was also invited to try out for the 1964 Olympic team, where an unwritten race quota system determined the team selections. He failed to make the team. At Boston, Thompson never got enough playing time during his first year to find his rhythm as a reserve to Bill Russell, and his minutes were reduced even more during his second year when an injury and roster changes demoted him either to the bench or out of uniform status. Playing in only 10 games, that year, it became obvious that he was not being groomed for a post-Russell Celtic career. The Celtics won the NBA title both years with rosters so deep in talent, there was no playing time and ultimately no NBA learning time for Thompson. One event he witnessed his first year with Boston, was when Auerbach started an all-black line-up for the first time in NBA history, not because he planned on making a civil rights statement, but because he thought it was a better winning combination. Thompson would not forget that lesson; neither would he forget the 1965-66 title when the team voted to give him only a half-share of the playoff salary because of the few games he played. Thompson wanted no charity, nor did he want to be short-changed when he insisted to a team of six future Hall-of-Famers – which, ironically, included himself - that it was all or nothing. Following a second vote, the Celtics gave Thompson a full share. Shortly afterwards, because of NBA expansion, he was left unprotected by the Celtics, and selected by the Chicago Bulls in the draft. It was a time when only Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had $100,000 contracts - and most players were in the $30,000 range. The contract offered by Chicago was well below that figure, souring Thompson on the NBA. He quit and returned home to Washington.25
Now for the first time since Brown Junior High School, he had no affiliation with basketball. Since that time, however, he had learned much about the strategic, physical, mental, racial, and business sides of basketball, and about the opportunities it provided good players; and he had earned a college degree. The Washington Thompson returned to in 1966, however, was unlike the one he had left in 1960. The doors to private white schools that he helped open for black athletes, had transformed to floodgates, and the Washington black public schools were suffering wholesale losses of the better players to Catholic schools throughout the area. The social and political climate was also changing. The Washington Redskins had signed their first black player and only two NFL teams had more. The March on Washington in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 uplifted the spirits and protected the rights of blacks. Marion Barry arrived in the district as head of the area’s SNCC chapter and began community organizing, and D.C. moved closer to Home Rule through participation in presidential elections. The Black Power Movement and the rise of the Black Panther Party promoted a new sense of black pride and empowerment, causing black and African-American to replace Negro as a racial category.
The Great Society of Lyndon Johnson was at its apex when Thompson found employment in a federally funded program, teaching life skills to underprivileged black youth. But it was the opening of the coaching position at St. Anthony's High School where he resurfaced in the D.C. basketball world. Hired on the basis of an endorsement from Bob Dwyer, his former Carroll coach, and a strong interview, Thompson went to the playgrounds - where he still had name recognition - and recruited enough good players to make the basketball program one of the area's best. One player, Donald Washington, became one of the nation's top recruits in the 1970-71 season, with Thompson filtering the offers of all interested colleges. North Carolina's Dean Smith eventually won out, but so did Thompson who impressed the Tar Heel coach with his basketball philosophy, intelligence, and sincere concern for Washington's well-being and overall growth as a student-athlete.26 A year later, in a changing racial climate, there was a vacancy for the coaching position at Georgetown.
The sum of Thompson's life experiences positioned him well for the job. It was his high school, college, and professional basketball background; his winning record as a coach; his emphasis on academics with student-athletes; the bi-partisan respect he enjoyed in a racially divided Washington, D.C.; his familiarity, ease, and comfort with integrated settings; and, to some degree, his Catholic faith that factored into Georgetown's decision to hire him as coach. Thompson, the local sports legend, had come full circle in his hometown, and the excitement engendered in the black community was the most since Carroll High School's racial experiment over two decades earlier. Over the next four years with Ewing - and for the remainder of the decade - Georgetown would reach the level of basketball aristocracy, institutionalizing a style of play that would come to define "Hoya Paranoia." Both on and off the court, no paradigm for Thompson's first nine years would compare with what would happen during the next nine.
Pat Ewing had an outstanding freshman season - notwithstanding criticism of his qualifications for admission to Georgetown - leading the Hoyas to a second consecutive Big East tournament title, and advancing to the NCAA championship game against Dean Smith's North Carolina team, and its sensational freshman, Michael Jordan. Both teams were loaded with future NBA talent, and Thompson became the first black coach to reach the finals. The game was close throughout, and with seconds left on the clock and Carolina trailing, sportscasters Billy Parker and George Bender of CBS described the action for the nation.
A one point lead for Georgetown...they stay in the 1-3-1 with Ewing in the middle.
Jordan! Michael Jordan! - 14 seconds...Fred Brown looks for Sleepy Floyd.
Ohhh - he threw it to the wrong man. He threw it to Worthy - it's over, it's over!
