2020 NBA Playoffs

Disney World Diary: Remembering John Thompson

Former Georgetown coach's legacy goes beyond Hall of Famers he guided

ORLANDO, Fla. — John Thompson’s time in the NBA was short, only two seasons as a backup center with the Boston Celtics, although his timing was great. The Celtics won championships both times and he got to know Bill Russell.

Of course, that’s not the NBA connection that made Thompson famous and beloved and why he’s receiving a moment of silence at these NBA playoffs. He took risks on Black teenagers, brought them to Georgetown, coached them on basketball and schooled them on life. Most became nine-to-fivers … others became Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutumbo. I have a longer link to two of those players and a smaller one to Thompson.

I was around Ewing for years when he played for the Knicks in the 1990s and I wrote for Newsday. Ewing then could be quirky and sometimes distant, distrustful traits he brought from Georgetown, certainly endorsed by Thompson. However, Ewing always carried himself like a professional, which also was endorsed by Thompson. My relationship with Ewing improved after he retired.

My time with Mutombo has been much more meaningful. Our daughters were high school teammates in Atlanta. He’s been to my house, I’ve been to his home (his is bigger). And Mutumbo is everything you heard about him: Loyal, friendly, humble, compassionate, a fighter for Africa and human rights. Everyone loves Dikembe. Few humans on Earth are more genuine, or taller, or have a more distinctive voice. And I suspect his high character was also partly due to Thompson, who had heavy influence on an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Thompson was complicated. He could be profane, stubborn and standoffish. He was also a father-figure, a beacon of hope and defended whatever cause he felt was righteous. He was a strong presence in college basketball and Black communities everywhere. “Big John” was truly larger than life.

I discovered and experienced some of the above on a single day when he made me a better reporter.

At the height of Hoyamania, I was a student at Howard University just on the other side of Washington, D.C., from Georgetown, and also sports editor of our campus newspaper. My calls to “Big John” for an interview went unreturned for days. I was young then and didn’t know this was pretty standard in the business, especially involving high-profile people. But I was angry.

So the next time I called his secretary, I pretended to be Larry Spriggs, a player at Howard (and reserve on the Lakers during the “Showtime” era) whose brother, Ed, played for John. Hey, I wanted a story — you had to admire my grind. This persistence would pay off much later.

Big John picked up immediately: “Larry, what’s up? How’s it going?”

Uh, well, um, coach, this isn’t Larry. This is Shaun Powell with The Hilltop newspaper and I want to ask you a few questions.”

The next 20 seconds almost destroyed my eardrums. “Big John” cussed like 10 sailors. You could combine all the tough interviews I’d get much later in my career and none had as many MFs than I heard from him.

Then, silence.

Then, a grumble: “Well, are you gonna ask me a [expletive] question, young man?”

RIP, “Big John.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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