Book Review: I Came As a Shadow by John Thompson

Coach's autobiography is a tale of U.S. sports and U.S. history

UT-Austin’s athletic program is currently undergoing one of its periodic convulsions, the dismissal and replacement of 4-year football coach Tom Herman, who had failed to achieve what the alumni (more precisely, “Texas Exes”) consider the Longhorn birthright of national championships.

Convicted of mediocrity (a 32-18 record, but no conference championships), Herman replaced Charlie Strong, also quickly found wanting (3 years), after he replaced Mack Brown (who survived a healthy 15 years). The new coach, Steve Sarkisian, arrives bearing the aura of the nationally dominant Alabama football program (where he served as offensive coordinator). If Sarkisian doesn’t deliver in three or four years …

The pressure isn’t quite as great on the basketball program, a sport that ranks somewhere below football and spring football in the hearts of most Longhorn fans – or those of the Regents, the Exes who (along with billionaire donors) finally call the shots on coaching personnel decisions. The importance of basketball has risen over the last decade, as the program that matriculated one-and-done NBA star Kevin Durant raised its national profile. Moderately successful head basketball coach Shaka Smart had to be looking over his shoulder when the current season commenced and the media and online murmurs began over his continuing prospects. The team’s excellent start, including defeats of Indiana and Kansas, dulled those early complaints … which have since resumed, after several losses due at least in part to schedule disruptions by the Covid-19 pandemic, which included a bout of illness for Smart himself.

Smart is undoubtedly aware in his bones of the sports-world wisdom repeated by John Thompson: “People only listen to you if you win.” Thompson was the legendary basketball coach at Georgetown University, from 1972 to 1999, subsequently a commentator and elder statesman. He passed away in August of 2020, a few months before the December release of his autobiography, I Came As a Shadow. In a country compulsively and commercially saturated with sports of all kinds, only a very few coaches achieve the sort of stature and respect – and notoriety – that came to Thompson, not only for his success as a coach but for his fearless advocacy of his players, especially African American players.

As a major-program coach, Thompson was a pioneer – when he was hired at Georgetown, he was one of only a very few black head coaches in major college basketball — and he turned what had been a lackluster program into a perennial Big East Conference and NCAA tournament powerhouse, including a national title in 1984. He had the coaching acumen to win, and winning gave him sufficient authority beyond the locker room to affect educational policy – specifically academic policies of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which to this day treats college athletes as both highly privileged but indentured laborers.

Thompson did what he could to break that servitude, most memorably by boycotting a game – literally walking off the court before tipoff — to help block an NCAA rule change (“Proposition 42”) that would have made it harder for already disadvantaged freshmen to earn athletic scholarships. Beyond its racial subtext, that dispute highlighted the institutional contradictions of “amateur” athletics: millions of dollars accumulated to the benefit of coaches, colleges, media companies, and advertisers, derived from the unpaid labor of young athletes, largely powerless to protect themselves in a ruthless marketplace.

As his book (written with Jesse Washington) makes clear, Thompson understood the value of a Georgetown diploma (almost all his players graduated), yet also that as coach, he was the only one earning a big check from the Nike shoes that Georgetown players were contracted to wear. In his book, Thompson tells that story among many others, recounting his rise from Frederick Douglass public housing in D.C. (as a boy, he and his friends had no idea who Frederick Douglass was) through segregated schools to a basketball scholarship at Providence, a couple of years with the Boston Celtics, time as a high school teacher and coach, and eventually to coaching at Georgetown. He came from unpromising beginnings; his working-class parents were strong and supportive but had few opportunities to rise in thoroughly segregated D.C. Young John was slow learning to read; if not for his mother’s persistence, he might have been relegated to the ranks of Black boys dismissed as “retarded.”

This difficult background informs Thompson’s whole story – his embattled ambition as well as his thorny personality – and the larger context of an exceptional African American man succeeding in a profession to which he was not welcomed. Like many smaller colleges, Georgetown considered basketball a way of raising its profile (today it’s called “brand management”), and Thompson was hired (to a virtually all-white campus) in part because he could recruit promising D.C.-area players, especially African Americans. Yet he credits the administration for giving him the resources he needed and staying out of his way. “They never tried to stop me from being Black.”

