John Thompson Jr. represented so much to so many people—basketball excellence, Georgetown University, his players and his program, uncompromising Blackness. But he also represented D.C. He was the face and heart and soul of the District, more so than anybody in our lifetime, maybe more so than any sports figure ever. Or any figure, period.
That’s saying a lot, considering we lost a sports figure as comparable and as uncompromising as Thompson just three months earlier, Wes Unseld. If you grew up in the area in the 1970s and grew into adulthood in the ‘80s, you also had the likes of Darrell Green and Art Monk representing the major pro sports, and the steady stream of basketball legends either born and raised or coming of age here. Which, of course, includes two decades of Georgetown players—Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson, just to name a few—who reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Thompson steered them into adulthood here, in basketball and in life. He imbued them with his character and principles, and he developed and nurtured those growing up in D.C. He was Archbishop Carroll and St. Anthony’s and Georgetown. He was the elite recruits, which he recruited from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Baltimore, the Bronx, and the Congo. But he also laid the foundation with local talents like Craig “Big Sky” Shelton and John “Bay-Bay” Duren from Dunbar High School, and added to it with Anthony Jones, Bill Martin, Michael Graham, and Gene Smith.
He started here, stayed here, built here, and never considered any other pastures to be greener than these. He did not need a bigger stage—he made this the stage everybody else wanted to be on. The Georgetown program is his and always will be. He managed to get one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions to grow even deeper root in its city than it ever had before.
So, representing D.C. to the fullest was part of his mission. And for many, representing Georgetown outside of the area was an easy, logical, pride-filled way to represent D.C.
This is not something I became conscious of until the week Thompson died. This has been a year of painful loss, of people who genuinely fit the description of “role model,” including the aforementioned Unseld. Losing Unseld in June made thoughts of mortality—particularly of all the heroes of youth—too real and vivid. And it made me realize something else: Growing up, I couldn’t recall owning very much apparel from the teams and players that shaped me.
I wore the occasional cap or T-shirt for the football team that went by a different name back then, but never the jerseys or jackets of my favorite players, who played in and won Super Bowls. The same for the then-Bullets, who won an NBA championship the year I started at, yes, Archbishop Carroll.
The Caps were my one and only hockey team, but I rarely wore their gear (until, well, two years ago). Not even Maryland, my first college basketball love and, eventually, my alma mater. Once upon a time it was because I couldn’t afford it, but even after I could, I still never laid out for the serious gear.
The first piece of top-notch apparel that I made a really significant commitment to, that I wore for support but more as a statement, was a Georgetown starter jacket. The blue one with gray lettering, of course. The same kind as the one that is displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Because to me, no matter where I was, the most obvious way to announce, declare, and defend my hometown was to wear the jacket of the program that John Thompson built—which also, of course, was the one much of America loved to hate, for the kind of well-documented reasons that made it even more imperative to stand up for them.
Thus, from job to job post-graduation, from St. Petersburg, Florida, to New York City, to Stamford, Connecticut, to Oakland, California, until I literally grew out of it, I wore Georgetown’s colors. I didn’t shun Maryland’s colors (especially not in 2001 and ’02). But in defiance of the unofficial rules of fandom, I kept Georgetown as my co-favorite team, and made sure anybody who felt they had to debate it knew exactly where I stood, and why.
I stood for my hometown, for D.C., for Carroll, for Georgetown, and for John Thompson, who planted his feet, stood for all of them, and dared you to make him budge.