He recruited more than 20 players who went on to join the NBA and four who – like him – are in the Hall of Fame. Thompson was also known for protesting against racial injustice as a coach.
Known to fans and players as Big John, Thompson was raised in Washington DC and played professionally for the Boston Celtics when the team won the championship in 1965 and 1966.
He was hired in 1972 to coach Georgetown University, a predominantly white Jesuit university in Washington DC. His appointment led to controversy. University faculty and fans rallied around him after he was met with racial abuse.
He coached Georgetown for 27 seasons, and in 1988 led the US Olympic basketball team to a bronze medal.
In 1989, he walked off the court in protest of a league rule that he said was biased against under-privileged students.
“I’ve done this because, out of frustration, you’re limited in your options of what you can do in response to something I felt was very wrong,” he told the Washington Post at the time.
Thompson was famous for the number of athletes he coached who finished with a university degree, and in an interview described once sitting down with a notorious Washington DC drug dealer to tell him to stay away from his players.
His own son later became the coach of Georgetown before being replaced by Patrick Ewing, a former NBA player that Thompson recruited before he led the team to victory in 1984.
A statement from his family released by the university hailed him as “an inspiration to many and [a man who] devoted his life to developing young people not simply on, but most importantly, off the basketball court.
“He is revered as a historic shepherd of the sport, dedicated to the welfare of his community above all else.”
Former Philadelphia 76er and Hall of Famer Allen Iverson was among those paying tribute online, thanking the coach for “saving my life”.