Tommy Amaker, for one. He was a teenage freshman point guard at Duke, out of northern Virginia and thus well-acquainted with the Hoyas on the 1984 spring night when Thompson, moments after vanquishing Houston in the N.C.A.A. final, was asked on national television how it felt to be the first Black coach to win it all.
“He made a statement that night I never forgot,” Amaker, now coaching at Harvard after stops at Seton Hall and Michigan, said in a telephone interview. “He said something like, ‘I take offense to that question because I may be the first to do it but I’m not the only one who has the ability or is willing to do the hard work. It’s about having the opportunity.’ ”
Amaker, whose 1998-99 Seton Hall team defeated Georgetown in Thompson’s final game, said, “For me, what he said after that game had great impact.”
Thompson wasn’t the ogre he too often was made out to be, even if he effectively played one on TV. That night we spoke, he was sitting courtside, near the Georgetown bench. “What do you want,” he barked. Then he pointed to the empty seat next to him and said, “If I wasn’t mean, you wouldn’t know it was me, would you?”
Who was John Thompson? Once upon a time, another kid who grew up poor in the nation’s capital and who made it out — via Providence College and the Boston Celtics — with the bounce of a ball. That, in effect, became his mission at Georgetown, unapologetically recruiting African-American talent, insisting he was no different than the hockey coach at Providence who exclusively mined Canada for players because that’s where the hungriest players were found.
In a 1980 Sports Illustrated article filled with allegations and insights about the double standards that existed for white and Black strivers in the college game and especially in the news media vernacular, he admitted, “I’m not a guru, I’m not an altruist, and I’m certainly no saint. What I am is a basketball coach.”
No evaluation would objectively doubt that he occasionally stretched the ethical boundaries, academic and otherwise, like the rest of the big-time sideline foot-stompers. Not every cause he championed — his boycott of a 1989 game in protest of a standardized testing rule he believed was racially biased, for one — was universally applauded.