Worthy is fouled by Eric Smith. Fred Brown, somehow or another, threw the
ball into the hands of James Worthy.27
Losing to Carolina under the circumstances of a clutch shot by Jordan and the untimely mishap of Brown, in the final seconds of a highly competitive game drained Hoya fans emotionally. Almost simultaneous with the final buzzer, an unanticipated and defining moment in John Thompson's career occurred. With fans stampeding the court celebrating the Carolina victory, Thompson reached out for Fred Brown with an embrace so genuine it brought tears to millions who witnessed it. Tennis champion Arthur Ashe remembered the game's aftermath, and, like numerous others, admitted to crying.28 Somewhere in the agony of defeat, John Thompson reached deep into his inner self, demonstrating that the worth of his players required more measurement than wins and losses. It was a gesture usually reserved for a most personal and private moment between parents and their children, and the symbolism was not lost on the national audience. Sport is often credited with being a builder of character, but nowhere had that axiom found more meaning or equivalent expression than it did with Thompson wrapping his arms around Brown. In the agony of defeat, one of sports' most iconic images had been created. In a collegiate sport where the athletes were increasingly African American and the coaches were almost all white, Thompson reminded the nation that college athletes were human beings first, and athletes second.
It was a magnificent teachable moment, and one that came without rehearsal or a lesson plan. Following the televised broadcast, countless fathers who vicariously identified with Fred Brown as their own son, slept better that night. In defeat, Thompson's credibility soared among high school coaches, athletes, parents, and almost all of black America. From that night forward, he would have more respect as a coach, and some advantages in recruiting that otherwise might have been longer in the making.
Reaching the NCAA's title game in Ewing's remarkable freshman year made Georgetown the team everyone wanted to see during his sophomore year. Only Ralph Sampson, Virginia's star center, was a bigger drawing card in college basketball. Because Sampson played in the Atlantic Coast Conference, unless special arrangements were made, the two might only play each other in the NCAA tournament. In that event neither Georgetown nor Virginia stood to make an exclusive financial gain. With that in mind, the two schools arranged for a regular season game to be played at the Capital Center, in what was the first major sporting event on basic cable television, then a fledgling industry. One sports writer, Leonard Shapiro, has written that "Thompson was almost blatant in letting it be known that he wanted something for himself out of any deal," above and beyond what the schools would receive from television rights. Thompson, he was told by inside sources, pocketed $50,000 when the coordinator of the made-for-television event, arranged a side deal with a soft drink company to pay him that amount to do a few basketball clinics. It may have been unethical, but it was not illegal, and it marked the first time that a black college coach had shared in the financial packages and perks of big-time college coaches. The game was also the first time that Georgetown had reaped the financial rewards normally afforded big-time sports schools. Sports Illustrated had a special fold-out front cover featuring Ewing and Sampson, and it was the most-watched regular season game in basketball history. The game lived up to the billing, with Ewing and Sampson playing close to a stand-off, until Virginia pulled away down the stretch, winning by a score of 68-63. That game is important because it made college athletic conferences reconsider their worth in terms of broadcasting rights in a competitive television industry, and for Thompson it was the first stop on a financial road map that would lead to wealth and endorsements such as a $200,000-a-year contract with the Nike shoe company to sit on its board, wear its brand, and serve as a spokesperson.29
Freshmen Michael Jackson and David Wingate joined the 1982-83 team, and though inexperienced, they were among the top two scorers. Wingate came from Baltimore's Dunbar High School, coached by black coach Bob Wade whose top players had previously gone to ACC schools - Ernie Graham and Larry Gibson to Maryland, Muggsy Bogues to Wake Forest. and Skip Wise to Clemson. Wingate's decision to attend Georgetown over Maryland further eroded Lefty Driesell's fan base in the Washington area, particularly among black Washingtonians whose loyalty he had cultivated since coming to Maryland in 1969. The Hoyas chalked a 20-10 record, making it to the NCAA's second round before losing to Memphis. By most standards, it was a good season, but with all five starters returning along with freshman Michael Graham of Washington, D.C. and the nation's number one high school player, Reggie Williams of Baltimore's Dunbar, the sky was the limit for the 1983-84 season.
