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Legendary Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson Jr. Dies At 78

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The sports world is mourning the death of a legendary college basketball coach. John Thompson has died at the age of 78. Thompson became the first African American head coach to win a Division I NCAA title when he led the Georgetown Hoyas to the 1984 championship. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Thompson's legacy goes way beyond his many on-court victories.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Every remembrance today of John Thompson, including this one, mentions the 1984 honor that would make him bristle - first Black head coach to win a major college basketball title.

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JOHN THOMPSON: I'm not interested in being the first or only Black doing anything because it implies that in 1984, a Black man finally became intelligent enough to win the NCA (ph) title, and that's a very misleading thing.

GOLDMAN: It's fitting to remember him now when basketball players are rallying behind the phrase Black Lives Matter and refusing to take part in games as a protest against racial injustice. Thompson did all that decades ago. In 1989, he left the court before a game to protest an NCAA rule that he thought unfairly targeted minority students, which actually was something he spent his coaching career doing in a positive way. Thompson targeted young Black men for college, many of them disadvantaged. Star guard Allen Iverson ended up in the Hall of Fame but might not have if Thompson hadn't brought him to Georgetown after Iverson was involved in a brawl during high school.

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ALLEN IVERSON: No other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged him to give me a chance, and he did.

(APPLAUSE)

GOLDMAN: For Thompson, though, those chances were merely a start. He wanted his players to parlay hoops into something more. His greatest player and current Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing described to HBO the deflated ball Thompson kept in his office.

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PATRICK EWING: We still keep it in the office. And one of the things he always told us - at some point, the ball is going to stop bouncing. So you know, you've got to have a backup plan.

GOLDMAN: Most did. A reported 76 of Thompson's 78 players who stayed at Georgetown four years got their degrees. At 6' 10", Thompson was an imposing figure, stalking the sidelines with a trademark white towel over his shoulder. He was tough and fatherly with his players. His closed practices and limited media access were part of a phenomenon that became known as Hoya paranoia. But in his 27 years at Georgetown, Thompson mostly was known for success - 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances, three Final Fours and countless young men whose lives he guided and even, in some cases, saved.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "TRISTESSE GLOBALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.