Museum News

Statement on the Passing of  Legendary Basketball Coach John Thompson

September 1, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Tuesday, Sep. 1, on the death of former Georgetown Hoya basketball coach, John Thompson.    

It is with deep sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the passing of renowned basketball coach, John Thompson. Thompson became one of the greatest coaches of college basketball as he instilled resilience, character and competitive confidence into his players. His spirited energy and approach to life and basketball pushed players to be better on and off the court. 

A native Washingtonian, John Thompson Jr. was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. A standout player at Washington, D.C.’s Archbishop Carroll High School, he played in three consecutive City Championship games. By his senior year, Thompson was a top scorer in Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. He went on to excel at Providence College as an all-American player. Later, the Boston Celtics drafted Thompson.

After retiring from the NBA, Thompson decided to make use of his skills and started a successful coaching career. In 1972, his basketball expertise landed him a head coaching position for the Georgetown University Hoyas. From then on, Thompson would become known for the trademark towel draped over his shoulder during every basketball game. Within three seasons, the team made the NCAA tournament under his leadership; Georgetown won 596 games during his tenure. In 1984, Thompson became the first African American head coach to win a major collegiate championship.   

As a coach, Thompson never backed away from a challenge and was outspoken about his beliefs. He took a stance against the racism his players experienced, and he was very vocal about discriminatory practices in collegiate sports. Thompson recruited dozens of inner-city teenagers to play basketball at Georgetown and was a parental figure to players under his tutelage. He created an environment where education was just as critical as playing basketball, insisting that his players work as hard both on and off the court. During his time at Georgetown, 26 players were drafted into the NBA, including NBA Hall of Fame players Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson. His success as a coach made him the recipient of numerous honors, including seven Coach of the Year awards. 

Long after resigning as head coach in 1999, Thompson continued to support academic, athletic and community projects. He later moved to broadcast, becoming a commentator for collegiate and professional games and hosted his own sports talk show, The John Thompson Show, until 2012. 

We will remember Coach Thompson for his ability to motivate others, his loyalty to his team and as ‘Coach Emeritus’ at Georgetown University.


About the National Museum of African American History and Culture   
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000 square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000. 

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Media Contact(s): 

Jermaine House    (202) 633-9495;
Jason Spear          (202) 633-9904;

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.