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John Thompson Jr. wasn’t just a regular at men’s games, he supported the women too

‘I just remember him being humongous sitting in that wooden chair in his little corner in the gym’

John Thompson Jr. taking space in the corner of Georgetown’s McDonough Arena wasn’t just a men’s basketball occurrence, he was a regular at our women’s practices and games as well.

“I just remember him being humongous sitting in that wooden chair in his little corner in the gym,” said Sugar Rodgers, Georgetown women’s basketball all-time leading scorer, my former teammate and now WNBA player, reflecting on the role that Thompson played during her time at Georgetown University from 2009 to 2013.

“I didn’t really know who he was,” Rodgers said. “But I realized quickly because when I went home I would tell people, ‘Yeah, I was talking to Coach Thompson.’ They would say, ‘Do you even know who he is?’ Then, people would tell me about the things he’s done for African American culture. Being the first Black man to win the NCAA championship and how he took a chance on Allen Iverson.”

During my recruiting process in 2007, Thompson was one of the first people I met. I don’t recall exactly what he said to me, but I remember it being simple and him pointing heavily to the power of a Georgetown degree. I left his office smiling; he was walking basketball royalty, not to mention a Black cultural icon. “Wow, I just met Big John,” I gushed to my parents. At this point in 2007, he was eight years removed from coaching, but still had an office on campus.

Two years later after meeting Thompson, I’m tasked with looking out for Rodgers, who had the talent to propel our Georgetown Hoyas women’s basketball program but was protective of who she let in. Her childhood had been unlike mine and included homelessness and the loss of her mom. She beautifully penned her story in 2017 for The Players’ Tribune. We were different, but basketball brought us together. Coach Thompson was around for all of us, but with her it was a different relationship.

“Knowledge is power and he used to stand by that,” Rodgers said. “We talked about everything: his sisters, his upbringing, how he got into coaching. He would call me and ask what I was doing, and I’d be on my way to class and he would tell me, ‘Well, go to class, but I just want you to know Allen is here.’ He wouldn’t let me miss class to meet Allen Iverson.”

Like Iverson, Rodgers was also born in Virginia, and similar to him, basketball gave her a way out. In the 2011 women’s NCAA tournament, our team advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1993. Rodgers had 34 points and a Michael Jordan-esque moment after she tossed up a deep 3 late in the shot clock and made it. We wiped the floor with the University of Maryland in a 79-57 win. Our team was elated. And so was Thompson, who watched the game behind our bench with university president John “Jack” DeGioia.

John Thompson Jr.

John Thompson Jr. (right) celebrates with the Georgetown women’s basketball team after beating Maryland 79-57 to advance to the 2011 Sweet 16.

Georgetown Athletics Department

“He was so happy for us,” then-head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “Sugar could’ve shot the ball with her eyes closed that game. Just to see his celebration and how proud of you all he was, like it was his team.”

I graduated after that season in 2011, but Rodgers had two more years left. She admittedly hated school, so I was shocked when she told me she was thinking about applying for graduate school. In fact, I would never forget the summer of 2009 when she arrived on campus and our first interaction after which I called then-assistant coach Keith Brown.

“I just want you to know I tried and she said she’s going home,” I told him, resigned to the fact Georgetown probably wasn’t a good fit for my new teammate. “Do you know I asked her about a book she has to read for a class and she told me she just needed to read the front and back covers?”

But Thompson wasn’t surprised about her new direction.

“He was so excited for me, knowing a kid like me, he made phone calls and set up meetings and helped make it happen. He thought it was the best thing for me to do,” Rodgers said.

“He liked the one-that-scraped-the-bottom-and-kept-fighting-type of kid, and that’s what Sugar was. Any way that he could help them get where they wanted to go, he would,” Willams-Flournoy said.

“Then, I was just trying to survive and he helped me,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I just didn’t know much. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without him.”

Rodgers, my friend, who made it known years ago she hated school and didn’t read books, is now on track to earn her master’s degree in 2021 and is working on her book, They Better Call Me Sugar: My Journey from the Hood to the Hardwood.

I’m sure Coach Thompson gets a kick out of that.

Monica McNutt is a basketball analyst for ESPN and ACC Network. She hopes people she works with remember her for her gratitude, preparation and fabulous lipsitck.