Opinion: From near and far, John Thompson Jr.'s impact extends well beyond basketball court

SportsPulse: Former NBA and Georgetown basketball player Jerome Williams discusses his time playing under the late John Thompson and specifically recalls a quote that changed his life.

USA TODAY

I never played college basketball. But I always felt like John Thompson Jr. was my coach.

That’s because Coach Thompson, whose death we learned of early Monday morning, was a larger-than-life figure with a reach that extended beyond the walls of the arenas in which he coached, and beyond the game of basketball itself.

Thompson spurred my introduction to college basketball. As I grew up outside of D.C. in the early 1980s, our introduction came through the television set at my grandparents’ house. It frequently featured the Georgetown Hoyas, and there on the sidelines, loomed this towering figure and symbol of excellence. 

The day, year and opponent of my first Hoyas’ game remain fuzzy in my memory, but I do remember asking my father and grandfather who this giant of a man — decked out in a suit, trademark white towel slung over his shoulder — was. They obliged with a history lesson, and the admiration was instantaneous. The connection automatic.

I didn’t even fully understand all of the intricacies of the game of basketball at the time, but I recognized Thompson’s authority, could sense his charisma and his impact as a successful Black man in a predominantly white field. 

How could you not? Both during games and in post-game press conferences, it radiated from his 6-foot, 10-inch frame, penetrated with every word his deep voice boomed. It beamed through the TV screen and into the living room.

As I grew older, and my knowledge of Thompson expanded, so too did my appreciation for the way he coached the game and tackled life issues.

Thompson, I understood, was a cultural icon. A trailblazer. A leader. An influencer. 

He fought for equality. He stood up against injustices, even when it meant walking off the court and refusing to coach a game in 1989 as a form of protest against NCAA academic standards that he believed discriminated against athletes of color. 

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