A non-scientific survey of reactions to the death of John Thompson Jr. shows that this was among the most frequently chosen — if not THE most frequently chosen — of the myriad adjectives used to describe this man. It was also the one that I used first, because that was how I perceive him. It is a concise way to describe someone whose authoritative actions and mere presence elicited respect, awe, and reverence. (Rightfully so.)
Reading the word over & over made me start thinking about how we define fear and what it actually means to be fearless. I consulted a dictionary:
fear. (noun) - an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat
Whether or not Big John felt afraid, or would have thought this entire discussion was an utterly nonsensical waste of time, it strikes me as fair to say that he understood fear. He certainly knew how to cause it, but he also knew how & when to use his position to address its causes. Looking at the definition above, Coach Thompson’s career provides an endless arsenal of stories to show how he protected his players from the factors to which this “unpleasant emotion” can be attributed.
From things that were dangerous.
From people that would hurt them.
From choices that could threaten their livelihood or existence.
It would not do justice to those tales to briefly summarize them here. If you have not yet read about John Thompson Jr. pulling his team off the court at Villanova due to racist taunts, calling notorious drug dealer Rayful Edmond III into his office for a chat, or giving Allen Iverson a scholarship and a chance...you have your history homework for the night. Google it. When that’s done, check out the stories & anecdotes that former players have been sharing on Twitter since this morning.
There are now multiple generations of students, alumni (I’m one of them), and fans who only know the version of Georgetown that exists after people like Big John shifted its course.
In using the word “Georgetown,” I refer to things on a much larger scale than simply our basketball program. He changed the University’s academic base. He changed the brand. He changed the conversation. He changed college hoops. He changed what it means to represent the Georgetown Hoyas. He changed men’s lives.
Far beyond that, he changed the way change happens both in sports and because of sports, blazing a trail of civil rights activism along which today’s athletes continue that work.
Was he fearless? It is not that simple. I do not think a person does the things that Coach Thompson did unless they know what it is like to feel fear of some kind. Fear on his players’ behalf, of the consequences of maintaining the societal status quo that perpetuates inequality, and as a result of his own lived experiences.
For him, this emotion was not a deterrent, but a most powerful motivator. Coach Thompson did not want to be special or unique or have descriptions applied differently because of race; he wanted to drive change so that future greatness could follow and descriptions thereof would be un-qualified.
That is Coach’s legacy. His passing leaves a void, but it is one that his life of action has laid the groundwork for future generations to fill.
John Thompson Jr. was a great man who knew fear but showed none.