Leland Stein III
Op Ed Contributor

My Journey with Legendary Basketball Coach John Thompson

Sep 16, 2020 | Community

When legendary coach, John Thompson, transitioned, I had to take a step back and reflect.

With a sad heart, I sought out narrative after narrative scribed by some of my friends. I found solace in that.

My Thompson story is more like a phenomenon that happened to me. It began during my transition phase as I was moving from engineer to journalist. At the time, I was in graduate school searching for a teaching credential in English.

I was covering only local sports for the Black Voice News in California’s Inland Empire at the time and wrote  a “story”merging education, athletics and the Black athlete.

A week later my wife brings me the phone and says, “John Thompson (Georgetown University)  and John Chaney (Temple University) are on the phone.” Of course, I did not believe her.

She asked, “Are you going to take the call or what?”

I grabbed the phone cautiously, but indeed there was Thompson. All he said was, “Chaney and I saw your article about the NCAA and we want you to come to Chicago to interview the coaches in the BCA (Black Coaches Association).”

There was a little more conversation, but that was the main thrust. Now, this was in 1993 and I was an infant in the big journalism world; yet, here came my personal blessing.

Of course, I had to pay my own way to Chicago from LA, but it was all about the opportunity. I had railed against the NCAA and its relationship with its Black student/athletes  in my early conversations with my dad when I was an aspiring athlete, and with the late pioneer Los Angeles Sentinel writer, Brad Pye Jr.

In Chi Town I met my cousin, George Stein, who drove up from Detroit after I related to him I was asked to come to the second, strategically guarded, BCA meeting.

Thompson and Chaney gave me the hotel info and the times that they would be available. George and I were there on time and we were completely shocked to find out I was the only reporter in the conference room area.

!

The exceptional opportunity to interview almost all the Black Coaches collectively was a journalism moment for me–it set me on a path that enhanced my life.

After joyfully receiving the unexpected, cross-country phone call from Georgetown in Washington, D. C. to Riverside, Ca . . .  sure enough, a couple days later after a quick flight from Los Angeles to Chicago,

This was almost 39 years ago. I tried to let their voices tell the story and describe what it was like for them as Black Coaches as they dared to confront the Lordly NCAA and college presidents.

During those years, several proposals and actions were taken by the college presidents and NCAA, much to the chagrin of Thompson and the other BCA Coaches. Collectively, they felt the NCAA, whether  knowingly or not, was traveling down a path of unnecessary exclusion from collegiate athletics in relation to minority youth.

The coaches also generated a host of other viewpoints and ideas they debated during the two-day summit.

In those years, college presidents and the NCAA ran roughshod over college athletics through their so-called minions or student/athletes. They only saw things through SAT test scores and claimed the athletes were amateurs and should not be paid.

Yet, Thompson, Chaney and others in the BCA wanted the NCAA to see in most cases when given a real opportunity, many, many minority student/athletes overwhelmingly uplifted themselves through the experience of higher education – even in instances where they did not graduate, these students learned and benefited from the experience of being tutored by a Thompson or a Chaney.

That is the message Thompson and the other BCA coaches wanted to convey.

The story I wrote was published by Black media outlets across America.

Afterward, editors and reporters asked me things like, “Are all the BCA Coaches going to protest or what is Thompson going to do or is someone boycotting a game or event?”

I said nothing about what I knew or thought the BCA Coaches might attempt to do collectively. I tried to just let their voices speak.

Stein’s article, Black Coaches Unify Voices – To Educate NCAA, as it appeared in the Black Voice News, Thursday October 7, 1993.

(Image Courtesy of BVN Archives http://www.scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu )

The fact of the matter was, whether Thompson knew what he was doing for me or not, it kickstarted my personal journey in journalism and allowed me to do more in my communities than I ever originally dreamed. I changed my career path from engineering to journalism/education (yeah, you need two jobs working for the Black press).

In the wake of my experience in Chicago, over the  next thirty years I always saw Thompson and Chaney at the Final Fours.

When I started covering the tournament, New York Times columnist, Bill Rhoden, invited me to a small meeting. When  Coach Ken Maxey and I arrived, coaches Thompson, Chaney and Richardson were there as were writers Bryan Burwell, Rhoden, and Michael Wilbon, just to mention a few.

Going forward, we always made sure to get together at the Final Fours. Thompson and Chaney were almost always at the small meetings as the carousel of other coaches and writers changed.

The early agendas usually centered around how the writers and coaches could navigate the White dominated system to somehow find inclusion and merit. For sure, I listened more than I talked.

After the wondrous phone call from Coach John Thompson in 1993, over the next 30-years I continuously saw him at the Final Fours. We always spoke and when time permitted, we had in-depth conversations; occasionally, we broke bread together.

Years ago, I asked Thompson why they decided to call and invite me to come to Chicago. He said, “We liked the story you wrote about the NCAA. Plus, it did not hurt, you were working for the Black press.”

I never asked him about it again, but in subsequent years every time I saw Thompson or Chaney, I always felt so thankful for their benevolence.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter at LelandSteinIII.

Social Media Hooks

What was it like when Black coaches dared confront the NCAA and college presidents?

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Header Photo: Black Voce News Contributor, Journalist Leland Stein (left) with legendary Georgetown University Basketball Coach, John Thompson (right). (Photo courtesy of Leland Stein III)

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