CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Hall of Fame basketball coach John Thompson, who made Georgetown one of the top college programs, was honored Tuesday with the first winner of the Dean Smith Award, named in honor of the legendary North Carolina coach.
The award was given by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
All net proceeds from the dinner and a special memorabilia auction will benefit the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund, which provides financial assistance for undergraduate students from low-income families and enables professionals in education and social work to pursue advanced degrees.
The bidding turned out to be lively, with tickets to the Duke-Carolina game going for thousands of dollars and Roy Williams bidding $5,000 for golf at Pinehurst No. 2.
Williams said he was fortunate to be involved in many discussions between Smith and Thompson.
“I’d been sitting at several of those late night meals with those two and I sat there and kept my mouth shut and listened,” Williams said.
Inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, Thompson retired in 1999 with a 26-year record at Georgetown of 596-239. His 1984 team won the NCAA championship, and he took the Hoyas to three Final Fours and 19 NCAA tournament appearances. He was one of Smith’s closest friends in coaching.
“There was no one in basketball I loved or respected more than Dean Smith. There was never anyone like him,” Thompson said.
Thompson met Smith in an epic 1982 NCAA title, which Carolina won on Michael Jordan’s jump shot. Smith hugged Thompson after the game.
“When the game was over he ran over and hugged me, and I always wondered if I’d done that,” Thompson said.
“We think John Thompson is the perfect choice as the first winner of the Smith award,” said USBWA President Pat Forde. “We wanted the winner to be someone Dean Smith would be proud to present the award to if he was here to do it. We think, with John, we have that and we know we have someone who Coach Smith’s family is thrilled to honor.”
Thompson grew up in Washington, D.C., and played on an Archbishop Carroll High School team that won 48 games in a row during his junior and senior years. He was an All-American at Providence College and part of the school’s 1963 NIT championship team. He then backed Bill Russell up at center on two NBA championship teams in Boston before starting his coaching career in Washington at Archbishop Carroll.
When he was named the coach at Georgetown in 1972, the school president told him he would be thrilled if the Hoyas could “make the NIT every few years.”
They did that – but threw in the 19 NCAA appearances – including 14 in a row at one stage – while Thompson recruiting stars like Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, among others. Thompson was an assistant to Smith on the 1976 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and was head Olympic coach in 1988.
More important – at least in the context of the Smith Award – almost all the players he recruited who stayed four years left with Georgetown degrees. Thompson became a leading spokesman on social and education issues and was the first African-American coach to take a team to the Final Four when Georgetown advanced to the national title game in 1982 against North Carolina.
It was at that Final Four that Thompson first made his voice heard on a national stage. Asked how he felt being the first African-American to coach a Final Four team, Thompson said: “I resent that question. I resent it because the implication is that I’m here because I’m somehow better than other great coaches who came before me who didn’t have the same opportunities I’ve been given. I am not the first black coach capable of coaching a team to the Final Four by any means.”
He lost the national championship game to Smith, a classic game decided by a Michael Jordan jump shot. Afterward, Thompson said, “I wanted the pupil to show the teacher that he’d learned from him. I wanted the teacher to be proud of the pupil.”
The USBWA plans to honor annually an individual in college basketball who embodies the spirit and values of Smith, who coached 36 seasons at North Carolina before retiring in 1997. He died in February at the age of 83.