The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In his memoir, Georgetown’s John Thompson doesn’t hold back

During games, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson slung a white towel over his shoulder, in tribute to his mother.
During games, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson slung a white towel over his shoulder, in tribute to his mother. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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John Thompson, who dominated the Georgetown University basketball scene for 27 years, held little back on the court and off. So it’s not surprising that his autobiography, “I Came as a Shadow,” is brutally honest and unsparing both to many in Thompson’s life and to Georgetown. Thompson, who died in August, was Georgetown’s coach from 1972 to 1999. In 1984, he led the Hoyas to the NCAA Division I national championship, becoming the first Black head coach to capture a major basketball college title. He was dogged throughout his career by the repercussions of his outspokenness. “There’s a group of guys out there who sincerely don’t like me and hope they never see me again,” he writes in the book. “I feel the same way about some of them, too.”

As a retired Washington Post sports editor who covered or supervised coverage of him throughout his career, I find Thompson a fascinating figure not only for his coaching exploits but for his strong character — from the book’s dedication to assistant Mary Fenlon (“my right-hand man who was a woman”) to his condemnation of Georgetown for using enslaved people to build the institution in 1789 and for firing his son John III as basketball coach in 2017.

“I knew I carried a different burden than other coaches and I felt the weight of that responsibility,” he writes. “My sense of responsibility to speak out and resist is why people said, ‘John Thompson is hard to get along with. He walks around with a cloud over his head. He makes everything racial.’ Everything was racial, due to what I had seen and experienced.”

This superb book, done with Jesse Washington, a writer for ESPN’s the Undefeated, has been eagerly awaited for years. Thompson had been at work on such a book with the late writer Ralph Wiley for a long time, but that project was never completed. My former Post colleague Leonard Shapiro wrote a book on Thompson in 1990, “Big Man on Campus: John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas,” for which Thompson refused to be interviewed. It contained unflattering comments from several former players.

Thompson’s Georgetown résumé, which he does not dwell on, includes a record of 596 wins, 239 losses and six Big East tournament championships; 24 consecutive postseason appearances, including three Final Fours with Patrick Ewing, who is now Georgetown’s coach; sending 27 players to the National Basketball Association; inclusion in the Naismith Memorial and College Basketball halls of fame; and seven Big East Coach of the Year awards.

As a player in the 1960s, he won two NBA championships as a reserve for the Boston Celtics. He was a backup to Hall of Fame center Bill Russell for two seasons and saw little action on the court, but, as he notes, “I own two NBA championship rings.” In 1988, Thompson coached the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

As a Black kid growing up in D.C., Thompson struggled against racial stereotypes. He attended a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where all of the students were Black but the nuns and priests were White. As a kid he had trouble reading, which, he writes, prompted the nuns to label him “retarded.” Later in the book, he observes, “I was the so-called retarded kid who went on to earn a master’s degree.” In a poem, “Nocturne Varial,” written by his mother’s brother, Lewis Grandison Alexander, there’s a line that reads: “I came as a shadow.” Thompson writes: “I always identified with that shadow,” and the line became the title of his autobiography.

After arriving at Georgetown as head coach in 1972, Thompson couldn’t help remembering an earlier slight. “Over the twelve years since I had graduated from high school, Georgetown went from not recruiting me because I was Black to hiring me because I was Black.”

Starting his era at Georgetown with two seasons of .500 basketball, Thompson improved that trend with a remarkable run over the next 25 years. He was often seen at courtside with a white towel draped over his shoulder. That was a throwback to his youth, when he used to watch his mother working in the kitchen with a towel slung over her shoulder. He replicated the look during games in tribute to her.

Thompson’s best teams were intimidating, particularly on defense, and overly aggressive. With Ewing dominating and Thompson, as he puts it, “a six-foot-ten, dark-skinned, loud-voiced Black man . . . running the show,” racist incidents flared. During the 1981-1982 season, Georgetown won 13 games in a row, with “some scuffles and fights along the way, because people came after Patrick with elbows, fists, words, you name it,” Thompson writes. Playing a game at Boston College, Ewing finally had enough as the crowd screamed racist epithets at him and one player roughed him up, with the referees standing by, indifferent. “Patrick grabbed the kid around the throat with both hands and started choking the boy right on the court,” Thompson recalls. “The only thing that saved him was I ran out there and hollered at Patrick, ‘Son! What are you doing!’ ”

Thompson stresses the racial undercurrent that ran through his and Georgetown’s performances on the court. “Let’s just state the obvious,” he writes. “We scared a lot of people. They shouldn’t have been scared. We were playing basketball, not robbing banks. But American society often assumes, unconsciously or deliberately, that Black people are dangerous, violent, animalistic, or criminal. People think we need to be controlled, kept in our place. I refused to be confined to anyone’s idea of my place. I would not tell my team to back off because some people were scared for no good reason.”

Thompson could be difficult with reporters, sometimes snapping at their questions. Those who stood their ground gained his respect. He had his favorites, such as The Post’s Thomas Boswell, whom he said “wrote for the heavens,” and Michael Wilbon, whom he often called at 2 in the morning to schmooze. After resigning from Georgetown in 1999, Thompson became a member of the media himself, doing a daily radio show on WTEM for more than 10 years, as well as game commentary for several outlets.

Georgetown has installed a statue in his honor in front of the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center on campus. Thompson applauds Georgetown for its actions, including financial restitution, to address its use of enslaved people to help build the university and the Jesuits’ sale of 272 of those people in 1838 to raise money. But he remains irked by the firing of his son John III as basketball coach after he reached the NCAA tournament eight times and compiled a 278-151 record over his 13 years leading the Hoyas. “I never had as much influence or power [at Georgetown] as people thought,” Thompson writes. “If I did, they never would have fired my son.”

Another newsworthy critique: “They should start paying the players.”

Nonetheless, Thompson appreciates his chance to contribute to Georgetown’s evolution over the years. “Despite what happened to John, I still love Georgetown for allowing me to be me, and for taking a chance on a lot of players who were not superstars but still deserved an opportunity to be educated. I appreciate Georgetown’s transformation since they hired me in 1972.”

I Came as a Shadow

An Autobiography

By John Thompson

Holt. 338 pp. $29.99