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AP photo / Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson poses with star center Patrick Ewing after the Hoyas beat St. John's in the Big East tournament title game on March 9, 1985, in New York.

When University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Lamont Paris was growing up in the northwest Ohio town of Findlay, all his friends were understandably Ohio State fans. All of them.

But not Paris. At least not each winter when college basketball rolled around.

"I was for Ohio State in football, but I was a huge Georgetown basketball fan," Paris recalled Monday evening. "I wanted to go to Georgetown and play for John Thompson. I've still got pictures of me in high school with Georgetown gear on."

John Thompson Jr. passed away Sunday night at the age of 78. Big John, as those close to him often referred to the gentle, 6-foot-10 giant who always had a white towel draped over his right shoulder, had been battling several health problems for a couple of years.

But in this summer so dominated by Black Lives Matter, you hope he was healthy enough long enough to soak it all in, because no Black life may have mattered more to the rise in opportunities for Black coaches than Thompson's.

Indeed, asked if he thought he'd be the UTC coach today without Thompson becoming the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship, as he did with the Hoyas in 1984, Paris said, "I doubt it."

Sadly, he might be right. Ten years would pass before a second African American coach would be serenaded by "One Shining Moment," that honor going to Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson in 1994. Despite the vast majority of college players being Black, a Black coach has won an NCAA title but twice since then — Tubby Smith with Kentucky in 1998 and Kevin Ollie with Connecticut in 2014. But at least they're getting more chances. For proof, in the once segregated Southeastern Conference, every program in the league except Florida has had at least one minority coach since Thompson's 1984 national crown.

But Richardson, Smith and Ollie won at programs that had previously reached Final Fours, with both UConn and Kentucky having won multiple national titles.

As Paris noted of Thompson: "He didn't just win a national championship. He built a national championship program from scratch."

Indeed, Georgetown was 3-23 the year before Big John arrived there in 1972. The Hoyas hadn't been to the NCAA tournament in 32 years. So little was expected of him that the Georgetown president of that time — Father Robert Henle — reportedly told him the school just hoped Thompson could guide the team to the NIT every now and then.

Said Big John to Sports Illustrated in 1980: "I thought to myself that I'd eat my hat if I couldn't do better than that. But I didn't say anything except, 'Yes, sir, I'll try,' because you don't want to set yourself up."

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AP photo / Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson shouts to the floor during the Hovas' Final Four game against St. John's on March 30, 1985, at Rudo Arena in Lexington, Ky.

What he did in his 27 seasons at the Washington, D.C., school previously respected for academics only was to set up a dynasty, Georgetown playing in three NCAA title games over four years, winning one title and losing the other two by a total of three points.

And those two defeats were epic, the Hoyas falling 63-62 to North Carolina in 1982 when some guy named Michael Jordan hit the winner, then 66-64 to Villanova in 1985 when the Wildcats shot 70% from the floor for the game.

A single example of how good his teams were on defense: In a 1984 Final Four game against Kentucky, which had four future NBA players on the floor, Hoya Paranoia — as the prospect of facing Georgetown was sometimes labeled — harassed Big Blue into shooting 3-of-33 from the floor in the second half of a 53-40 win that Kentucky led at halftime.

"I met him once at the Final Four," Paris said. "I told him what a big Georgetown fan I'd been growing up and how much I admired him. He just smiled and said, 'Thank you.' But as I started to walk away, I turned back and said something about how much that '85 loss to Villanova had hurt me. As soon as I'd said it, I thought 'How stupid are you?' But he was very nice about it."

Big John came here once in the late 1980s. He spoke at a Chattanooga Boys & Girls Club event. What I remember was how little he talked about basketball, but rather about character and academics and making the most of your opportunities.

To that end, 75 of Thompson's 77 players who stayed all four years earned college degrees. On the basketball side, 26 of his players were drafted in the NBA, including Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning.

Tweeted Iverson on Monday: "Thanks for saving my life, coach. I'm going to miss you, but I'm sure that you are looking down on us with a big smile."

The praise was swift and passionate Monday.

Media giant Michael Wilbon, who often covered the Hoyas for the Washington Post, said of Thompson: "John was the most complex, fascinating, brilliant person I've ever covered."

Added ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith: "John Thompson gave a voice to the voiceless. The kind of (racial) issues we're talking about today, he was talking about 30 years ago. And (dang) near by himself."

Said Paris, using words worthy of winding up on Thompson's tombstone: "He made you believe that it could be done. He gave you the belief that an African American could not only win a national championship, but build a championship program and culture."

And building belief in those who never previously had reason to believe is the kind of accomplishment that sets you up to be remembered as a coaching legend.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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