John Thompson Jr., the first Black basketball head coach to win the NCAA National Championship, died at his Arlington, Virginia, home on Sunday night, according to his family. He was 78.
Thompson had been suffering from multiple health challenges, a family source said. The cause of death is unknown. He was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away.
Thompson coached at Georgetown University for 27 years, leading the Hoyas to their lone title in 1984. He later spoke about being singled out as the first African American head coach to win the National Championship.
“I was very proud of winning the national championship and I was very proud of the fact that I was a Black American, but I didn’t like it if the statement implied that I was the first Black person who had intelligence enough to win the national championship,” he told ESPN.
“I might have been the first black person who was provided with an opportunity to compete for this prize, that you have discriminated against thousands of my ancestors to deny them this opportunity.”
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Taking over a team that had a 3-23 record, Thompson would go on to win close to 600 games, finishing after the 1998-1999 season with a 596-239 coaching record. He won the national coach of the year three times and also the Big East coach of year on three occasions.
The legendary coach led the Hoyas to three Final Fours (in 1982, 1984 and 1985), 24 straight postseason appearances (19 NCAA, five National Invitation Tournaments), and seven Big East tournament championships.
“Our father was an inspiration to many and devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court,” said a statement from the Thompson family.
“He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.
“However, for us, his greatest legacy remains as a father, grandfather, uncle, and friend. More than a coach, he was our foundation. More than a legend, he was the voice in our ear every day.
“We will miss him but are grounded in the assurance that we carry his faith and determination in us. We will cherish forever his strength, courage, wisdom and boldness, as well as his unfailing love. We know that he will be deeply missed by many and our family appreciates your condolences and prayers.
“But don’t worry about him, because as he always liked to say, ‘Big Ace is cool.’”
Seventy-five of Thompson’s 77 players who stayed all four years received college degrees and 26 of his players were drafted in the NBA, including Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.
“I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile,” Iverson wrote in tribute to Thompson on social media.
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Thompson played ball at Providence College and was drafted by the Boston Celtics, winning two NBA titles in his two-year career.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Nakia McNabb contributed to this report