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Author Jesse Washington Discusses the Life of Georgetown Hoyas Men’s Basketball Coach John Thompson

ohn Thompson was the head basketball coach at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999, where he won the NCAA championship in 1984. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. He graduated from Providence College and held a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of the District of Columbia.
John Thompson was the head basketball coach at Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999, where he won the NCAA championship in 1984. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. He graduated from Providence College and held a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of the District of Columbia.

It’s day one of the annual Black Student-Athlete Summit hosted by UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement! Earlier today, Leonard Moore, the George Littlefield Professor of American History and former vice president of diversity and community engagement, chatted with two NCAA athletics experts to learn more about the life of Georgetown University’s legendary coach John Thompson.

Here, we bring you some highlights from Moore’s conversation with Jesse Washington, senior writer of ESPN’s The Undefeated and co-author of the newly published autobiography I Came As a Shadow; and Michael Jackson, former NBA player and point guard for Georgetown University’s men’s basketball team.

UT Black Student Athlete Summit speakers featured in Zoom frame
Leonard Moore, Jesse Washington and Michael Jackson speaking at a Black Student-Athlete session titled “Respect the Architect: The Life of John Thompson.”

Moore: How did you get the opportunity to work with Coach Thompson on this book?

Washington: John had some folks helping him put the project together. One thing coach always said, “It’s not who you know; it’s who you know who does know.” So coach found people around him with expertise. My name was put in the hat, I had an audition and I passed.

Moore: Would you say Coach Thompson was bridge between the Black Power era and Black Lives Matter, particularly when it comes to talking about athlete activism?

Jackson: I would argue yes, he was a bridge that connected the two generations, especially when you think of all the things that he did, what he stood for and how he challenged us as players. He always asked us to challenge the status quo, and I’ve taken that to heart in everything I do.

Moore: Jesse, did he challenge you when you first met him?

Washington: Absolutely, he asked some really tough questions. He looked me in my face—and he had a really penetrating glare—and he said, ‘You’ve never written a book like this before. What makes you think you can do this one?’ …Coach liked the underdog. He liked to find players in the nooks and crannies, and I think he felt that way about me.

Jackson: The job that Jesse did to win over coach’s confidence is short of amazing. I haven’t met someone who could do that in such a short period of time, and the job that he did with the book is phenomenal.

Moore: Michael, what was it like playing point guard for him, and what were practices like?

Jackson: We could spend half a day on this question, but I’ll try to keep it short. The best part of going to practices were the talks we would have. When we were going to practices, we were expected to know current events, what was going on in the world…He was always teaching and wanted us to understand that we needed to know more than just basketball, but we still had a job to do on the court.

Moore: In the book, you mentioned that Coach Thompson wanted his players to present themselves well. In the millennial generation, they call that the “politics of Black respectability.” What do you think John was trying to do?

Washington: You have to realize the era we were in. Coach Thompson didn’t want to send a message primarily to white people; Coach Thompson wanted to send the message to us… He was challenging assumptions about students on his team through psychological and subliminal methods.

Another one of his big sayings was, “You give your best interviews when you’re not being interviewed.”…It was about opportunity. It was about self-image and Black enrichment. It had nothing to do with appeasing white people because coach wasn’t about that. He was about sending messages to his people and Black America. That’s why he said his team always traveled in coats and ties…because it made a statement that Georgetown has a higher standard.

Jackson: We had a team rule any time we were traveling on a plane or to get to a game, we had to wear a coat and tie….If we were in a hotel lobby, we had to wear a collared shirt or a polo shirt—always. He also made sure we had a legitimate job every summer. I worked for my Congressmen, and a lot of players worked on the hill or for a law firm. You couldn’t just work at an ice cream shop, for example. You were still expected to work hard on different parts of the game that needed to be worked on during the summer, but you also had to work at a legitimate job so you could prepare for life when you graduate.

Moore: Let’s talk about Prop 42 for a minute.  Jesse, would you mind telling student athletes about Prop 42 and what that whole controversy is all about?

Washington: In the late 1980s, the NCAA passed a rule that said if you have below a 700 on your SAT, you can’t get any sort of scholarship. Before then, they could bring you to school and give you a scholarship. You would not be eligible to play during your freshman year; they would give you the remediation that was necessary and then you could continue your freshman year…It’s important to note that John Thompson—one of the brilliant intellects we’ve seen come across American life in the past century—probably did not get a 700 on his SATs. But he got a college scholarship and he did fine. He passed the same classes as everybody else…Coach Thompson recognized this ruling unfairly discriminated against primarily Black kids because they come from educational backgrounds that don’t have the resources that people with more money have. It’s not a question about intellect; it’s about opportunity, because when you look at the SAT, you see the biggest thing that predicts your score is your household income.

The NCAA went about passing this rule called Proposition 42 in a sneaky way. They did it in the dead of night. And when it passed, Coach Thompson said, “I have to do something about this. I’m going to boycott a game.” Very strategically he let the media know what he was doing and why.

Moore: There is a fine line between opportunity and exploitation. How did Coach Thompson model how not to exploit the athlete?

Jackson: All I’m going to say is 97.

Ninety-seven percent of athletes who attended Georgetown graduated. Those who didn’t have the academic wherewithal, the grades, the SAT scores, graduated…We had a structure in place and a coach who cared. During our freshman year, we had to talk to Mary Fenlon, our academic advisor, every single night. There were things in place so he could monitor whether we were doing well enough in school—not just to play but to graduate. That’s the only thing he promised me. He said, “If you stay here four years, you will graduate.”

Washington: Mary Fenlon was probably the first dedicated academic advisor for one team in NCAA history….The NCAA now has a much more robust support system for universities around the country. He made it known that you can’t exploit these kids. You have to educate them, and this is how you do it.

More about the Black Student-Athlete Summit

Every January, the DDCE’s Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males hosts the Black Student-Athlete Summit at the UT Austin campus. Attendees include professional athletes, athletic directors, coaches, professors and mental health professionals—all of whom play an integral role in the success of Black student-athletes. This year’s summit, themed  “Woke! Now What?” explores a range of issues that are uniquely faced by Black student-athletes during these challenging times.