In college sports, every program has at least a few legendary figures. At Duke, for example, Coach K has become the program’s figurehead; just down Tobacco Road, no UNC fan will ever forget the likes of Michael Jordan and Dean Smith. While Georgetown has seen plenty of big names suit up for the Hoyas, few men loom larger than coach John Thompson.
According to reports out of Washington, D.C., the legendary college basketball coach died on Monday, August 31 at age 78. If not for a humble radio producer, however, John Thompson could have met a tragic end in September 2001.
John Thompson’s legendary basketball career
During his time on the hardwood, John Thompson played college ball at Providence and spent two seasons with the Boston Celtics. His biggest impact, however, came as an NCAA coach.
After leaving the professional game behind, Thompson became the head coach at St. Anthony’s High School in Washington, D.C. His team’s dominance impressed the Georgetown athletic department who, in 1972, brought him in to take over a floundering men’s basketball program.
That proved to be an inspired decision. As spelled out in his Georgetown Hall of Fame profile, the coach spent 27 years at the school, turning the Hoyas into a legitimate power with stars like Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, and Alonzo Mourning on the roster.
“Whether the yardstick used to measure that success is overall wins (596- 239), postseason appearances (24 consecutive), graduation rate (97%- 76 of 78 students who stayed four years) or players drafted by the NBA (26, 8 in the first round), Coach Emeritus John Thompson built a winner,” the write-up explained. Taking home an NCAA title and plenty of Coach of the Year honors didn’t hurt his legacy, either.
A life-saving change of plans on September 11, 2001
John Thompson’s story could have had a much different ending, though. If not for a twist of fate and a New York City radio producer, the legendary coach could have died on September 11, 2001.
As Eamonn Brennan explained in a 2011 ESPN story, the coach was scheduled to do an in-studio interview with Jim Rome. Thompson’s travel plans, however, proved to be a bit complicated than simply flying into town and heading back home
“Thompson wanted to be able to do the interview and still make a friend’s birthday party in Las Vegas on September 13, so he booked a ticket on American Airlines Flight 77 departing on September 11,” Brennan explained. “That didn’t work for the show, whose producer, Danny Schwartz, asked Thompson to instead push his flight back to September 12. Thompson didn’t like the change, and he told Schwartz as much. Schwartz persisted. Thompson relented.”
Flight 77 never made it to its destination and crashed into the Pentagon. Thompson literally felt the plane’s impact in his home that morning.
John Thompson died on August 31, 2020
Whether you want to thank Jim Rome’s producer, fate, or anything in between, John Thompson didn’t board Flight 77 on September 11, 2001. The coaching legend lived for 19 more years before passing away on August 31, 2020.
According to an initial report from ABC 7 WJLA, Thompson’s cause of death is not yet known; he was 78-years old.
On social media, tributes immediately began pouring in. J.A. Adande shared how a Georgetown Starter jacket “is part of the National Museum of African American History,” thanks, in large part, to Thompson and Patrick Ewing. Others hailed his impressive list of career accomplishments, including becoming the first African-American head coach to win an NCAA title.
Ultimately, everyone, including coaching legends, will die. By changing his flight in September 2001, though, John Thompson gave us almost two additional decades to appreciate his greatness.