By Ewing's third season, no college team had higher television ratings than Georgetown and, next to the Redskins, its home games against ranked opponents were the hottest sports tickets in town. The team raced to a 26-3 regular season record, won the Big East tournament in an overtime game with Syracuse on the muscle of freshman Graham, and was selected as the top seed in the NCAA's Western Region. With the exception of a surprisingly close opening game against underdog Southern Methodist, Georgetown cruised into the final four. The national semi-final game matched the Hoyas against Kentucky, with its formidable "Twin Towers" of Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin. Although relentless guard Gene Smith, a hard-working tough, unselfish, defensive specialist and Georgetown reserve, played only 17 minutes, he led a defensive surge that completely disoriented the Wildcats. Trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Hoyas put up perhaps the greatest second half defensive stand in NCAA tournament history, holding a Kentucky team with three first-round NBA picks to two points over a 16-minute span, and going on to a 53-40 win. In the title game, the Hoyas met "Phi Slamma Jamma," the powerful Houston team that was making its third consecutive final four. Squaring off against, arguably, a better player, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ewing held his own, and the sharp shooting of Wingate and Jackson, coupled with the awesome rebounding, scoring, and inside play of Michael Graham, led the Hoyas. Finally, with the game clock expiring and the Hoyas comfortably leading 84-75, it sank in with Georgetown fans that the summit had been reached when George Bender, of CBS Sports announced, "Georgetown! That's the ballgame - the national champions."30
Then the cameras zoomed into a tight shot of a proud and smiling John Thompson embracing his senior guard, Fred Brown. This second hug remains one of sport's most underrated moments of redemption. Justice had come full circle. Hoya fans across America savored the special moment, many weeping in jubilation. A black coach with a black team would finally have the honor of cutting down the nets. Not since Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, and Texas Western College had anything rivaled this moment of sports satisfaction among black Americans. If there had been a question up to that point as to whether Georgetown was black America's team, it was laid to rest.
Ewing entered his senior season at Georgetown with the team ranked number one in preseason polls, and the team entered the NCAA tournament ranked number one after claiming the Big East Conference regular season and tournament titles. Because of its high seeding, the Hoyas easily defeated lesser competition in the early rounds before winning a close game against Georgia Tech in the East regional final. Advancing to the Final Four for the third time in four years, where St. John's, Villanova, and Kentucky were also finalists, Georgetown was a favorite to win it all. After defeating St. John's in the semi-final, the Hoyas entered the title game for the third time in four years, a feat in NCAA tournament history matched only by Kentucky, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and UCLA. Facing the Hoyas in the title game, Villanova was a 9-point underdog, but played a "perfect game" in upsetting Georgetown. It was a bitter ending for Ewing who, in his four years, had produced a 121-23 record, making Georgetown basketball a phenomenon. During those years, Georgetown made the cover of Sports Illustrated eight times, including when Ewing was selected as the 1985 number one pick in the NBA draft.31
With Ewing having received his degree and going on to the NBA, Georgetown, with a succession of recruits like Reggie Williams, Charles Smith, John Turner, Jaren Jackson, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo, continued the tradition of 20 win seasons and being selected annually for the NCAA tournament. In the 1985-86 and 1986-1987 seasons the team nicknamed "Reggie and the Miracles" lost - in the second round and regional finals - to Michigan State and Providence College respectively. A second round loss to top ranked Temple ended the 1987-88 season. The 1988-1989 season closed with Georgetown - repeatedly ranked number one during the season - and its own "Twin Towers" Mourning and Mutumbo, losing in the regional finals to Duke. No single team up to that time - other than UCLA - had ever defined a decade of college basketball more than Georgetown. And no coach had ever built a program of Georgetown's significance, with as many players from his hometown, and the city of his college team, as had Thompson.
The Georgetown program, despite its success, was as plagued with controversy as it was stocked with good players. It first started with the racist banner being thrown through a window at McDonough Gymnasium, and it would follow him throughout the decade and beyond for several reasons: the defensively intense and physical style of play he came to institutionalize; the public positions he took and demonstrations he initiated regarding NCAA legislation; the restrictions placed on media access to his team; the combative nature of his interactions with the press corps, the racial composition of his teams; his determination to expose the racism his program regularly encountered; and his appreciation for issues that converged at the intersection of sport and society, Throughout it all, Thompson never lost his composure, nor did he capitulate to or compromise with his critics and detractors. The controversies also tended to galvanize the base of his support, particularly the Georgetown community, black media, potential recruits, and African Americans nationwide.
Thompson once said that he never felt like he had the luxury of being "just a basketball coach." The first demonstration of those feelings at Georgetown occurred in 1981 when Atlanta, Georgia was being terrorized by a murderer of multiple black children. To raise awareness of the unsolved crimes, he thought something should be done. After reflecting on the courage of Tommy Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics, and getting a buy-in from his team, a decision was made to sew green ribbons on their basketball jerseys. He explained to reporters that he felt an obligation to express the urgency that the crimes be solved, going on to say that "when you feel something and you've got a place to show it, maybe you shouldn't be too concerned whether somebody may think it's the wrong place."32
Considering that Thompson was a coach and former athlete who did not attend a black college, he was extremely deferential toward the coaches in black schools who preceded him. He developed friendships and gave respect to the elders of his profession like John McLendon and Clarence "Big House" Gaines who, a generation earlier, had won national championships in integrated tournaments at the HBCU's Tennessee State and Winston-Salem Teachers College. On the eve of the 1984 NCAA championship game, a reporter asked him if he was proud to be the first black head coach to reach the Final Four. "I resent the hell out of that question," he angrily replied. "It implies that I am the first black man to be accomplished enough and intelligent enough to do this. It is an insult to my race. There have been plenty of others who could have gotten here if they had been given the opportunity they deserved."33 Specifically referencing Gaines as a victim of racism, it may have been the most pungent and concise black history lecture ever delivered to the press by a coach.
Drugs and violent crime in Washington D.C. escalated in the 1980s to the point that the city became known as the murder capital of the country. For the most part, the college campuses of the area were isolated from the crime of the inner city, and most elements of its drug culture. All of this changed on the morning of June 18, 1984 when Len Bias of Maryland, the number two pick in the NBA draft of a day earlier, died of a drug overdose. The drugs were obtained from a district drug dealer who had cultivated a close relationship with Bias, and who enjoyed the proximity to his celebrity. The investigation into the death by campus and law enforcement officials led to the resignation of Coach Lefty Driesell, who was accused of participating in a cover-up of the dormitory death scene. The program was also roundly criticized for neglecting the academic interests of its players, which prompted the resignation of Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director. Adding insult to the plight and pride of the embattled Maryland program, the black Maryland Chancellor, John Slaughter, suspended disbelief when after consulting with Thompson, he hired Bob Wade of Dunbar High School in Baltimore as the new Terrapin coach. Maryland alumni were incensed that Georgetown – the cross-metropolitan-area rival – would have any say in filling the vacant coaching position. Slaughter knew little about big-time college sports, but he sensed that everything that was broken at Maryland, was working well at Georgetown. And, while his selection process was controversial, on that score he was correct.34
The Maryland tragedy begged for comparison with the Georgetown program, when in 1988 word leaked to Thompson from friends and police officials that two of his players, Alonzo Mourning and John Turner, had been seen in several places with the 23-year old drug kingpin of the D.C. area, Rayful Edmond, who was so fanatical about the Hoyas that when his drug runners were murdered he would bury them in Georgetown jerseys. Once Thompson confirmed the relationship, he immediately arranged for a one-on-one meeting with Edmond at McDonough Gymnasium. The streets of D.C. where Thompson grew up, and those where Edmond came of age, were light years apart. But Thompson approached him man-to-man and found that Edmond - probably in deference to Thompson's hero status among blacks - was extremely polite, and understood his message that he wanted his players left alone. Shortly afterwards on Ted Koppel's national televised program, "Nightline," Thompson announced that Turner would not be returning to Georgetown. Though he did not provide Koppel with any reasons, after the meeting with Edmond, he learned that Turner, who had known Edmond since childhood had been seen with the drug dealer attending a Washington Bullets game at the Capital Centre. So much has been made of Thompson's confidential meeting with Edmond, and the apocryphal word-of-mouth in D.C. is that Thompson, with his hulking 6-foot-10 presence, warned Edmond that there would be serious consequences if he did not stay away from his players. That was not the case, the meeting was civil and there was no confrontation.35 But for the legend of Thompson, the truth of the meeting does not matter, because people needed the example of a responsible adult protecting its youth by forcefully standing up and "just saying no" to a drug dealer.
The relationship that Thompson developed with Dean Smith, during the recruitment of Donald Washington, had led to him being selected as assistant coach of the 1976 Olympic team. By 1988, America's changing racial climate, Thompson's extraordinary record, his race, and the increasing black domination of the sport of basketball placed him in a favorable position to be selected the first black coach of the United States Olympic team for the Seoul, Korea games. Brent Musburger, a sportscaster for CBS, who had once called Tommie Smith and John Carlos, "black storm troopers" for their 1968 Olympic protest, and a frequent critic of the Georgetown physical style of play, was among the first to play the race card. "It's fair to ask the question, whether John Thompson will put any white guys on his team," he stated. Thompson replied that questions about the black-white ratio of his teams were a "very tactful way of trying to get a quota on the number of blacks on the Olympic team," a practice he remembered from his own tryout for the 1964 Olympic team. But having been educated in white schools since age 15, and coaching in them since returning to Washington from the NBA, he explained that his predominately black teams did not mean he was a biased person. I'll be willing to bet you, he challenged, "that my life is far more integrated than Brent Musburger."36
The team selected by Thompson, and his assistant coach George Raveling, had one white player on the roster, the lowest number ever on an Olympic team. Mary Fenlon, his academic coordinator, was an assistant coach. Three additional members of the Georgetown staff were also there as "unofficial assistants," and the tryouts were stocked with current and former Georgetown players, though only one made the team. The problem with the team, however, had nothing to do with its racial make-up; it was simply short on talent. For a coach who had pushed practically every right button throughout his coaching career, this time he pushed the wrong ones. The team finished third, making it the first USA team not to play for the gold medal. Sports journalists crucified Thompson for everything from his coaching style and ignoring scouting reports to his team and staff selections.37 There was no retort this time from a crushed Thompson, who found himself outflanked by his critics. He learned from the experience, added more names to his enemies list, licked his wounds, and moved on.
