For more than a dozen years, Jim Calhoun had to stare down John Thompson on the sidelines of a basketball court at least once a year, sometimes more if Big East rivals Connecticut and Georgetown met in a conference or national tournament.
Calhoun’s first national title came in Thompson’s final season (1999), and it wouldn’t be hard for you to believe that Thompson was one of the first to congratulate Calhoun and his UConn Huskies, despite the decade-plus rivalry.
“John was so much more complex than that giant on the sidelines – he was an articulate force of nature who took stands,” Calhoun said in an appearance on WFAN’s Moose & Maggie on Monday, discussing Thompson’s passing. “Even after a big game and a war, he’d give you a smile, a wink and a hug. That’s who he was.”
Thompson, at 6-foot-10, was an imposing figure on the sidelines, with his signature towel draped over his left shoulder almost all the time. But off the court, Calhoun remembered him as one of those who has been fighting for social justice, and for racial equality, for decades.
“The thing about John is that he spoke up before it was fashionable,” Calhoun said. “I had the good fortune to get an honorary degree with (late U.S. Congressman) John Lewis and talk with him, and from a global standpoint, John (Thompson) wasn’t at the same level, but he had a different level of exposure, and had a lot to do with what we’re seeing today. He tried to go against Proposition 48, which he thought was racist, and he was doing things a long time ago to try to help his kids, his program, his school, basketball, and sports in general.”
“His role was bigger than basketball. I always said to John, I’ve never walked in your shoes, or your players’ shoes, but I stood right beside you and saw the results of America’s greatest sin: slavery,” Calhoun said. “John saw a bigger purpose to life than just winning games; he saw it as his purpose to compete in everything you do, and act as a surrogate father for many of those kids.”
Calhoun then referenced the words of Allen Iverson, who posted on social media this morning thanking Thompson “for saving my life,” and noted that compassion as Thompson’s biggest legacy.
“That’s what John did – he saved a lot of kids’ lives. He was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Calhoun said. “He was that big guy on the sidelines with the big aura, but I saw him speak in different meetings, and you’d think that he could be a Senator. He was bright, articulate, powerful, compassionate, and tough, and that’s a pretty good combo to make a man who I believe made a difference in so many lives.”
You can listen to Calhoun’s entire call-in below, and, as always, check out more on-demand audio from Moose & Maggie, or tune in every day to the WFAN.com or Twitch.TV/WFAN livestreams of the show!