It’s Leap Year Day, so in light of having the first February 29 in four years, I want to take a different tack today. For it just so happens that today is John Thompson’s last day on the air on ESPN 980 AM in Washington, DC. The legendary former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach will air his final radio show this afternoon.
Thompson has had this show for about thirteen years, and I’ve listened off and on now for seven of them. What has made him interesting to listen to over the years has been his ability to be ornery, light-hearted, downright goofy and insightful, and all at the same time — whether I agreed with him or not. That the seventy-year-old Thompson has managed to maintain a solid audience across all demographics has been a sign of his ability to be a man with an old-school philosophy without become an old man. It’s a fine balance that Thompson maintained show after show, regardless of the outrageous calls he responded to time and again.
I’ve been a fan of Coach Thompson’s since I was in high school. Back then, he had Patrick Ewing and later Alonzo Mourning as part of his vaunted Hoya Paranoia defense. They won it all in ’84, only to be done in by Villanova’s raining of shots from all angles in the NCAA Championship Game in ’85. Despite his normally gruff demeanor, Thompson handled the loss with the graciousness and sportsmanship that was rare even then, and almost impossible to find now.
I came to like Thompson even more when he was an analyst on TNT’s NBA games in the early ’00s. I used to call him “Sugar Bear” because of the way in which he delivered his take on players and coaches. It was through that context that I learned of The John Thompson Show, and began listening nearly seven years ago.
More than anything else, I appreciated the fact that many segments of his show had little or nothing to do with sports. Even as uncomfortable as he may have been about the topic, he discussed race, poverty, crime, relationship, the Black church, public education and higher education. I think that this diversity of ideas and topics is what I’ll miss the most. That Thompson used his show to educate his listeners — as well as educate himself — about much more than sports speaks to him as the educator he has been for most of his adult life.
I don’t know if I could’ve ever played for Thompson — between my relative lack of talent and my ears being burned from his yelling at me on every possession. But I have enjoyed listening to him and his show.