Thompson's sense of responsibility and accountability came from his family; his morality and ethics from his faith; and his understanding of basketball from the playgrounds, and his coaches and teammates; but his sense of advocacy for African Americans and the strength of his convictions for what he believed owed a debt to Bill Russell, his mentor with the Celtics. Only Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown compared to Russell for taking public positions on race at the height of their athletic fame. Just before tip-off in a game against Boston College in 1989, Thompson joined that elite group by walking off the floor in protest of legislation passed by the NCAA known as Proposition 42, which made athletes ineligible for scholarships if they failed to score 700 (out of 1600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or 15 (out of 36) on the American College Test, or only attained a 2.0 (out of 4.0) high school grade point average in core curriculum courses. The legislation replaced Proposition 48 of 1983, which required that prospective athletes who did not meet those standards must be ineligible for competition during the freshman year. The black community and others saw both pieces of legislation as efforts to reduce the number of blacks in college sports.
The Georgetown basketball program had never had a Proposition 48 student, and its graduation rate proved that under-prepared and under-served inner city student athletes could succeed academically if given opportunity and appropriate support systems. The protest initiated by Thompson captured the attention of the nation, and a year later the NCAA modified the legislation to allow those without the requisite scores to be eligible to receive institutional aid, if not athletic scholarships.38 Thurgood Marshall once said that one of his contributions as a Supreme Court member was the diversity of legal thought he brought to the high court, by being the only member of that body to have represented a client in a death penalty case. In that same light, Thompson brought change to NCAA Proposition 42, because he was likely the only member of the NCAA Division I coaching profession who once had been incomprehensively classified as mildly retarded.
From the day Pat Ewing signed with Georgetown, his academic qualifications for admission were placed in question. And during his four-year stint as a Hoya, when the team traveled outside of Washington, he often encountered demeaning signs, extreme behavior, and racist chants from the fans of opposing teams. Time magazine reported incidents of bias, including bold-lettered signs along the way to Providence College screaming EWING CAN'T READ and at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, THINK EWING THINK; and in Philadelphia's Palestra, where a chilling sign said EWING IS AN APE, a demented person in the crowd tossed a banana peel onto the court. T-shirts and buttons were manufactured and worn at games by opposing fans bearing the slogan, EWING CAN'T READ DIS.39 Still, when Ewing was involved in on-court brawls, he received harsh media criticism for his outbursts, but rarely in the context of the aggressive physical strategies he was experiencing on practically every set offensive possession. The black National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and black sportswriters like Sam Lacy of the Washington Afro-American newspaper, were appalled by the anti-Ewing epithets, and disappointed in what was perceived as "unprecedented and clearly unjust media criticism" by sports media. It was the inflammatory tirades of national writers like Curry Kilpatrick of Sports Illustrated, who characterized Georgetown for its "leather jacket and chains image," and who defamed Thompson for "tolerating, if not promoting, fisticuffs explosions as a matter of course." Black writers and others were also distressed when Brent Musburger of CBS termed a game altercation, involving Hoya player Michael Graham, as "conduct basketball does not need," prompting a hasty on-air apology after co-announcer Billy Packer strenuously objected to the racial and unsportsmanlike implications of those remarks. Thompson took offense at those interpretations of his team's style of play, saying he resented "accusations and implications that what we teach is dirty."40
Another sore spot for the media was being kept at a distance away from the Georgetown players, but Thompson would not relent to requests for more access to his players because it served no advantage to either his program or his individual game preparation. The NNPA issued a guest commentary editorial, that appeared in black newspapers, saying that "Thompson teams do not see the need to always be grinning and shuffling at the beck and call of the media." The piece went on to point out the black people "see through the media outburst and keep the faith, people like cab drivers, and maids one of whom told Thompson . . . 'Hey, you're doing a good job, don't let 'em get to ya. Keep trying.'" In several columns he wrote on the topic, Lacy argued that in regard to Georgetown, "a largely hostile majority press is determined to overlook Thompson's brilliance as a teacher and coach." The media "did a hatchet job on Thompson, a throwback to the era when newspapers and magazines made no attempt to mask their prejudices."41
Race and Georgetown were inseparable, and Thompson made the public aware that a dual standard existed for evaluating black players and white players, as well as for describing the playing styles of predominately black teams versus predominately white teams. He was pleased with his teams' reputation for poise and discipline, and derived satisfaction in knowing that it was demolishing negative stereotypes too long associated with basketball. Some of his comments in that regard may have been controversial, but they resonated with a truth black followers of sport had long come to know. "After they say we're disciplined, you know the code?" asked Thompson. "That you play like a white team. That's it. Undisciplined means nigger. They're all big and fast and can leap like kangaroos and eat watermelon in the locker room, but they can't play as a team and they choke under pressure . . . . White men run the game. A white coach recruits a good black player. He knows the kid's got talent, but he also knows - or thinks he knows - that because he's black, he is undisciplined . . . he puts him in a freelance, one-on-one, hot-dog role," and that coach, Thompson continued to explain, "turns to the little white guard for discipline. Other black kids see this and they think this is how they are expected to play, and so the image is perpetuated."42 No college coach had ever made a more provocative statement about race and basketball, and it made some of the media and basketball establishment uncomfortable that he dared to raise an issue that every black basketball coach in America, at all levels, would claim to be fact and was exacerbated by the integration of the team beyond quotas, and the decline of gentlemen’s agreements.
