In 'I Came As A Shadow,' Georgetown's John Thompson Offers Some Surprising Moments
John Thompson, Georgetown University's Hall of Fame former basketball coach, died in August.
I got the call most reporters (be honest, reporters) hate: "Can you give us a few minutes on his life? In about three hours?"
When you have the time, obituaries can be wonderful stories to write. New York Times obits are legendary for their beautiful prose and storytelling. But a few minutes on air? To capture a man's life? His highs, his lows, the good, the bad?
I quickly went through the sports repository in my mind. Let's see — John Thompson: Towel over the shoulder. 1984 NCAA title. First Black head coach to win a championship — and who'd bristle when you mentioned it. Outspoken on race. Towering at 6'10". Principled stands — including walking off a court in protest. Deep voice. Coached and loved Hall-of-Famers Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson. Kept a deflated ball in his office as a life lesson.
From those fragments, and some research, I crammed 78 years of life into two minutes and 47 seconds.
Thankfully, now, there's more. A lot more.
In his new autobiography, I Came As A Shadow, John Thompson, along with writer Jesse Washington of ESPN's The Undefeated, gives us a 352-page opus on a man with few regrets — and lamenting little.
Thompson doesn't apologize for writing a book that, as much as possible, isn't about basketball. He doesn't apologize for using the "n-word," actually the complete ugly word itself, liberally sprinkled throughout the book. "The word is part of our history, and I don't see any good reason to deny that. But we go through all these games to hide our guilt or shame about some things," he writes.
First and foremost, though, John Thompson doesn't apologize for the gifts he's been given and the accomplishments he earned — a sentiment that winds through the book and his life:
"But as I got further in my career, basketball became a way of kicking down a door that had been closed to Black people. It was a way for me to express that we don't have to act apologetic for obtaining what God intended us to have, and that we should be recognized more for our minds than our bodies. All this came out of the strong responsibility I felt to teach kids more than how to throw a ball through a hoop."
Thompson's ideals came, in part, from strong role models — his mom, Anna, "who always told me to speak my mind" and dad, Rob, who said: "Son, study the white man."
Where to tap in, in such a rich and full life? The book follows the arc of it, from early days at Catholic school where nuns called him "retarded" because he couldn't read at the time; to college at Providence where he became a basketball star; to his brief but fascinating couple of years as a pro with the NBA's greatest franchise, the Boston Celtics; to his unintended entree into coaching (he had always planned to be a teacher); to Georgetown fame, from 1972 to 1999, when he coached the Hoyas and became culturally significant; to life after coaching, when a decade plus of talk radio revealed a different John Thompson to the world.
"I think people were surprised to hear the human side of the big scary guy who supposedly hated the media," Thompson writes. "People learned that I like telling jokes and laughing, that I cared about the rights of women, that I like the country musician George Strait. They found out I didn't hate white people. I enjoyed blowing up a lot of the assumptions people had about me."
Those assumptions were fueled by those who coined the term "Hoya paranoia" to describe how he muzzled his players, at times, and kept aspects of the basketball program, and his life, hidden.
But back to George Strait. For me, the book earned its keep with the surprising moments. When a famous person's life portrait is painted from the headlines he or she generates, it's fun to read the fine print.
John Thompson, country music fan?
Other morsels: The white towel permanently affixed to his sport coat during games — for sweating, right? Nope. It was all about mom:
"My mother used to wear a towel hanging over one shoulder when she worked in the kitchen. She'd use it to wipe her hands or dry a dish. When I started coaching [high school] at St. Anthony's, I draped a white towel over my shoulder during games as a tribute to her. She and my father didn't come to hardly any of the games, but I felt them with me when I wore the towel."
Another one, and darker: John Thompson "should have" died on 9/11. He'd been scheduled to fly from D.C. to L.A. to do an interview on a sports show but a producer told Thompson they'd have to delay the appearance by a day — meaning Thompson would have to fly on Sept. 12 instead of Sept. 11. Thompson protested, but ultimately relented. He later found out the flight he originally was supposed to be on crashed into the Pentagon, killing all onboard.
"I think about that all the time," he writes. "I would have been on that plane if that kid producer hadn't persuaded me to change the flight. I sent him a huge box of Nike gear, but that didn't begin to repay him for saving my life. I argued and argued to stay on the flight that hit the Pentagon, but he made me change my mind."
Beyond the unexpected moments, the book's richness is in the detail about the moments we do know.
In 1988, Thompson became concerned when a couple of his Georgetown players, including star Alonzo Mourning, began hanging out with D.C.'s most powerful and notorious drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III. At the time, Washington was in the thick of a crack cocaine epidemic. Thompson worried not just about the players, but the potentially negative impact on his basketball program and the school. He arranged a meeting with Edmond that, over the years, became the stuff of legend.
A judge once said to Thompson, "you had more nerve than Jesse James!"
The book reveals more:
"A myth has grown about me threatening Rayful and ordering him to stay away from my players. Some people like to say I stood over him and pointed my finger in his face. That's nonsense. That myth is based on the perception of me as intimidating and a bully. Like when I argued with refs, I supposedly scared them.
"My conversation with Rayful was less than what everybody said, and also more. The conversation was between two Black men from Washington who both loved basketball, respected each other as human beings, and had enough intelligence to work out a solution to our problem. Throughout the whole conversation, Rayful was as polite and cooperative as could be. I was polite too. It would have been stupid to make Rayful angry."
Good call, since Edmond would be linked to a reported 30 murders, although never convicted of any of the killings. In 1989, the year after the meeting with Thompson, Edmond was arrested and ultimately sentenced to life without parole.
But the meeting worked, as Mourning, and Georgetown, avoided serious fallout from the player's association with Edmond.
The legacy of John Thompson also paints him, accurately, as a tireless champion for the young Black men whose lives he touched and, in some cases, saved. Allen Iverson, whom Thompson took on after Iverson was arrested as a high schooler, said as much in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech: "No other schools were recruiting me anymore. My mom went to Georgetown and begged [Thompson] to give me a chance. And he did."
For all he did for so many young men, Thompson was "Saint John" to many in the African-American community. While not debunking that, Thompson, in his book, shows some refreshing self-awareness.
"Now my belief in a kid's capability to change had a strong correlation to his ability on the court. I wasn't a social worker anymore, I was a basketball coach," he writes. "Sure, I wanted to help kids, but only the ones who could help me win games. I mean, Billy Lynn was six foot nine and rebounded like crazy. Let's be honest here."
In August, I offered NPR listeners an appetizer at the end of John Thompson's life. I Came As A Shadow is the full meal. The writing is good although, at times, the prose doesn't sparkle. What drives you forward as a reader are the experiences. The moments you'd heard about and the ones you had not; the private thoughts of a public man; the complexity of a Black man who both raged against society's racial injustice, and eagerly embraced the opportunities to make things better; and the opinions of a person who remained relevant to the end of his life. In the book he weighs in on topical issues such as nationwide demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police (not surprisingly, he's proud of those who unapologetically took to the streets) and, in the sports world, whether or not college athletes should be paid (in the end, he believed yes, they should).
Some will like John Thompson after reading this book; others may not. What's sad is that he won't be around for a book tour — to answer people's curiosities about why he did this, or said that.
And to apologize for nothing.
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