His “watchdog moment” came in 1989, when star center Alonzo Mourning fell under the influence of a notorious drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond III. The coach invited Edmond to his office and reamed him out, warning the drug dealer to keep away from his team, or else. Edmond never associated with a Georgetown player again.
Beyond basic safety, Thompson guarded his players’ education.
Dikembe Mutombo, who became an NBA center, missed class only once at Georgetown. That’s because after skipping a class, he found a one-way ticket back to his native Zaire in his locker. When Thompson said he was sending the young man home, the incredulous player explained that he’d had a tooth pulled.
It didn’t matter. Thompson told Mutombo to schedule time outside of class for medical matters. The player never missed a class again in four years.
“Big John’s teaching was very powerful,” he says. “He always emphasized education and life. Sometimes we would be at the gym for four or five hours. But three of those were him asking questions about life, questions about school, the direction he wanted us to go when we left the university, how we should interact in business relationships.”
Mutombo is one of 27 Thompson players picked in the NBA draft. He’s among 76 Thompson charges who earned degrees in four years.
Says Ronny Thompson, one of Big John’s sons: “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Your dad stood up for this.’ It wasn’t until I got older that I understood how he used basketball as a tool for something bigger.”
Bottom line: Everybody jawbones about “making a difference.” Thompson made a difference not only in basketball but in the lives of his players.
—Adapted from “Big John Is Still Big John,” Mike Wise, The Washington Post.