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John Thompson

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The pioneering basketball coached died yesterday at age 78:

If basketball had a main boulevard, his accomplishments would have earned him a prominent spot on that street, too:

First African American coach to win a major college championship (Georgetown, 1984). Two-time NBA champion (Boston Celtics, 1965-66). NABC and three-time Big East Coach of the Year, plus an Olympic bronze medal (1988 Seoul Games) that Thompson was forever ambivalent about.

Hard work was the bedrock of all those achievements, but Thompson viewed it as just the ante for a seat at the table. To keep it, and change the game from the inside, he knew he’d have to win early and often, keep working just as hard and fight even harder. It’s tough in this fast-moving moment of reckoning to mark where many of the pioneers of the social-justice movement made their most important stand, but not with ”Big John.”

He took tough stands on so many issues that the system wound up bending in his direction instead of the other way around. Like Congressman John Lewis, another social justice warrior who passed recently, he knew ”good trouble” when he saw it and wasn’t afraid to wade in.

”I’ll never forget when Coach Thompson protested an NCAA rule that he felt discriminated against Black players by refusing to coach a game until it was changed,” Kentucky coach John Calipari recalled in a tweet. ”He was ahead of his time by speaking truth to power when it was hard to do.”

R.I.P.

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