John Thompson was a Legend who just Happened to Coach Basketball

In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose it’ mind, be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.”
-Frank Turner, “Be More Kind”

I was born in Georgetown Hospital. This small, cone-headed, jaundice-riddled person entered a world that was damaged. Society, as it remains, was just as confused as a newborn, but certain figures were bigger than the world, larger than society itself in a sense. Georgetown University’s old head men’s college basketball coach John Thompson was a trailblazer, and his contributions off the basketball court were what made him legendary. 

“Real power is defined by the capacity to think and excel in various situations.”

p. 2

I was just an infant staring at flickering lights when the Georgetown Hoyas hit their prime as a dominant college basketball program. Four family members are alums, so I was born into adoration for the university. Though I have lived in four other states, one for much longer than the others, I still consider D.C. as my hometown. And that’s partially due to the impactful history that constantly surrounds the area.

Though John Thompson (1941-2020) wasn’t a politician, he had more of a presence in a city run by glorified salesmen and –women—a difference maker among people who should have been making a difference. Basketball was an escape for him, and after a great college career at Providence and a professional stint backing up Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics, Thompson returned to his hometown to form the most important aspect of his career: change. I Came As A Shadow isn’t just an autobiography, it’s a message.

Thompson passed away just days before his 79th birthday. The book was released four months after his death. We finally got to know the man behind the legend when he was no longer able to defend his actions. After reading I Came As A Shadow, there was no criticism to refute. He left the world with everything on the table, and it’s accepted as is. 

“As a person of some significance, I have two ways to make somebody else important. I can make them my friend, or I can make them my enemy.”

p. 116

We are in a sensitive time. The public has become more vocal about issues, especially when it comes to civil rights. Of course, technology and modern platforms have allowed expression to over-saturate the world, which has provided both positive and negative reactions. The argument for either is for another time and another person. This discussion is about how Thompson altered the outlook of society in various aspects.

Born into uncontrollably modest conditions, the famed coach explained how, at that time, it was normal. As a persecuted youth, his mindset began to shift, and realized that, though a very ugly truth, the color of your skin shouldn’t depict how a person is treated. He persevered through patience and expressing himself when the time was right. It could be argued that every situation warranted an opinion then, but practical awareness was wisely exercised. If his emotions overtook him every time racism was exposed, like revolutionaries do in the modern era, the opportunity to change the world would have been taken away much earlier than ever being presented.    

Each generation has its own struggle, and many representatives from respective eras turn that into a competition that has no victor. But with each struggle comes a strategy to promote progression. The point of an autobiography is not only to educate and tell a story, it’s to provide a relation for an audience to discover, process and eventually further the conversation. It gives us meaning beyond the author/subject. It gives us perspective.  

 “A great player is not great because he’s rational. He’s great because he’s irrational.”

p. 263

Sports are occasionally demeaned by those who show no interest in the athletic arts. It’s a fair assumption at times; everyone tends to write off interests that they have little knowledge or understanding of.

I Came as a Shadow gives readers a behind-the-scenes experience of Thompson’s life. The purpose of the autobiography is to teach, and that was Thompson’s purpose. The work is chronological; it begins with his childhood which sets the tone of perseverance and perspective. Those first 13 pages, combined with what we’re witnessing in other parts of the world at this moment, should make someone think, “Is my life really that bad?”

Hardship is relative and should be respected, however. Basketball became a platform for Thompson and it led to vital relationships to his development as a man. This is the how the autobiography’s structure coincides evolution three-fold. Thompson’s evolution under the guidance of people like Red Auerbach and Dean Smith, his player’s evolution under his tutelage as a coach and father figure, and then society’s evolution from the stances his presence demanded and executed.

It wasn’t just the major names that shaped Thompson, but the minor characters he encountered in life, and through those experiences, he was able to pass along his knowledge to the youth. He always took chances because, as a black man in the time that he lived, he had to. There was no waiting around for change; sacrifices had to be made, decisions had to be calculated and concrete, and failure had to be accepted and used.

His experiences at Georgetown and his influence beyond the university were massive. The Big East, D.C., the black community and other minorities, women and children, the nation and his players all benefited from the chances he took. When he spoke of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Moutombo and Allen Iverson, he wasn’t just talking about their freakish skill and impact on the court, he was discussing their journey to become the men they did and earning their success as a person not a player. Thompson was more proud of the advancment of the man not the athlete.

For example, when reminiscing about Reggie Williams, Thompson explained, “But what happened to Reggie is part of the value and beauty of sports. It exposes you to things that will happen in the rest of your life” (p. 180).

Iverson has mentioned more than once that Thompson saved his life, and when looking at the Hall-of-Fame guard’s past, the accolade can be viewed figuratively and literally. Sports mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people, and if someone looks beyond the game, they will understand the vast importance of athletics.

“I Believe that genius borrows nobly.”           

p. 129

I Came As a Shadow is an important book everyone should read because it’s historical, will educate, and most importantly, provide perspective. Though Jesse Washington is an esteemed and excellent writer and journalist, he took on the role of listener and consultant. The book is written as if the reader is having a conversation—or rather listening to a monologue—with Thompson; the audience experiences his syntax and context, and if familiar with the man’s public image, can imagine his monotone drawl and visualize his poised mannerisms. This is what Thompson wanted. His way, his voice, just sit there and listen, whether that’s Washington, me, you, or anybody.

Washington wrote in his preface, “Coach Thompson made no small talk when I arrived; there was no conversational layup line to warm up for the writing of his autobiography. He started in a full-court press, flooding my recorder with a wide range of stories. His gaze was penetrating, challenging, and occasionally amused by all the things I did not yet understand” (p. xi).

Even how much Thompson was in the limelight, the book exposed a private side that only some of his closest peers were aware existed. No one really understood. Though his involvement in certain civil rights movements and black progression was well-known, the level of influence and impact was surprising across a plethora of spheres. He was a leader, and it wasn’t because he was a coach, it’s because it became clear he was a massive figure in promoting equality and societal development in areas such as equal rights and opportunities, extreme poverty, education and business.

Readers shouldn’t view this as a sports book. Yes, Thompson coached basketball, and yes, Washington is a sportswriter, but like the subject himself, the book is bigger than the category. Washington is a great journalist who just happens to write about sports. Thompson was a trailblazer, a mentor, a legend who just happened to coach basketball. His autobiography is about human affairs, the waxes and wanes of life, altering the future of society that just happens to be in the sports section of a bookstore.

Thank you for everything, John Thompson. Rest in peace.

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