An Ode to Coach John Thompson, a Black Educator

The late, great John Thompson contributed more than college basketball wins. Much more.

Black educators are incredibly important to the success of Black students.

Black students who have had at least one Black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and are less likely to drop out of school. Black students are also less likely to receive exclusionary discipline at the hands of a Black teacher.

However, the impact of Black educators cannot be limited to statistics such as test scores and graduation rates. Our impact is measured by our passion for and commitment to both the craft of teaching and Black lives.

John Thompson Jr. embodied that. It was why he chose a career in working with young people over continuing his career in the NBA.

Black educators enter the education profession to have a profound impact on the lives of Black children. It’s why I am an educator. For us, Black lives more than matter; Black lives are earthen vessels containing hidden treasures we seek to extract each day in classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls.

For John Thompson, he extracted such treasures both on and off the basketball court.

Black educators save lives daily; not because of any negligence on the part of Black children and their families but rather due to the intentional evil of white supremacy and the social institutions thereof. For example, it is not the fault of Black students that they are suspended and arrested disproportionately; although the Trump Administration says otherwise.

Some of the blame lay at the feet of white teachers who are culturally incompetent whereas they misdiagnose displays of cultural norms in Blacks student behavior as disrespectful. The rest lies at the feet of district officials who are collectively responsible for the lack of Black teachers nationwide. Black educators are often the barrier between Black students and the school to prison pipeline.

John Thompson was a barrier also while winning many games in the process. He served as a barrier for one of my favorite players, Allen Iverson. 

Iverson was sentenced for his “role” in a 1993 bowling alley fight. Iverson and his co-defendants were charged and sentenced due to a statute where simply being present at the fight was enough to prosecute.

It was believed by many that Iverson was nothing more than another entitled athlete who wasn’t deserving of a second chance. The ESPN 30 for 30 No Crossover details much of these circumstances. But it was the interpretation of the law, a law that was enacted to protect Black people from lynching, and the heavy hand of its implementation that relegated the life of another young Black student as a life not worth saving. 

The prosecution, however, cited Iverson’s three suspensions in school as part of the record to show that he was worthy of prison and not a second chance. Yet, the attorney for the commonwealth denied any accusations of racism.

It underscores the ability of white people to look past their privilege and racist policies to justify the disproportionality of punishments for Black people and larger, perpetuate the white supremacist social order.

Unfortunately for Black youth who run afoul of policies and statutes, many of these very white people Colleen K. Killilea, the prosecutor in Iverson’s case, is currently a district judge for the 9th Judicial District in Virginia. Nelson T. Overton, the judge who sentenced Iverson, served in that capacity for over 30 years.  

Although, an appeals court overturned the conviction due to insufficient evidence, it was then Governor Douglas Wilder who intervened to release Iverson and it was John Thompson Jr. who stepped in to give Iverson his second chance.

Like many educators, Thompson responded to a plea by a mother on behalf of her son. I remember when I was approached by a mother looking for me, the only Black teacher in the school, to take an interest in her Black son to help guide him to a successful path. I cannot help but believe that Ann Iverson sought the same thing when she reached out to John Thompson; one of the only Black head coaches in big time college basketball.

Thompson acknowledged that Iverson’s basketball talents were a consideration in offering him a scholarship to Georgetown to play. However, Thompson used his position, at a university who profited on the sale of its enslaved, to help Iverson overcome what many Black men from neighborhoods like Iverson’s could not: systemic racism.

Thompson said, “I am not at all interested in judging what has happened or what he has done… I’m more interested in judging what he’s committed to. … The proof is what you do in the long-run.” Thompson understood that as an educator, you cannot judge a finishing work until it is finished.

Many Black youth are often judged before the work of their youth is completed. But “Big John” understood the necessity of institutions to assist individuals in completing that work. While he expected Iverson to make the most of the opportunity, Thompson also mentioned the importance of the university being “true to its educational mission by considering [Iverson] in spite of his troubles.”

In remembering the passing of John Thompson, as much we are reminded of the impact Black educators have on Black students, we are reminded of the impact had on Black students in their absence.

Numerous Instagram accounts exist detailing the racism experienced by Blacks students in traditional public, charter and private schools from white educators. Numerous examples were exposed among the college coaching ranks of racism; from coaches saying the N-word to Black players to a coach who said Black Lives Matter was a farce.

Black educators in these spaces are vital to the success of Black students and athletes; as well as to the ability of educational institutions to educate Black youth in ways that do not strip them of their humanity. John Thompson Jr., was that educator; the teacher and coach who introduced the world of college sports and higher education to the hidden treasures within his players that he knew existed all along.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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  • Thanks for this Brother Miller and may the Legendary King Coach Thompson rest in beautiful bliss, I too am an Allen Iverson fan and like he said, Coach saved his life and gave one of the greatest players in NBA history one chance. He also coached another one of my favorites in Alonzo Mourning nevertheless Coach was a Great Black Educator and he will be missed.

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