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Thirty-five years ago, if Billy Packer had shared the story he told me Tuesday night about Big John Thompson, then CBS might have moved him off college basketball and told him to seek counseling.
“I told John it was time to get out of basketball,’’ Packer said from his home in Charlotte, “and go into politics. `You have the potential to be President of the United States.’ ’’
Big John Thompson and Hoya Paranoia come to the White House. In the 1980s, Thompson was the scariest man in sports, a powerful, brilliant, highly successful, 6-foot-10 inch black basketball coach at Georgetown in an era when few universities had the courage to even hire a black head coach. No one had heard of Barack Obama and Trump was the owner of a USFL team, trying to get NFL owners to accept him into their little club.
Thompson’s death was a reminder of when college basketball was king and Thompson and Georgetown were a force in American society, much less sports.
In a time with Donald Trump as president and even Kanye running, too, Thompson’s outspokenness might not have shocked people as much as it did back then. Thompson once called a drug kingpin into his office to warn him to stay away from his players. And he once walked off the court before a game to protest a rule he said was hurting minority athletes.
I called Packer, the longtime college basketball analyst and conscience, to pick his brain about the life, times and meaning of Thompson.
“John’s persona, in the minds of the general public, was that he was a tough, rough bully-type of person,’’ Packer said. “But he was very thoughtful and very smart in how he approached things. Because of his success and his ability to articulate his position, and being the coach at Georgetown . . . Being the guy who was very educated and well-spoken gave him a special platform.’’
Packer, who got to know all the power players in college sports back then and became a power-player himself, said that Thompson was one of the five most important people he’d had the chance to meet.
In 1984, Thompson became the first African-American head basketball coach to go to the Final Four and win the national championship. Afterward, Packer recalled, Thompson said, “I’m the first, but men more qualified didn’t have the opportunity.’’
“There were great black coaches before him,’’ Packer said. “But he gave athletic directors the courage to say `If John Thompson can do it at Georgetown, why can’t Nolan Richardson do it at Arkansas?
“Athletic directors needed a leader who had proven he could do it. So John did that. It really took a lot of pressure off athletic directors.’’
College basketball could use another John Thompson now, as the numbers of black head coaches at major teams seems to be dwindling.
Packer said that Thompson’s image was that “everybody thought he was out on his own island. That damn island. But he had a lot of people that helped him build that island.’’
Thompson, he said, was not only close to basketball’s great leaders, but was also always studying them. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Dean Smith.
Packer said he learned so much about Thompson just from going to his practices. You had to get permission to go to one of Thompson’s practices, and Packer told of the time he arrived once and brought his son. Thompson was across the court, saw Packer and yelled out, “Who’s that?’’
Packer said it was his son.
“Even MY son doesn’t come to practice,’’ Thompson said, “without an invitation.’’
“His practices were no bullshit,’’ Packer said. “But I remember once when he had Dikembe Mutombo. He went to get a ball and started to dribble it with his feet, like soccer. He flipped it over to John and started laughing. I thought, `Oh no. He’s done at Georgetown.’
“But then they both just started laughing. He had this relationship with the players that was not for the general public to see.’’
Packer is retired from his analyst job, but stays busy. He brags about his 10-year old granddaughter as maybe one of the best young athletes in America, in all sports. And he also is a brilliant business mind. He has plenty to say on all topics.
But what did Thompson say back to him way back when? What did Thompson think about the idea of the White House?
“It’s really kind of funny,’’ Packer said. “John was not a man of a lot of words. Some people keep a hands-off position until they’re ready to accept you into their life.
“When I said that, he didn’t respond that he’d been thinking about it. But he didn’t tell me it was out of the question, either. I didn’t take that to mean he thought it was a stupid idea.’’