In His Autobiography, the College Basketball Giant John Thompson Is Plainspoken and Profound

“I’m six feet 10 inches tall,” the longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson writes in his posthumously published autobiography. “I have a large mouth, a big head and a deep voice. I naturally make a big noise. Not only am I Black, but I have dark skin. My feet are big, my body is big. Sometimes I’m loud, but I’m loud because I’m composed of big things.”

Thompson, who died in August at 78, has left behind an unusually good sports memoir with an unusual title: “I Came as a Shadow.” Though he grew up in the Washington, D.C., projects and his father never learned to read or write, Thompson had an uncle, Lewis Grandison Alexander, who was active in the Harlem Renaissance. Alexander wrote a poem titled “Nocturne Varial” that began:

I came as a shadow,
I stand now a light;
The depth of my darkness
Transfigures your night.

This book is about Thompson’s own shadows, ones he was sorry to cast. As a large, dark-skinned Black man coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s, he felt sorely underestimated — he sensed that white America instinctively considered him inelegant and unintellectual. Later, when he began to win as a college basketball coach, the nature of that shadow changed. Suddenly he was viewed as a fearsome intimidator and a bully, designations he deplored but learned to use because they gave him a competitive edge.

If you followed college basketball in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, you’re aware of the reputation of the Georgetown Hoyas. (The team won an NCAA championship in 1984.) They were thought to play rough. They were a team many loved to hate. “Bands in opposing arenas,” Thompson writes, “played the Darth Vader theme music when I walked by.”

Thompson considers that reputation overblown and deeply racist. People weren’t used to seeing a big Black man yell, or Black players who would not back down. When his star center Patrick Ewing retaliated after being consistently fouled, Thompson writes, “a whole bunch of people who never played the game saw a Black team defending itself and called us thugs.”

“We didn’t start any fights, but we knew how to end them” is a typical line in this book. So is, in terms of Thompson’s potent political sensibilities, “I felt some of that Malcolm X bubbling up inside me.” Thompson was committed. He paced the sidelines as if they were the ramparts at Elsinore.

Thompson was born in 1941. His father worked for a marble and tile company. “I don’t know exactly what my father’s job was at the factory,” he writes, “but when he came home from work his hands never got clean.” His mother had a degree from a teachers college but couldn’t find work in education. She took “day’s work” to help keep food on the table. Thompson writes: “‘Day’s work’ sounds better than ‘cleaning white folks’ houses,’ doesn’t it?”

His memories of his childhood are mostly fond. “I didn’t have my own bedroom to sleep in, I had a spot,” he writes. “Bedrooms were for the wealthy. I had a place to sleep, and I was happy.” In retrospect he’s bitter at the way his parents’ lives were constrained by their race.

Thompson was precociously athletic. He played a lot of playground pick-up games. He helped his teams win national titles in high school and in college, at Providence. Red Auerbach, the longtime Boston Celtics coach, recruited Thompson and became a mentor, teaching him about the political side of the game. Who gets to pick the referees? Where will the game be played?

Thompson was drafted by the Celtics but rarely saw action because he played behind Bill Russell, “the greatest winner in the history of basketball” and a man who “never came out of the damn game.” Auerbach helped lead him into coaching.

Thompson took over at Georgetown in 1972. The college had a poor team with a losing record. Thompson slowly turned it into a powerhouse. He did so by recruiting young Black players, some of whom had less than sterling academic credentials. He fought for these kids. He thought they deserved a chance.

He boycotted a game when the NCAA wanted to make it harder for poor kids, most of them Black, to receive athletic scholarships. “We wouldn’t call it a school,” he writes, “if they came here perfect.” He was proud that nearly all of his players graduated.

He’s pretty funny about his other motives. “I wasn’t trying to look deeper at a kid who couldn’t shoot, though,” he admits. “I didn’t offer the proper support to any slow, short guys.” He was aware that, as a rare Black coach, he had to win quickly or be fired. He understood, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang, that 99 and a half would not do.

“I Came as a Shadow,” written with Jesse Washington, a writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, is a consequential book with a plainspoken tone. Even after his success, Thompson preferred McDonald’s to restaurants with white tablecloths, and his voice makes an authentic sound.

This book has its lacunae. His wife and children are rarely mentioned. He wished he’d spent more time with them. He gives little evidence of his life outside of basketball, but perhaps he didn’t have much of one. As he writes about Auerbach: “I distinctly remember Red being perplexed by his friends who took vacations. His work ethic was so strong, he couldn’t understand the concept. ‘When they get there, what do they do?’ he said.”

Thompson was a serious gambler. He drops lines like, “One of my best friends in Vegas worked for Meyer Lansky.” You sense there are stories that await a biographer.

The author lived long enough to see Black Lives Matter. About Colin Kaepernick, he writes, “Some people try to translate Kaepernick’s protest as hating America, or they tell LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble.’ Tell me, when do these people think it is appropriate to speak up?” He adds: “Never, that’s when.”

Thompson looks back on his life, and on the lives of his parents and those of Black people writ large and asks, “Did America do this consciously, subconsciously, intentionally, unintentionally?”

The basketball court was, mercifully, a meritocracy. On it, “I didn’t want to be equal to the white man,” Thompson writes. “I wanted to kick his ass.”

Source: Read Full Article