One of the most repeated and stinging criticisms of Thompson was that he was a racist, because of his mostly all-black team rosters. Those making that allegation may not have understood the complex problems a black coach would have in recruiting top-flight white athletes, and they most certainly knew nothing of Thompson as a person. His longest serving assistant coach, his chief recruiter, his academic coordinator, his two most confidential lawyers, and his surrogate family since college were all white. Yet none of that made any difference to those who could not bring themselves to accept an outspoken black coach with a power-house black team. Those same critics routinely ignored the racism so common in and, indeed, intrinsic to the fiber of college basketball, and never employed that label to describe white coaches with either quota systems or predominately white teams. The standard used by some to judge Thompson’s fairness was unfair in itself, because it was only applied to one person - John Thompson.
By the mid-1980s, teams starting three or more black players were not unusual. The profits and prestige of winning were forcing compromises in past discriminatory practices. But the proliferation of black players was not matched with the hiring of black coaches. Only Thompson and a handful of others were in charge of Division I basketball programs. Washingtonians took note of this, and a popular joke started circulating in barber shops, pool rooms, shoe shine parlors, and on street corners during that era:
Question: What is black on the outside and white in the middle?
Answer: A college basketball team during a time-out.43
The biting humor had a penetrating dual message. Blacks were dominating college basketball as players, but the next frontier would be the hiring of black coaches. With Thompson dispelling any notions that a black coach could not win the NCAA championship and build a strong college, alumni, and national fan base, other colleges finally began to give serious consideration to black coaching candidates. A generation later, the full impact of Georgetown playing for the national title in three out of four years under Thompson could be gauged in the double-digit number of black coaches whose teams have received bids to the NCAA tournament since that time, and the two - Nolan Richardson of Arkansas and Tubby Smith of Kentucky - who also have won it all. Thompson's success accelerated the number of blue ribbon basketball schools that subsequently hired black coaches, placing them in position to compete annually for the national title.
One month before Georgetown signed Ewing, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. Throughout his terms of office, blacks in D.C. and America found Reagan indifferent to their concerns. During that same period, blacks all across the country came to identify with Thompson and his team. Reagan, even before taking the oath of office, had a track record for opposing civil rights legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and fair housing legislation. He opposed affirmative action, and infuriated blacks when he initially sided with North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed the enactment of a federal law making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The Georgetown basketball program, to the contrary, symbolized a commitment to civil rights, affirmative action and concern for the basic issues of inner-city residents - drug use, joblessness, and lack of educational opportunity. Reagan's budget cuts gutted social programs addressing those problems, while the underserved continued to fall through his fabled safety net. The checklist of Reagan's anti-civil rights, anti-black, and racially divisive initiatives grew as thick as a telephone directory. At the same time, Thompson continued to recruit and win with black teams, and to protest NCAA regulations unfavorable to blacks, and as an outspoken member of the Black Coaches Association, he campaigned for the hiring of more black coaches.
For those who dared to make the comparison, what Reaganism represented in public policy, and what Georgetown represented with its coach and team were polar opposites, and that opposition was being played out on a national stage. No president since the Civil Rights Movement had been as mean-spirited towards black progress as Reagan or had caused more angst in black communities. Poet and singer activist, Gil Scott-Heron spoke to the younger generation when placing his vote of no confidence in Reagan, "the cowboy making the world a nervous wreck," in his record "Washington, D.C.," and Carlton "Chuck D" Ridenhour demanded the impeachment of the president he derisively referred to as "Raygun," in the song, "Rebel without a Pause."44 The Georgetown basketball team ultimately became symbolic of a rejection of Reaganism, argues Georgetown graduate Zack Tupper. "As Reagan's budget cut safety nets around inner cities,” he explains, "Thompson and the Hoyas grabbed scissors of their own, bracing to take down nets as they competed for three national titles."45
One of the most antithetical covers ever of Sports Illustrated appeared in April of 1984, picturing John Thompson, Ronald Reagan and Pat Ewing at the White House. The occasion was the traditional ceremony in recognition of the national basketball champions. The smiles that the trio gave for the camera masked their deep differences. Reaganism and Georgetown basketball represented contrasting visions and realities of America, though the real reason for the cover was to pay tribute to Thompson for being the first black to win the title. At the event, Reagan congratulated Thompson for the academic and athletic success of the program, and with jocularity chided him about criticisms of his coaching as being "a little too stringent or military." On cue, and with laughter from the audience, Thompson responded to the commander-in-chief, saying, "The worst thing that could ever be said about us is that we're military." 46 The tongue-in-cheek reply not only meant that Thompson had the final word on that subject, but it was also an indicator of his low tolerance for criticism of his student-athlete management practices - something he considered a sovereign enterprise.
