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John Thompson remembered for a larger-than-life influence as a coach and a man

Allen Iverson, who played for Thompson from 1994 to 1996, expressed his thanks in a tweet Monday, adding a tribute to Thompson’s favorite, frequently employed profanity, “I’m going to miss you, but I’m sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile. I would give anything just for one more phone call from you only to hear you say, ‘Hey [expletive],’ then we would talk about everything except basketball.”

One of the moments that best summarized the outsized role Thompson occupied came when Iverson was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and he paid tribute to his former coach. “I want to thank Coach Thompson,” Iverson said, as he fought back tears, “for saving my life.”

Michael Jordan said he “admired” and “loved him dearly” in a statement. “Coach Thompson was truly a great man and a legend in college basketball. He had such a profound impact on his players and was a father figure to so many of them. I admired him and loved him dearly. My deepest condolences to his family and the Georgetown community.”

Syracuse was one of the fiercest rivals Thompson and Georgetown faced over the years, but Coach Jim Boeheim, who continues to coach the team, praised Thompson for setting the standard for all coaches. Still, they went at it with everything they had during the glory days of the Big East Conference. “Vicious, unbelievable rivalry for about 14, 15 years. Then it turned,” Boeheim told The Post. “We realized we’re not bad guys.”

Jay Bilas, the former Duke player turned CBS and ESPN analyst, called Thompson “one of the game’s greatest coaches. His teams were smart, disciplined and ferocious on defense. Thompson was thoughtful and forceful on social issues, and always took the principled stand. A true giant, on the floor and off.

To Kentucky Coach John Calipari, Thompson was “a life changer for so many. He was a great coach who built some of the best college teams of all time. His players were a who’s who of college basketball. Truly an icon in his time.

“When Coach Thompson walked into a gym, people cheered and coaches squirmed because they knew what type of challenge they were up against. I’ll never forget when Coach Thompson protested an NCAA rule that he felt discriminated against Black players by refusing to coach a game until it was changed. He was ahead of his time by speaking truth to power when it was hard to do. Coach Thompson was the best of the best.”

Jalen Rose, whose Michigan teams faced Thompson’s Hoyas in the 1990s, recalled the pride with which Thompson carried himself, calling him “a powerful, unapologetic black man” on ESPN.

It is impossible to separate Thompson from the times in which he coached and from the times in which we live now. In 1989, he walked off the floor before a game against Boston College to protest the NCAA’s Proposition 42, a rule to prohibit scholarship athletes from playing their freshman years if they failed to qualify academically.

“It was the first time I’d noticed a coach taking the lead to fight against injustice,” George Mason Coach Dave Paulsen said in a statement. “It’s fitting that this past week NBA players — many years later — followed his lead in walking off the court. Coach Thompson’s ability to coach at the highest level while pursuing social change was an inspiration to coaches at all levels of the game.”

“He was a giant,” Mike Tranghese, former Big East Conference commissioner, told Yahoo. “What he did coaching speaks for itself. As we’ve sat here and watched what’s going on with the NBA and social justice, John did it 30 years ago. But he did it by himself.”

Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton noted that Thompson “set the table” for Black coaches. “He opened up the eyes of America to show people that not only can we play, but we can also lead from an administrative, coaching standpoint. And we also can achieve success in academics, as well. I thought he set the table for all young African American coaches to emulate.”

Fran Fraschilla, the former coach who now is an ESPN analyst, wasn’t the only one to say that Thompson “was ahead of his time.” Thompson, along with “John Chaney & Nolan Richardson in the ’80s were fighting the fight long before the [NBA’s coronavirus] ‘bubble,’” Fraschilla tweeted. “(And, don’t believe what you heard. He was a big teddy bear of a man.) RIP, Large Father.”

Duane Simpkins, who played at DeMatha and Maryland and is now an associate head coach at Mason, called Thompson “a unicorn and the most visible and successful Black head coach in college basketball. As a Black kid from the D.C. area, he inspired me. His presence and standing within the community made him so much more than a coach,” he said in a statement. “He refused to back down from his beliefs or what he stood for. To take his stance on Proposition 48 and then follow it up and walk out before a game — that had never been done before, especially by a man of color. He was steadfast and committed to his charge, regardless of how others would perceive it. He was the standard-bearer in college basketball on how to be a force for change.”

For aspiring coaches, he was a resource. Former NBA coach David Fizdale told The Post, “Everyone wanted to play for him. Coaches wanted to coach like him. He always had time for a young coach and that meant a lot to me. He was a great coach who showed young black coaches that it was possible and he always kept it real with you.”

Gary Williams, Maryland’s former men’s basketball coach, praised Thompson as someone who “made people’s lives better.” In a statement, he said Thompson “was a fighter for his university, his players and for people. He always wanted to show that his players could compete at the highest level and also live successful lives after college. His impact was incredible in allowing black coaches to get jobs they weren’t able to get before and opening doors for others. It was the same for officials — there weren’t many black officials who officiated big-time games and he made a point in meetings that there was a need for that. Here in Washington, D.C. John was a legend. His background with the local boys clubs was extremely special. They worshiped him. John did so many things that made people’s lives better. He had a great platform and he used it while he was at Georgetown.”

Mark Turgeon, the Terps’ men’s coach now, echoed that. “I have a ton of respect for the impact John Thompson had on Georgetown basketball and the entire Washington, D.C. community,” he said in a statement. “John was instrumental in paving the way for other black coaches to receive coaching opportunities they may not have had before, and was an inspiration for many. On a personal level, I will always be thankful for his help and advice when I first moved to the area.”

Thompson’s influence extended to Maryland football coach Mike Locksley, who tweeted that the former Georgetown coach was “my first vision of what I could become. A man that fought for Minority Coaches of all sports as one of the original founders of the BCA [Black Coaches Association]. The first African American head coach to win an NCAA Championship. Always protected his team from the streets. More than a Coach!! Rest in Power Big Coach”

The Terps’ women’s basketball coach, Brenda Freese, tweeted that he was a “trail blazer” who was “genuinely curious.”

The legacy he leaves is one of activism. “In honor of John Thompson, it should motivate us to continue to keep fighting for what we believe is right,” Leonard Hamilton said. “I’m going to be even more motivated now, for how much he meant to me, to continue to keep trying to do the things that emulate the success that he had and the philosophies that he had. But more than anything else, I want to continue to stand up and use our platform for what is right in our society.”

Gene Wang and Kareem Copeland contributed to this report.

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