So far, this space has been devoted to the transcendant talents that, through their athletic poetry and skills, have blessed the world and made the game exponentially better. Today, we expand that vision because the playground has impacted the game in so many other ways as well.
A prime example would be Big John Thompson, who turned Georgetown into one of the greatest Cinderella’s ever and was the most instrumental force in the growth and stature of the Big East Conference.
Big John grew up in a segregated public housing project in the Anacostia area of DC. In catholic school, he had difficulty reading and was labeled a slow learner. At the end of his 5th grade year at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the nuns told his mother Anna that he was mildly retarded and asked that he not return to school.
A sixth grade public school teacher, noticing his vision problems that perhaps caused his reading deficiencies, was able to reach him and nourished the young man’s spirit, self esteem and intellectual curiosity. By the time he caught on academically, he also developed some serious hoop skills. When he got to Brown JHS at the age of 13, he was 6′6″.
Big John was a playground regular at the asphalt courts outside of Spingarn HS, as well as at the Boys Club on 1st Street that was run by the legendary Jabbo Kenner, where he ran with some older cats that included Elgin Baylor, whose playground nickname was Rabbit.
DC playground legend James “Sleepy’ Harrison schooled the up and comers like Big John, Dave Bing, Austin Carr and others.
“We were always tough on those kids,” said Harrison in the Thompson bio, Big Man On Campus, written by Leonard Shapiro. ” We didn’t give them nothing. We made them appreciate losing so they would know how great it is to win.”
By the time he suited up for Archbishop Carroll HS, Big John was a beast. Red Auerbach convinced him to attend Providence, where he earned All-American status as a senior, so that the Celtics would own his territorial draft rights down the road. He won two rings as Bill Russell’s back-up in Boston and after being selected by the Chicago Bulls in the expansion draft, he abruptly retired and went about the business of coaching. The rest, as they say, is history.
When he came to coach at G-Town, they were coming off a 3-23 season. Within 3 short years, they were playing in the NCAA Tourney. Over the next 27 years, they crashed the post-season 24 times, making the Final Four in ‘82, ‘84 and ‘85. If Villanova doesn’t play the perfect game in ‘85, the Hoyas would have won back to back chips. When they beat Hakeem and the U. of Houston in ‘84, Big John became the first African-American head coach to win the D-I men’s title.
With a stifling press and aggressive defense, Big John scared the establishment to death with the likes of Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Sleepy Floyd, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and others. The players that bought in to the philosophy hit the books and got degrees from one of the country’s elite, most well respected institutions of higher learning.
Big John also took on Rayful Edmund, the notorious DC drug lord, and made it clear that his association with the program and Hoya players was not welcome. It was the only situation where anybody can remember Edmund backing down. And when AI was locked up in Virginia dealing with his bogus “criminal” situation in high school, Ann Iverson walked into Big John’s office, begging for him to guide her son through his college experience.
Big John is one of the game’s greatest coaches, a man who positively impacted thousands of young men. Without Big John, Patrick Ewing never chooses to attend Georgetown, the Big East never attains its stature as college ball’s premiere conference, the Hoyas never win the chip to attain the status the program now enjoys, not to mention the fact that they’d never have the current coach who brought them back to the Final Four last year, John Thompson III, aka little john (yeaaaayah!).
He learned his craft, and how to compete, fight and win on the DC playgrounds – developing the basketball mind that would alter lives, the collegiate b-ball economics/business model and the fortunes of a small, private catholic university whose program went from regional mediocrity to international acclaim en route to his Hall of Fame accomplishments.
THE PLAYGROUND IS NOT THE PROBLEM. IT IS THE SOLUTION!