SACRAMENTO, Calif. – John Thompson's influence on basketball and beyond stretched to Sacramento.
He towered over the college landscape in his era, leading Georgetown to championship heights. He stood for fairness, insisted education makes a man complete and inspired Black players to compete and young Black men to coach.
Thompson died Sunday at 78, a thunderbolt loss that resonates across the country.
Kids grew up in the 1980s playing ball on the blacktop, imagining wearing the gray of the Georgetown Hoyas. Locally, when they reached the high school ranks throughout the Sacramento City Unified School District or in Del Paso Heights, those kids wanted to be Patrick Ewing, or a ball-hawking, scowling guard who played such tight defense you cringed at his breath.
This included 3500 Florin Road. John Copeland coached the Burbank Titans at that address for 15 years, throughout the 1980s and into the '90s. He was influenced by Thompson beyond pressure-defense tactics. He got to know the man. They shared life stories and ways to engage and inspire youth.
Copeland, like his friend, also towered in personality. When he spoke, people stopped and listened. He was a government teacher at Burbank who reminded that real life goes well beyond a Metro League game against rival Kennedy or McClatchy.
Copeland created a basketball tournament where he and 1980s Grant coach Steve Williams would take their teams to the East Coast and then host programs from that side of the country in Sacramento.
In December of 1983, during Georgetown's breakthrough NCAA championship season, Burbank and Grant headed east. They were housed in dorm rooms at Howard University. They visited Washington. They soaked in the sights and sounds. Copeland made a connection with Thompson, a friendship that lasted.
"We didn't just play basketball," Copeland said of that trip by phone from his Florida home. "Our kids had to take notes. We went to the memorials. We spent so much time walking. One time, we were in line for an event, and there were these Secret Service men in suits, looking for me. 'You the team from California? Come to the front of the line.'
"President Reagan had us moved to the front of the line. First Lady Nancy Reagan talked to our kids. Jesse Jackson came to the hotel and talked to our kids for 30 minutes. Life experiences."
Copeland on that trip noticed in Thompson's coaching office a deflated basketball. There were no words on the ball but it had meaning. Copeland soon made sure he had a deflated ball in his Burbank school office, with the words "Life without education."
Copeland also learned from Thompson about being the forefront of your program, the face of it, a buffer between the player and media and spectators, some of whom are not always kind.
"He was the most influential person in my career," Copeland said. "One of the things I wanted for my players at Burbank was to dream. I wanted them to gain a small amount of the experiences I had growing up in Atlanta, learning how to get past obstacles, how to stand tall."
More influence: The in-game presence of fierce.
"Coach Thompson invented the Hoya Paranoia thing, and he wanted his players to understand that," Copeland said. "When I came up with 3500 Florin Road as (an identifier to Burbank), I wanted people who took the Highway 99 exit to understand with a certain amount of apprehension when they thought of us. At no time did I think, 40 years later, that people would still refer to Burbank as 3500 Florin Road."
Copeland added, "You saw Patrick Ewing play at Georgetown and he never smiled on the floor. Off the floor, he smiled. I saw those things and I wanted to articulate to my players that, on the floor, it's' all business. Then you can smile."
Yogi Stewart can relate to scowls and smiles.
His favorite player growing up in South Sacramento in the 1980s and '90s was Ewing. His favorite coach was Thompson. Stewart dreamed big, too, a basketball journey that took him through four varsity seasons at Kennedy High, four starting seasons as a shot-blocker at Cal as a 6-foot-10 center and into the NBA, including his hometown Kings.
"We loved watching Georgetown and the Big East as kids," Stewart said from his Florida home. "We were a bunch of West Coast kids who'd get home after practice at 4:30 and watch Big East games on ESPN. We were hooked."
Stewart added, "John Thompson was big, the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship, how he stood up to racism, how he shielded players, how he took arrows in the back so his players didn't have to. He had a leadership component, a humanitarian element, a father-figure side to him, an activist. What a man."
Stewart and Ewing have become friends with the universal language of hoops and education. Ewing now coaches Georgetown. Ewing and Stewart exchanged texts about the passing of Thompson.
Stewart has two 6-foot-8 sons who aspire to play in college and beyond in 15-year-old Sean and 17-year-old Miles. Both are superb students and impressive, skilled prospects.
"So proud," Stewart said of his boys. "You want them to do well. You want them to follow their dreams and reach them. I did."
Stewart was in the midst of setting blocked shot records at Cal in 1994 when Thompson visited Sacramento as a favor of sorts to then-Sacramento State athletic director Lee McElroy. The Hornets were suffering financially with talk of football on the chopping block. Men's basketball was coming off a 1-26 season.
Thompson brought his Hoyas and a freshman guard named Allen Iverson to Arco Arena for a Sac State holiday tournament that doubled as a fundraiser for Hornets athletics. It was a success because of Georgetown's arrival. The Hoyas breezed past Grambling and Fairfield in the Sacramento Classic in front of crowds of 10,000.
I was a frequent guest on Thompson's radio shows when I covered the Kings in the 2000s for The Bee. One time, he asked, "How are things in Sacramento beyond the Kings? Those high school kids still playing hard for their coaches, going to class, being good kids? Sacramento State is OK?"
Yes, coach. All well here then and now. Rest in peace.
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