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Officially, Georgetown had no policy of segregation, the explanation for the paleness of the place being that the poor quality of the secondary education received by most blacks didn't enable them to meet Georgetown's stiff entrance requirements. The first black basketball player was recruited in 1966, and for the next six years there were always one or two blacks on the Hoya team, but usually they were tokens rather than studs.
In 1971-72 Georgetown basketball descended to the pits. The team had a 3-23 record, the worst in the school's history. There was a shake-up of the athletic department; the coach resigned and a committee was appointed to find a new one. They found John Thompson. There he was, the full-time director of the District of Columbia's 4-H program and part-time basketball coach at St. Anthony's, a small Catholic high school, which he had turned into a major force in Washington schoolboy circles.
"I had a friend on the Georgetown staff who suggested I apply for the job," says Thompson. "He said he thought Georgetown was ready for me. I hadn't given much thought to college coaching and, truthfully, I wasn't sure I was ready for Georgetown, but I let them consider my name. I have a big ego, and I was curious to see what other people thought of me."
Charlie Deacon, now the university's director of admissions, was chairman of the basketball coach selection committee. He confirms Thompson's recollection that the first contact was a casual one. "The committee didn't know much about John," says Deacon, "but even the members who had other candidates were impressed."
That Thompson was something of a stranger to the selectors is an indication of how far out of touch Georgetown was with the Washington basketball scene. Thompson had been a very large figure in it, in all senses of the word, for 15 years. After playground and street ball he had been a high school All-America at John Carroll High, which won 58 straight games in the late 1950s.
George Leftwich, one of his John Carroll teammates, says of Thompson, "There never was a young kid who worked so hard. One summer he decided he had to learn to shoot from at least 15 feet out, which he couldn't do at all. Whenever he'd play he'd tell the guys on his team flat-out that every time he got within 20 feet of the basket he was going to fire. There was always some objection, but John has a knack for getting his way. It isn't just because he's big. It has to do with force of character. Anyway, they did it John's way. His team usually won, and by fall he could hit the 15-footer consistently."
After his John Carroll years, Thompson played at Providence College, where in 1963 he was a star on the Friar team that won the NIT and in 1964 captain of the team when the Friars made it to the NCAAs. He was drafted by the Celtics and for the first time in his life he found himself not only not a star but also not even a starter. The problem was that he had been signed on as a backup for Bill Russell.
"Russell was durable," Red Auerbach, then the Celtics' coach, now their president, fondly recalls. "John didn't get much time and he didn't like it, but it didn't turn him sour and he didn't make waves. He'd work like hell, keep himself ready, and when he got a chance he'd do a job for me. He was a coach's dream, a smart, tough realist. He had good sense about his life, what was important in it."
In 1967 Thompson was drafted from the Celtics by the Chicago Bulls, but he turned down the Bulls' offer as well as several subsequent ones from ABA clubs. "They were talking about some fairly big bucks," he says, "but the honest truth is I didn't like that life-style, living on planes and in hotels, the high life. I was newly married, and I decided there were better things I could do with my life. I had a master's in youth counseling, so the 4-H job and working part-time coaching at St. Anthony's suited me very well. When the Georgetown thing came up, well, all I can say is that I took it as a challenge."
Georgetown hired Thompson in the spring of 1972. The question arises: Did the university, out of desperation, shrewdness or enlightenment, deliberately set out to hire a black coach? "No," says Charlie Deacon. "No orders to that effect came down from the top, and it wasn't a criterion of the committee's. But there were some obvious reasons why it wasn't to John's disadvantage to be black."