The Pioneer Press - Georgetown '84

When the Hoyas became heroes – and the champs 

In the early 1980s, an unlikely program commanded the nation’s college basketball consciousness. An elite, exclusive Catholic institution in the nation’s capital better known for churning out attorneys and politicians and with nary a trace of hardwood pedigree was suddenly at the center of the college basketball universe. 

The Georgetown Hoyas’ relentless and assertive brand of basketball, carefully choreographed by a Black coach in John Thompson and an all-Black roster, made them heroes in inner cities around the country and a target for a mostly white media. 

And unapologetically, Thompson did it his way and became the first Black basketball coach to win an NCAA title when his Hoyas defeated Houston 84-75 in Seattle’s Kingdome on April 2, 1984. 

“I know I’m going to upset some people, but I can live with that,” Thompson said in a 1984 interview. 

When Thompson arrived at Georgetown in 1972, an unexpected hire coming from the high school ranks, the Hoyas were far from a known basketball commodity. Georgetown had been to one NCAA Tournament in program history – 1943 – and was coming off a 3-23 campaign. 

By year three, Thompson, a D.C. native who earned honorable mention All-American honors at Providence College before playing two championship seasons with the Boston Celtics, had his Hoyas in the NCAA Tournament. By year four, he directed a 21-win squad and had established Georgetown as one of the top programs in the Northeast. 

With the launch of the Big East in 1979, long-independent Georgetown had a conference home, immediate success, and nationally televised rivalry games against the likes of St. John’s and Syracuse that upped the profile of the Hoyas and their coach. In the league’s first season, Georgetown grabbed a share of the Big East regular season title before claiming the inaugural Big East post-season tournament. 

In the fall of 1981, Patrick Ewing arrived and catapulted the Hoyas into the 1982 national title game, where Georgetown lost to North Carolina on a late baseline jumper by Michael Jordan. Despite the loss, Thompson and his tough-minded, don’t-back-down Hoyas had firmly positioned themselves on the national stage – and that brought added attention. 

And here, the 6-10, nearly 300-pound Thompson, dug in – deep. 

Thompson shielded his team from the media, the critiques as well as the hype. He rejected requests for long player interviews, limited the access of TV crews, ran closed practices, and carefully plotted road trips to avoid any media frenzy. To many, and particularly the media repeatedly told no, Thompson’s tight grip on the program seemed a smoking gun that Georgetown was hiding something. 

For his part, Thompson later acknowledged he’s role in fostering skepticism and questions of a program that, at the conclusion of his 27-year reign in 1999, saw 75 of 77 players who stayed at Georgetown for four years earn their degrees. In a 2013 interview, Thompson admitted: “I functioned better when I thought people didn’t like me than I did when I thought they did.” 

After a solid 22-10 campaign in 1982-1983, Georgetown entered the 1983-1984 season a national title favorite. Though suffering an early-season loss to #13 DePaul, Georgetown was a top 5 mainstay in the polls throughout the season and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it held its first three opponents to an average of 44 points to capture a second Final Four appearance in three years. 

With the brightest of lights now on Georgetown, its stark differences stood out that much more, namely a Black coach with 12 Black players at a prestigious Catholic school in a once- segregated city. 

In a Washington Post editorial as Georgetown prepped for its 1984 Final Four matchup against Kentucky, Father Timothy S. Healy, the president of Georgetown University, defended Thompson and his Hoyas from swelling public backlash of their methods – and their perceived madness. Healy called his university’s basketball coach “a charming and witty man, with a devastating gift for one-liners and an articulate sensitivity that is engagingly rare.” Of the on- court Hoyas, Healy reminded that “‘hustle’ and ‘aggression’ are close cousins,” which is exactly how Thompson liked it. 

In the 1984 national semifinal, the Hoyas’ D held Kentucky to 11 second half points on 3-of-23 shooting, punching their ticket to the final with a convincing 53-40 victory. Against high-flying Houston, the team-oriented play Thompson preached shined in a title-claiming victory. Georgetown and Thompson stood alone at college basketball’s mountaintop. 

“At times I’ve been obsessed by the national championship,” Thompson told reporters in a post- game interview. “I’ve awakened in the middle of the night in the summer saying, ‘national championship.’ Now, I have one.”

--The Chucker