Beyond a commitment to a nuclear family, the most significant contribution a black person can make toward advancing racial equality is professional success.
Black excellence begets black opportunity.
Big John Thompson, the legendary Georgetown basketball coach who died on Monday, exemplified my assertion. What he accomplished at tiny Georgetown University changed college basketball for a generation.
Thompson’s transformation of Georgetown’s basketball program from Eastern College Athletic Conference also-ran to Big East and national powerhouse ignited a wave of black-coaching empowerment that lasted three decades.
After a brief stint as a high school coach in Washington, D.C., Thompson took over a 3-23 Georgetown squad in 1972. Two years later, Georgetown qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Four years after that, Thompson and the Hoyas joined the brand new Big East Conference and advanced to the NCAA’s Elite Eight.
That 1980 tournament run caught the attention of Patrick Ewing, a high school junior at the time and soon to be the greatest prep prospect since Lew Alcindor. Thompson beat out North Carolina’s Dean Smith for Ewing’s services.
Together, Thompson and Ewing birthed “Hoya Paranoia,” competed in three of the next four NCAA title games, won a championship and made lily-white Georgetown feel like America’s favorite historically black college.
Georgetown’s elevation in profile — Thompson and Ewing appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with President Ronald Reagan — and the school’s basketball-related economic windfall caused college presidents across the country to look for their Big John Thompson.
Arkansas hired Nolan Richardson in 1985. Temple grabbed John Chaney in 1982. Minnesota acquired Clem Haskins in 1986. Richardson led the Razorbacks to the national title in 1994, becoming the second black coach after Thompson to win it all. Chaney’s Owls advanced to the Elite Eight five times. Haskins’ Gophers made it all the way to the Final Four.
Thompson, Richardson, Chaney and Haskins built sustainable programs. Their success in the 1980s and 1990s made college basketball the envy of sports leagues looking for diversity in leadership.
At various points in the 2000s, the ACC, the SEC and the Big East had more black head coaches than white head coaches.
This is the legacy of Big John Thompson. It’s no different from the legacy of Oprah Winfrey. Her talk-show success created opportunities for Wendy Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones, Robin Roberts, Sherri Shepherd, Gayle King and so many more.
John Thompson took a job no one wanted, at a school where no one dreamed you could build a national powerhouse and built a kingdom in his image. When he retired in 1999, he named his former player and top assistant the new head coach. Big John’s youngest son played at Georgetown. His oldest son coached at Georgetown for more than a decade. His greatest player is now the head coach at the school.
Big John casted down his bucket. He’s the Booker T. Washington of basketball.
We now live in an era where young people have been convinced their social media complaints, hashtags, slogans and commitment to avenging the deaths of resisting criminal suspects are the most important acts a black person can contribute toward equality.
It’s a misreading of history. Or should I say a misleading of history?
Martin Luther King protested so following generations could pursue success, so black excellence could produce black opportunities. John Thompson stood on the shoulders of the generation that sacrificed for his right to build an American kingdom.
He achieved his American dream. It wasn’t easy, but America delivered its promise to John Thompson, and Big John shared his blessings with his sons, Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Nolan Richardson, John Chaney, Clem Haskins, Tubby Smith, Randy Ayers and so many more.
Whining and begging for the love and empathy of white people will never liberate and empower black people. Success will and does.
Nobody gave John Thompson his success. He took it with the force of his work ethic, intellect, personality and will to succeed. Big John ran over anything that stood in his path to success.
In the last decade, as the impact of what he accomplished in the 1980s finally dissipated, there have been numerous stories written about the fall of black college basketball coaches.
Read this story, and this story and this story. Just punch “black college basketball coaches” into Google and you’ll find more stories about the decreasing number of black college coaches than you can read.
What happened? Did America become more racist during the Obama presidency? Or maybe it’s Trump’s fault? Yeah, everything is Trump’s fault. That explains it.
I honestly do not know the cause. I do, however, know the solution. We need more John Thompsons, leaders willing to cast down buckets and build kingdoms in their image. We, black people, need to snap out of the victim’s mindset and pushback against a culture that celebrates victims rather than conquerors.
Instead of saying Jacob Blake’s name, instead of placing George Floyd’s moniker on NFL helmets, let’s say John Thompson’s name and honor his legacy on the back of jerseys and helmets. Let’s revere and celebrate the men and women who spent their time on earth pursuing success rather than the men we only know because of tragedy.
If you’re black and want to advance the cause of black people, shut up and be successful. Your plea for white empathy does not create black opportunity.
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