There was never a question in the minds of anyone attending a Georgetown basketball game that Thompson - patrolling the sidelines with a trademark white towel draped over his shoulder - was completely in control of the Hoyas. His players seemed to play the game with one eye on the court and the other on Thompson. Each player had a role, and there was zero tolerance for diversions from those roles. The military style to which Reagan referred included the rules and protocols that governed Thompson's student-athletes: attendance at all classes was mandatory; jackets and neckties were required attire for all team travel; a weekly schedule with the academic coordinator had to be maintained; no infractions against school regulations and the student code of conduct; and absolutely no interactions with the media without his tacit approval. Thompson's detractors may not have liked his Byzantine management style, but none could deny the success his program enjoyed in graduating young inner-city blacks from an elite university, when the black student-athlete graduation rates from most other Division I schools were abysmally low.
The demonizing of Reagan and idolatry of Georgetown became celebrated themes in the vernacular and cultural expressions of hip-hop aficionados, whose movement started in the Bronx, New York in the early 1970s, before mushrooming into a global phenomenon. Best characterized as a cultural art form of street rhythms and graphic rhyming lyrics, it was a logical cultural consequence of the Black Power movement, rejecting a passive sense of victimization while favoring an active, aggressive, and militant posture towards inner-city black realities. Basketball became its national pastime, and Georgetown was championed by consensus as its team because of what became known as Hoya paranoia - fear of the team's racial make-up, the swagger of its players, the courage of its coach, and the aggressive, unrelenting, and intimidating style of its play.47
The cultural and social ramifications of Georgetown on African Americans were unprecedented and profound. Taking advantage of the commercial marketing value of the team after the NCAA title, Georgetown officials made a shrewd business decision by trademarking the Hoyas name and snarling bulldog logo. It was the first college sports team to become a brand. Street corner vendors of unauthorized counterfeit sports merchandise in black neighborhoods, however, first introduced Georgetown goods to consumers where there was a strong demand for such items. Among blacks, not just in D.C., but throughout America, Georgetown apparel outsold that of big-name football schools. More than a fashion statement or display of school loyalty, wearing the Georgetown logo was an indicator of a defiant attitude and race pride. Within five years of Ewing's signing, Georgetown outsold every college in America in licensed apparel. The Gangster Disciples, the largest and most feared Chicago-based gang of the 1980s, chose Georgetown clothing, bragging that Hoyas stood for the gang’s founder, Larry Hoover: "Hoover's on Your Ass." There was a special attraction to an all black team, a black coach, in a majority black city - affectionately described in a popular song as "Chocolate City" - with a black mayor, Marion Barry. It was a badge of collective identity. The hip-hop artists and rappers were enthusiastic fans of basketball, and their allegiance to the game found expression in their artistry. Kurtis Blow's blockbuster hit "Basketball" was released in 1984, shortly after Georgetown won the title. Other basketball-themed songs followed, including Notorious B.I.G.'s big seller "Things Done Changed," all verbalizing in rhyme the young generation's fascination with the game. The stage persona of the mega group, Run DMC, favored the Adidas "shell toe" basketball shoe, and rappers Chuck D and Public Enemy, wore the iconic blue and gray Georgetown Starter jacket as a haberdashery accessory to its public image, and were so enamored of the Hoyas that they once considered calling themselves "Georgetown Gangsters." When Chuck D performed live, he wore Georgetown apparel, and when lambasting Reagan in his lyrics for ignoring the plight of urban blacks, the pro-Georgetown and anti-Reagan message was as visual as it was symbolic. Thus, the years of the Reagan presidency enabled Georgetown to become a counter-statement to his politics. 48
The axiom that art imitates life, has meaning in three movies of the early 1990s, demonstrating the powerful impact of Georgetown's success and imagery on the consciousness of inner-city blacks. In "Boyz N the Hood" there is a scene where Tre, the protagonist, wears a Black Power necklace over a Georgetown t-shirt while taking the SAT examination. In the trailblazing documentary, "Hoop Dreams," two real-life Chicago prep basketball players, Arthur and William, pursue basketball as an escape route from their impoverished neighborhoods. The Georgetown blue and gray nylon jackets are displayed in a scene when Arthur looks at one in the window of a sporting goods store with a studious gaze, as if he were dreaming about his future. William actually received a recruiting letter from Georgetown, and Thompson is seen scouting him and others at a basketball camp. Thompson had another cameo appearance in "Above the Rim," a drama about Kyle Watson, a New York City basketball talent, hoping to receive a scholarship from Georgetown, who gets caught up in the urban realities of conflict between a drug dealer and his coach. Kyle overcomes the dilemma and goes on to Georgetown, where in the closing scene he sinks a game-winning basket for the Hoyas. Black moviegoers particularly enjoyed the cameo appearance by Thompson, affirming his program for providing athletic and educational opportunities for deserving young black males, and the one most prominent among youth of his race. Thompson acknowledged with a