More than three decades before the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in protest of an issue rooted in race, John Thompson refused to coach in protest of an issue rooted in race.
It was January 1989.
The NCAA had just voted to implement a rule that would deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who fail to qualify for athletic eligibility under the academic standards of Proposition 48, and estimates showed roughly 90% of the 600 students that would be negatively impacted annually were black. For obvious reasons, this infuriated Thompson, the legendary Georgetown men's basketball coach who was a giant figure in the African-American community, both inside and outside of sports. So right after his players were introduced, and just minutes before tipoff against Boston College, Thompson tossed his famous white towel to an assistant, walked across the court and eventually exited the Capital Centre in a large sedan.
He drove around for a while, he later said.
He listened to the game on radio.
Then he turned it off.
At one point, Thompson saw a group of men lingering outside of a convenience store in a way that suggested they were up to no good. He then referenced those men while explaining that his protest was designed to bring attention to a rule so clearly slanted against people who look like him.
"If these kids today don't get that opportunity [to get an education], who are they going to look to -- those people lingering at [the store]?" Thompson asked, according to the Washington Post. "I had to reassure myself I was doing the right thing. ... I'm sure now I'm right."
Of course Big John was right.
Right and way ahead of his time.
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Which is why Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, and from a prisoner turned Hall of Famer like NBA icon Allen Iverson. Thompson meant so much to so many people as a larger-than-life figure who became, in 1984, the first African-American college coach to ever lead a team to a NCAA Tournament championship. While winning games at a historically great level, he stood up to the NCAA and to drug dealers -- and stood against racial inequality long before it became popular. To lose him in these times, with protests in the streets, and while the NBA Playoffs are happening with the words "Black Lives Matter" on the court, seems unfair. Big John's voice is needed now. He was, in his own way, a real-life superhero., at the age of 78, rocked the sports world early Monday and led to one touching tribute after another -- notably from a rival turned friend like
I use that term because it's been a rough few days.
On Friday, Chadwick Boseman, the acclaimed actor,after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was, by all accounts, an incredible man who left an indelible impact -- mostly because he played the first black superhero to get his own standalone film in the Marvel franchise. As the star of Black Panther, Boseman provided tangible proof, for millions of black children, that someone who looks like them can become a superhero the same way Barack Obama provided tangible proof that someone who looks like them can become President of the United States.
And Big John did something similar.
Before he led Georgetown to the top of the sport, there was nobody for aspiring black coaches to point at as a man of color who could flourish in the profession and win the season's final game. He sparked dreams and created opportunities for black coaches -- first for Nolan Richardson and John Chaney, then for Leonard Hamilton and Shaka Smart and Anthony Grant. The list of black coaches who got jobs because of Thompson, who are wealthy because of Thompson, still isn't long enough -- but it is long. And it's long because of him. Against all odds, he became the face of one of our country's most prominent universities.
Now he's gone.
And it should be noted that 31 years after Big John refused to coach a game to protest a rule that would disproportionately hurt black student-athletes because it was tied to scores on standardized tests that are widely believed to be racially biased, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, earlier this year, finally formally proposed the elimination of standardized tests for initial eligibility for the same reasons, more or less, that Thompson cited three decades ago.
That's how far Big John was ahead of his time.
He was a real-life black superhero.
He won games and saved lives, spoke to power and created change. He never got a chance to see the United States become exactly what it needs to become. But if we ever get there, make no mistake, Big John Thompson will have played an important role in the process of progress.