Thompson not only turned around the previously mediocre Georgetown program, he gave it a national presence and reputation. Most of that reputation was positive — they played great basketball – but hardly all, not only because of fan rivalries, but because of simmering racism that began at Georgetown itself and spread elsewhere. The racism was often focused on the big Black coach who worked the refs (just like white coaches), and his mostly Black players. Thompson preferred the hatred be directed at him and protected his players from the worst of it.

They included such stars as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, and Dikembe Mutombo, who went on to NBA fame, as well as many less well-known players who accomplished what Thompson had promised in recruiting them: If they worked hard, they would earn their degrees. He took chances on players with sketchy educations, because that was exactly what he had had to overcome.

Thompson also protected his players from dangerous choices. The most notorious episode involved a major D.C. drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III, also a basketball fan friendly with Georgetown players. The legend later became that Thompson angrily confronted Edmond and scared him away from the program; in Thompson’s recounting, their conversation was in fact diplomatic and implicit, accomplishing the same outcome.

Thompson coached with a white towel on one shoulder (a tribute to his parents) and a chip on the other, and his book makes clear that was the only path available to him in that era. He undoubtedly opened the major college ranks to other Black coaches (his Temple rival and friend, the also recently deceased John Chaney, was another pioneer). He bristled at reporters who called attention to his breaking the color line, pointing out that there were plenty of qualified Black coaches who’d never been given the chance. A generation later, it is no longer unusual to see (primarily assistant) Black basketball coaches – although at the major conference schools, the quite high percentage of Black players is mocked by the comparatively low percentage of Black head coaches. “Black coaches,” Thompson notes, “still aren’t fairly represented in college basketball.”

Texas Coach Smart recognized Thompson’s groundbreaking role in a Tweet following his death. “Last night, we lost a towering figure in coach John Thompson Jr., whose shoulders so many of us stand on. A true teacher, leader, and mentor, he impacted countless lives through his work and his example. He modeled fierce intelligence, high standards, and incredible grace in his care for players, on and off the court."

UT basketball coach Shaka Smart's Tweet on the passing of John Thompson

Football – college and NFL – remains an even more retrograde story, with predictable University of Texas examples. Former Longhorn football coach Charlie Strong was denigrated by white boosters while he was here and never given a real chance to succeed. More recently, the just-hired Steve Sarkisian has already declared that the Confederate-inspired, minstrel-era school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” will remain a required team standard – whether Black student-athletes like it or not.

According to a story published March 1 by The Texas Tribune, Sarkisian will have plenty of allies where it counts – among the UT alumni donor base. Dozens of emails to UT administrators acquired by the Tribune feature donors denouncing athletes and others for being insufficiently devoted to “The Eyes” and dismissing the concerns of Black students and faculty as evidence of liberal “cancel culture.” A few dismiss Black athletes altogether: "It is sad that [the song] is offending the Blacks,” wrote one donor. “As I said before, the Blacks are free and it's time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor.”

Beyond UT and college athletics generally, we’ve just endured the annual exhausting celebration of sports commercialism known as the Super Bowl (Roman numerals and all), including the NFL’s self-advertisements for racial harmony even while the league continues its sidelining of rebellious Black players and whitewashing of the coaching ranks. The country’s long persistence in racism and racial polarization permeates sports – as it does every aspect of American public life.

“I don’t want this to be a book about basketball,” Thompson told his co-author Washington, and though it is undeniably that, it’s also about character, family, resilience, education, culture, business, and yes, racism. In an introductory note, Washington recalls that Georgetown University only recently acknowledged that “its very existence had been secured by the [1838] sale of 272 enslaved Black people.” Those people, Thompson realized, had been sold away from Jesuit plantations in St. Mary’s County, Maryland: “I was knocked off balance by the fact that the people they sold were from the place where my father grew up,” and where Thompson often visited relatives as a boy. Before he died, he came to wonder whether any of those sold might have been his ancestors. It is even likely that Georgetown’s recent efforts at compensation and reparations would not have happened without Thompson’s exemplary career.

Thompson’s formidable example, as recounted in his autobiography, provides a moral bulwark against complacency about injustice, on campus or anywhere. His title phrase quotes a poem by his uncle, Lewis Grandison Alexander:

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

John Thompson continues to cast a long and transfiguring shadow.

I Came as a Shadow

By John Thompson with Jesse Washington
Henry Holt & Co., 337 pp., $29.99

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Basketball, John Thompson, Tom Herman, Charlie Strong, Mack Brown, Kevin Durant, Shaka Smart, Steve Sarkisian, NCAA

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