sense of pride, humility, and eloquence, the infatuation that black youth had with Georgetown. "I see it in a positive light. Everybody needs inspiration from somewhere. It's like me rooting for Joe Louis and you rooting for Joe Louis. It's the same but different. . . . I need Joe Louis to root for. And sometime I see touches of that need when people of color are rooting for Georgetown. . . . If some sign of hope can be gotten from what the Georgetown kids have attempted to do . . . then let it be." Basketball scholar Todd Boyd also advances the notion that Georgetown countered Reaganism with its intimidating style of play, and its nationally visible pro-affirmative action composition. He argues that, while Magic Johnson smiled on the court, making black domination of the NBA more palatable to whites, Pat Ewing was the opposite for college basketball, with his permanent on-court scowl, much more reflective of the mood of black America. And the message in that demeanor, when transferred from the streets to the basketball court, was that Georgetown, in the language of rapper Ice Cube, were “the wrong niggas to fuck with.”49
The memories of one fan who came of age during the 1980s, provide a penetrating perspective on the team for some young blacks:
I looked for them because they were an all black team with a gargantuan black coach in a predominantly black city with a black mayor. . . and a black city council, and a black professional class that, per capita, stood unparalleled in the country. . . . My friends and I were Chocolate City Disciples. We relished owning a pair of Georgetown Nikes. . . . It came as a complete and total shock to all of us when we discovered that Georgetown University wasn’t in fact a black university, but lily white. It just didn’t make sense. If you grew up in D.C. in the ‘80s, it was genuinely possible to believe that the United States was mostly black.50
Aside from culture, Georgetown left an imprint on the game of basketball itself. At all levels, basketball players began to emulate the look of the Hoyas by wearing t-shirts under their jerseys, a style first made famous by Ewing. Their tenacious defense led to Big East officials adding a short-lived sixth foul to games. Thompson introduced the free throw huddle to discuss strategy between free throws, also serving as a tactical approach for bonding team chemistry. It is now a standard protocol in high school, college, NBA, and international basketball competition, and is, perhaps, more significant than any other change to the college game. Thompson's academic success with his players brought attention to the low graduation rates and exploitation of black athletes at many other schools. Much of the reform in athletic programs that has subsequently followed, gained momentum and traction because of Georgetown’s superb academic track record with inner-city black student-athletes. The academic majors chosen by the players were reflective of the full range of course offerings at Georgetown.
Great players and very good teams would continue to represent Georgetown and make it a force in college basketball after the 1980s, though never again during Thompson's reign - which ended in 1999 - would there be unmitigated fear of his team by opponents. With the three-point shot and better ball-handling swing men to counter his pressing and trapping defensive schemes, smart coaches with good athletes caught up with Georgetown. Moreover, the chemistry of his players was different, was not as deep, and the number of those transferring to other programs increased. Some of the lesser known former players and coaches he once relied on for supplying his player pipeline, soured on Thompson for a number of reasons, including lack of access, failure to return phone calls, unpleasant personal interactions, and perceived lack of gratitude for their contributions to his enormous success as a coach and entrepreneur.51 It would be 1995 before the team made the Sweet 16, and never again would he lead a team to the Final Four. By his retirement in 1999, Georgetown remained the favorite college team in D.C., but the claim to being black America's team was no longer valid. Thompson and Georgetown were casualties of their own success when other teams, some with black coaches and some without, began to win with predominately black rosters. Black basketball followers now had regional options for selecting favorite teams with black identities. In 1990, there were nine black head coaches in the NCAA tournament. But Thompson had changed college basketball in important ways: he opened the door wider for black coaches by proving that white college officials, students, and alumni could embrace a black winning coach; his style of play and graduation rates demolished stereotypes of black college athletes; and he demonstrated that public race consciousness could co-exist with coaching integrity.
In his office at Georgetown, the centerpiece on his desk was a deflated basketball, serving as a constant reminder to his players that once the air was gone from the ball, they needed to be prepared for the game of life - something his last black coach, Kermit Trigg, had cautioned him about at D.C.'s Brown Junior High School, and something he never forgot. When the dust settles on the history of the phenomenal Georgetown basketball program during the decade of the 1980s, it will be remembered as much for its academic success with inner-city black student-athletes as it will for its basketball record. Thompson connected with sports followers, black educators, and parents, providing a positive national image of black discipline, manhood, and authority unlike any other in the history of college sports. At Georgetown, Thompson was a frequent traveler through the intersection of sport and society, where he assisted in redefining the role of a coach in academic accountability, equal opportunity, and social justice.