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An Appreciation

Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. didn’t want to be boxed in

Working with Thompson on his autobiography, I met a complex man who was much more than a basketball coach

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I can feel his gaze on me now. Penetrating, challenging, slightly amused, contemplating developments I have not yet seen. The look of a teacher.

You think you can define me, huh?

No way, Coach. You did that in the autobiography that we just finished writing. But I’d like to share something we talked about, so people can understand why you did some of the things you did. I’d like to tell people about Sametta Wallace Jackson.

Over the last two years, I spent countless hours talking with Thompson, who died Sunday night at 78. Most of the time, we met on the campus of Georgetown, which he lifted into national prominence not only as a basketball team, but as a university. Coach told me up front that he didn’t want to write a book about basketball, that he had more important things to discuss than how he designed the Hoyas’ devastating full-court press. He wanted to talk about people like Jackson.

If I had been able to ask Coach whether Jackson aptly summarized his life, he would have paused silently to consider the effects of my request. Not on himself, but on all the lives he influenced during his decades of proud, misunderstood, contradictory, defiant, against-all-odds Black achievement. Because beneath the towering public image of the first Black coach to win a national championship was a man who cared deeply about —

There you go already. I told you that I always wanted to be a teacher, not a basketball coach. But go ahead, and I’ll let you know what I think once I see it.

Sametta Wallace Jackson taught sixth grade at Harrison Elementary School in Washington. In the fall of 1952, she had a new student named John, a respectful 10-year-old who was already in the vicinity of 6 feet tall. John had been kicked out of a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, because the nuns there said he was “retarded.” After a week or two at Harrison Elementary, Jackson saved John’s life with a simple observation:

“You’re not stupid,” the teacher said. “You just can’t read.”

John Thompson (left) with Allen Iverson (right) during a Georgetown game in 1995.

Georgetown University/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Jackson helped John’s mother find him a reading specialist, and John gradually found his footing in the classroom. But at the end of the sixth grade, when the students were preparing to graduate and leave for middle school, she informed Mrs. Thompson that John would repeat the sixth grade. The boy was mortified. He was already the biggest kid in school. Staying back a grade would be humiliating, but Jackson protected him. If she knew final exam grades were coming in, she sent John to gather supplies from around the building. When the other students were rehearsing for graduation, she sent him to the store. Call these excuses lies if you want. For John, they were a kindness verging on salvation.

Jackson was the Black teacher who looked through the surface of a supposedly dumb boy and saw the man he could become. She was the Black woman who showed Thompson that teachers must protect their kids. Thompson carried these lessons with him the rest of his life.

How am I doing, Coach?

I don’t know. You’re not wrong. But a lot of other people helped me, too.

Thompson gave the most credit for what he became to his parents: Anna Thompson, a college-educated teacher who had to clean white people’s houses for a living, and John Robert Thompson Sr., a laborer who could not read or write. He liked to say his father’s name is on Georgetown’s $63 million athletic center, not his. He also was hugely influenced by youth counselors such as Jabbo Kenner at his beloved Boys Club No. 2; the supervisor of his master’s degree program, Anita Hughes; and coaches such as Dave Gavitt, Red Auerbach and Dean Smith.

But Jackson is the foundation of why Thompson was decades ahead of his time in refusing to judge intelligence by SAT scores. She planted a seed in him that eventually led him to boycott two games over the NCAA’s Proposition 42, which would have unfairly penalized Black athletes with low test scores. Jackson is why Thompson kept reporters out of practice, and put players in knee braces rather than say they were suspended for bad grades. She is why he rope-a-doped a national media that largely demonized him and his team as stupid thugs. She is why, during hours and hours of conversations about Allen Iverson for his autobiography, Thompson never said a word about Iverson’s troubles off the court.

I quickly noticed in my conversations with Thompson that he was always concerned with the impact his statements would have on other people. I often had to coax him to name names, and most of the time it didn’t work, even when those in question were dead. He didn’t want to hurt their feelings, their families, their universities.

You’re trying to make me out to be St. John or something. I made a lot of mistakes. Some kids who played for me hope they never see me again, and I feel the same way about some of them, too.

Thompson always doubled back like that. He refused to be confined to what the world said about him, even when it was praise. During our conversations, I came to expect what might seem like contradictions, but actually was the ability to see and feel multitudes at the same time: A man who loved the word “m—–f—er,” but seldom used it in his book. Who was offended by being seen as just a basketball coach, yet burned when his coaching ability was overlooked. Who was supposedly a racist but probably had more close white friends than Black ones. Who was often compared to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X —

There you go again with King and X. I’m tremendously flattered by those comparisons, because they were far greater men than I. But I prefer not to be defined by who they were. I want to be me.

Even by the outline of those great lives, John Thompson would not be confined. But as we sat across from each other in the building bearing his father’s name, he often spoke about his debt to Sametta Wallace Jackson, and spending his life emulating her lessons about dignity and self-worth. He spoke about being a teacher.

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.