The news that legendary Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson Jr. had died Sunday at 78 released a rush of memories dating back 50 years.
I first met and interviewed “Big John” in his tiny office at St. Anthony’s High School in Northeast Washington. The small Catholic school no longer exists, but that’s where Thompson’s storied coaching career began in 1966, a year after he retired as a reserve center for the Boston Celtics. Thompson was the back-up for the great Bill Russell, a perennial All-Star and first ballot Hall of Famer, and most of his playing action occurred either in practice or during “garbage time” at the end of games, when the dominant Celtics were far ahead on the scoreboard.
Tired of the travel and disappointed about being chosen by Chicago in an expansion draft, he decided to retire and return to his native D.C., where he played on arguably the greatest team in local high school basketball history, at Archbishop Carroll High School.
The Lions won three straight city titles and Thompson and teammates Tom Hoover, Edward “Monk” Malloy, and George Leftwich all earned Division I scholarships. Thompson, 6-foot-10 and close to 300 pounds, started at Providence for three straight years. Malloy played at Notre Dame, joined the priesthood, and later served as the university’s president. Leftwich and Hoover starred at Villanova. A knee injury ended Leftwich’s pro chances, and he later came back to coach the Carroll team himself. Hoover, a rugged 6-foot-9 forward, had a long pro career in the NBA and now defunct American Basketball Association.
The coverage of Thompson’s career in the coming days surely will focus on his 27 seasons at Georgetown University, where his teams won seven Big East championships, played in three Final Fours, and earned the school’s only national championship in 1984. In doing so, Thompson became the first Black head coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball title.
I have other memories, one of them triggered not long ago when I opened up a rarely used desk drawer looking for who knows what and instead found a yellowed 48-year-old copy of the Washington Post Magazine, once known as “Potomac,” dated Aug. 27, 1972.
“Heroes of the City Game” was the cover headline, and inside was a story about playground basketball I had written, mostly at Thompson’s suggestion. He had only recently been named the Georgetown coach but still played pickup basketball occasionally around the city and offered to give me a guided tour one weekend earlier that summer.
He took me to Watkins Playground in Southeast D.C. Those courts were known back then as the “House of Champions” because so many legendary local players had made it their home concrete on the way to the NBA. Among them were Hall of Famers like Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, and Austin Carr.
That day, he also introduced me to 25-year-old Ronald Cunningham, best known as “Biggie,” an apt description for a chiseled 6-foot-5 behemoth who weighed 240 pounds and scattered other big bodies any time he headed to the hoop. He had played for three years at the University of Utah before dropping out and returning home to drive a truck and raise his family.
Biggie in turn introduced me to the term “boguarding.” As I wrote back then, “when Biggie takes his man to the basket and bulls his way in for a lay-up on sheer brute strength, he has boguarded his opponent. When Biggie tells a smaller dude he has next [game] when he really doesn’t, and the little fellow agrees, Biggie is the boguarder; the shrimp, in effect, the boguardee …’ If you can’t take it,’ says Biggie, ‘You get off the court.’
I also quoted Thompson in that story.
“It’s always important to get a boguarder on your team,” he said. “There’s no referee on the playground, and there’s always some kind of dispute about the score, about who’s got the down. The boguarder is generally the guy who wins the argument. If you don’t have a big guy with a reputation, you’ll lose.”
In many respects, Thompson was the ultimate boguarder as Georgetown’s basketball coach. He did it his way, and if you don’t like it, take a hike.
If you wanted to make fun of his early-season schedule against puff-ball opposition, go right ahead.
If he closed his locker room to the media after games, too bad.
If he wanted his team to stay in a hotel and hold a closed practice 60 miles from a Final Four site, that’s your problem, not his.
If you want to call that “Hoya Paranoia,” feel free. It wasn’t going to change.
And if he decided to walk off the court at the start of a game to stage his own personal protest of a new NCAA rule he felt racially discriminated against minority athletes, just deal with it.
It was his way, or the highway, and who could argue with the results—a 596-239 record, a 98 percent graduation rate for players who stayed in the program for four years, and the development of Hall of Fame players like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson.
Thompson was always a big guy with a well-deserved reputation. A boguarder through and through to the very end.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.