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'Owe a lot to him': UM's Juwan Howard honors late John Thompson Jr. with towel tribute

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard sported a different game-day look for Wednesday’s season opener.

Instead of wearing a suit, Howard wore navy pants and a white Michigan polo along with a white Gatorade towel draped over his right shoulder.

That final touch was a tribute to the late John Thompson Jr., the Hall of Famer who took Georgetown to great heights and became the first Black coach to lead a team to the NCAA men’s basketball championship. He died in late August at 78.

According to Howard, he received a text from another coach asking him if he'd join other Black coaches in honoring Thompson on college basketball’s opening night.

“I didn't hesitate,” Howard said after Michigan’s 96-82 win over Bowling Green. “I thought it was a great idea. I know what Coach Thompson has meant to not only college basketball, but to a lot of young men he has helped develop and helping them be able to become successful in life.”

Michigan's Juwan Howard was among a number of coaches who honored the late John Thompson Jr. by wearing a towel over his shoulder.

Thompson, at 6-foot-10, was an imposing figure who literally and figuratively towered over the Hoyas for decades, turning a moribund program into a perennial contender all while wearing his trademark towel over his right shoulder.

During his 27-year coaching career, Thompson guided Georgetown to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments (1979-92), three Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985), six Big East tournament titles, five Big East regular-season championships and the 1984 national title before he stepping down in 1999. He coached numerous basketball icons, like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson.

Thompson was also a role model, father figure and trailblazer for Black coaches and players. He never shied away from speaking his mind on sensitive topics, particularly the role of race in both sports and society.

Howard said Thompson even served as a mentor to him early in his NBA career when he was playing in Washington.

“You would think I played for coach John Thompson because he was always that guy in my ear, supporting me and helping me through the process,” Howard said. “I owe a lot to him. I know he's done a lot for me and others by paving the way for me to be able to have an opportunity to coach here at the University of Michigan.

“That's what today was all about — for Coach Thompson."

Howard was among a number of coaches who paid homage to Thompson on Wednesday, along with Georgetown’s Ewing, Providence’s Ed Cooley, St. John’s Mike Anderson, Eastern Michigan’s Rob Murphy, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Bowling Green’s Michael Huger.

“The thing that he did for college basketball, and just in general for Blacks, was the way he was able to fight for us and have that voice,” Huger said. “He had a strong voice. And anytime he said something, everyone would listen to Big John.

“He was definitely a special guy.”

Slam dunks

Ten of Michigan's 12 scholarship players saw action against Bowling Green, with junior guard Adrien Nunez and freshman wing Jace Howard the only two who didn't check in.

Freshmen Terrance Williams and Zeb Jackson combined for 11 total minutes, while every other Wolverine played at least 13 minutes.

Senior guard Chaundee Brown and freshman center Hunter Dickinson were the first ones off the bench in both halves.

… Sophomore wing Franz Wagner appeared to tweak his left ankle before halftime. He exited the game and went back to the locker room, but he returned and played in the second half.

… The Wolverines deployed multiple small-ball lineups in the first half that featured junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and Williams at the five.

… Fifth-year senior center Austin Davis and senior forward Isaiah Livers were named Michigan's captains for the 2020-21 season.

… Michigan players wore a BLM patch — representing Black Lives Matter — on the front of their jerseys and long sleeve warmup shirts. The shirts also included differing social justice phrases on the back.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins