Monday, August 15, 2022

On the Coffee Table: John Thompson

Title: I Came As a Shadow: An Autobiography
Author: John Thompson (with Jesse Washington)

via Amazon

John Thompson, Jr. (1941-2020) was the head men's basketball coach at Georgetown University, 1972-99.  He was the first Black coach to win a national championship.  Those are the basics of one of the most extraordinary stories in American sports.

The Georgetown Hoyas have been my team since their glory days in the 1980s.  I have written about my love for the program many times, most comprehensively in one of my earliest posts.  When I say that John Thompson shaped my concept of what college basketball is supposed to be, I'm not exaggerating.  I learned much of what I know about the sport from watching his games.  So, I was always going to read his autobiography and I was always going to love it.

Thompson was more than just a coach.  He became a symbol in the Black community, especially in Washington, DC, a city that was still 70% Black in the '80s.  (Sadly, because of gentrification, Blacks no longer make up the majority of the population in our nation's capital.) John Thompson was an enormous Black man - 6'10", nearly 270 pounds - and unapologetic for expressing himself emotionally.  Thompson didn't yell at the refs any more passionately than his shorter white contemporaries did but he was fully aware that the world, even the basketball world, sees you differently when you're a large Black man.  What's more, he used his public position to advocate effectively for Black coaches and players, within his own program and beyond.  

I learned a lot from I Came As a Shadow.  I loved all of the basketball material, of course, but even more meaningful were Thompson's insights about growing up as a Black man in the Washington area.  Part of what set Thompson apart as an icon in the city - one different from the also enormously popular Barack Obama, for instance - was the fact that he was born and raised in DC.  Obviously, his life was different - in ways both better and worse - than I might have expected as a white kid in the suburbs a generation later.  He also had some not so flattering insights to share about Chevy Chase, an affluent town on the Maryland/DC border that I know quite well indeed.  I grew up believing my community was a lot more progressive than it actually was and I've really only come to terms with the darker reality in the past few years.  Unfortunately, Thompson's experiences confirmed my suspicions.

Still, most of the book is basketball.  The behind the curtain perspective on Thompson's teams - both the great and the not so great - is wonderful.  Coach Thompson shared a lot about how the Hoyas, as the first high profile college team with a Black coach and all Black players, became the team everyone loved to hate.  He grew to resent the word intimidating consistently used to describe him and his team, rather than giving them credit for being intelligent and well-prepared.  I would never have seen it that way at the time but now, one has to concede that he was right to be bothered.  The Hoyas certainly were a physically aggressive team but so was everybody else in the Big East conference.  Georgetown wouldn't have won as many games as they did if they couldn't dish it out as good as they got.  But they were unfairly characterized as goons and race definitely played a role in that.

Through it all, his program, at its best, was amazing.  I would happily watch those teams play in that league for the rest of my life.  Thompson writes warmly and extensively about each of his future Hall of Famers: Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.  He also expresses tremendous pride for some of the players who excelled in life pursuits other than basketball.  Not all of the stories had happy endings but overall, it's impossible not to be impressed by all of the good his program came to represent.  

One note, because my high school Russian history teacher (Long live, the Tsar!) would scold me if I didn't point this out: Thompson, head coach of the Olympic team in 1988, repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union's team as "the Russians" when in fact the biggest stars of that team were Lithuanian, not Russian at all.

Again, I was an easy sell for this book.  It's impossible for me to be objective given my love for the subject.  That said, Thompson and his ghost writer Jesse Washington did a great job.  I Came As a Shadow is a tremendously enjoyable read.  Any autobiography can come off as narcissistic but while he certainly wasn't reluctant to toot his own horn, Thompson was vulnerable enough to share his shortcomings.  He's also honest about his more self-interested motivations.  My admiration for John Thompson, already considerable, has only increased.


  1. This does sound like a good book. I didn't realize he was from the DC area and there most of his life. Of course, I remember rooting against him many times as a UNC fan (and who can forget the 1984 championship game where Michael Jordan hit that last second shoot). Thanks for the review.

    1. It wasn't 1984... I think it was 1982, as I remember by where I was living

    2. It was '82. I was eight years old. My father got me out of bed to watch the end of that game. When Fred Brown passed to the out of position James Worthy to end the game... I don't think there's ever been a more heartbreaking ending to a game.

      And Thompson hugged Brown. In the book, Thompson wrote, "I'm in catechism books for the hug."