John Thompson Jr., the big man and personality, sits quietly inside a Georgetown athletic center bearing his name. To visit him, you walk past the enthralling bronze Thompson statue that adorns the building’s entrance, but once you disappear down a hallway and into a mostly empty room, you can ease up on the reverence. Thompson lightens the mood with some self-deprecation.
“They can put a statue here of me and the building and all that crap,” the Hall of Fame former coach said. “People do and say very nice things, which they tend to do when you get older, which I’m flattered by. But I know, at times, I was an [expletive], too.”
The 77-year-old Thompson has been doing plenty of reflecting lately. He’s working on his autobiography, which we’ll talk about in a minute. On purpose, he has stepped out of the limelight as much as he can, exiting in deference to active coaches and sports figures. It has been seven years since his radio show ended. Even on the matter of Georgetown men’s basketball, Thompson has tried to avoid making headlines, even though the program represents his life on multiple levels.
As long as he is breathing, Thompson will never be invisible, not with his 6-foot-10 frame and authoritative baritone voice. But he’s exercising his right to be chill.
“It’s not my time anymore,” he said.
For those of us who can appreciate his combination of coaching brilliance, social awareness and the audacity to raise his voice, there’s a void. There’s a void even amid this period of increased activism in sports. Few have ever commanded and challenged an audience the way Thompson can. His is a revolutionary mouth, and like him or not, he used it to make people think. He made some change, too. The longer you live, the more you realize what an impossible task that can be.
“If there’s a need for me to say something, I’ll say it,” said Thompson, who won 596 games at Georgetown from 1972 to 1999. “But I’m not in that flow. I say what’s necessary, but one thing I learned is when to shut up. People measure intelligence too much by what people say. Because a lot of stupid stuff is said. Sometimes, you’re intelligent by shutting the [expletive] up. You know what I mean?”
If you don’t quite understand him, perhaps you will soon. Thompson is working with Jesse Washington of ESPN’s The Undefeated to write his life story. The title: “I Came As A Shadow.” Henry Holt & Co. plans to publish it in 2021. As a late Monday morning visit with Thompson and Washington revealed, the coach is putting his heart into telling his story in the most honest and nuanced manner possible.
His motivation is to give his family, particularly his grandchildren and great grandchildren, a chance to “know what Papi’s about,” he said. He doesn’t want them to know him merely as the statue, or as Thompson called it “the great big idol with the golden head.” He wants them to understand why he challenged the norm, the obstacles he overcame and what basketball provided him as a player and coach. He wants them to feel his connection to the D.C. area. He wants them to know his flaws. And yes, selfishly, he wants this opportunity to tell his side of his entire story.
“I’ve tried to be as honest as I can,” Thompson said.
No holding back, even from the unpleasant stuff?
“Oh, I want it whitewashed,” Thompson said, laughing. “We all do. But you have to open yourself up.”
Okay, no excessive whitewashing.
In the room where Thompson and Washington work, there are about 20 large, bound scrapbooks full of cutouts of print media stories that highlight almost all of Thompson’s journey. Washington, who already had a detailed understanding of Thompson and Georgetown, often pulls material from those stories and probes the coach for the back story. He is amazed by how much new information he has learned. When he tells some of Thompson’s closest friends and family some of these stories, much of it is new to them, too.
Thompson, larger than life yet quieter than ever, isn’t motivated by hubris. He’s going deeper than he ever has into the relationships that shaped him and the early experiences that led him to fight injustice so vigorously as an adult.
In the middle of the night, Thompson often turns the most introspective. When it happens, he grabs his phone, turns on the recorder and starts talking. Washington wakes up to see both long texts and recordings featuring that iconic voice.
After years of being asked to write his autobiography, Thompson has found his voice in silent reflection. At 77, he marvels at how differently, how completely, he sees the world. He presented strong views at a young age, and he doesn’t back down from anything he did, whether it was protesting the NCAA’s Proposition 42, which tightened academic requirements for scholarship athletes, or otherwise. But he has continued to grow, continued to learn, continued to fight and speak up and strategically shut up. Now, he’s willing to share it all.
“It wasn’t any big thing,” Thompson said of his motivation. “It wasn’t something all of a sudden that I said I’m going to jump up and let ’em know. I didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna let ’em know what John Thompson is all about.’ I primarily wanted to say, ‘I’m 77 years old. There are a lot of things that have been written or said about me that I would like to give my explanation of.’ It’s not a question of I’m just trying to butcher somebody, or love them. I just want to say myself what I think I meant to do.”
While Thompson discussed some of his plans for the book, the conversation veered off several times, with the coach sharing everything from his affinity for entertainment mogul Diddy to tales about his uncle’s friendship with fellow poet Langston Hughes. (One of his uncle’s poems inspired the title of the autobiography.)
The coach shared a few thoughts about Georgetown basketball, too. For as much as he is perceived as this bossy presence casting a shadow over the program, he actually respects boundaries. He doesn’t try to coach the Hoyas through Patrick Ewing, same as he let his son, John Thompson III, carry out his vision. Thompson seldom grants interviews about Georgetown now, and though there is a part of him that enjoys the freedom of saying no, it’s also his way of bowing to the sitting coach.
“I’ve got to be careful of what I say and how I say it for his benefit,” Thompson said of Ewing. “Because people perceive a lot of times. Like when my son was here. People perceive that you’re behind the curtain saying something, which was an absolute lie. With Patrick, it’s an absolute lie. Do I, as their friend, try to stick my nose in their business? Hell yes. I enjoy that. But it’s their job to do, not mine. I voice my opinion, but it’s not a public thing as much because I’m not coaching.”
Thompson didn’t scream in the media when Georgetown fired his son two years ago. When Ewing got the job, Thompson didn’t do most of the innocuous interviews about the return of his great, program-elevating former player. But on the inside, he has intense feelings of joy and anxiety because he wants Ewing to do well.
“It’s nerve-racking because my feelings for him extend past being his coach,” Thompson said. “You want him to be successful. You want him to do the things that he needs to do to be successful, but more than anything, I think it’s nerve-racking. I think he’s very capable of doing it. There are things that all of us have to learn and do. But I just feel that same feeling. When he is disappointed, I am extra disappointed in a way other than being his coach. Because I have feelings, personal feelings, for him.”
Thompson extended his hand to show his ring. It’s not the one commemorating his 1984 national title. He wears the ring of JTIII’s 2007 Hoyas, who won the Big East regular season and advanced to the Final Four. Ask Thompson about Ewing reviving the program, and Big John declares, “Well, I hope he has the success that my son had.”
“People always reflect and say, ‘Bring it back to the way it was,’ ” Thompson said. “Bring it back to the way John had it, not the way I had it. Don’t jump over what he accomplished — going to the Final Four, winning the Big East three times and winning a Big East tournament — to talk about me.”
The father won’t speak ill of the program for moving on, but he is adamant about defending his son’s accomplishments. Before Dick and Tony Bennett, there was Big John and JTIII, the groundbreaking father-son Final Four story. And before the program started to slide, JTIII took the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament seven times in his first nine seasons. He rebuilt the program and went to the Final Four within three years. Then came the early tournament exits, the pressure and the regression. The ending was a shame, but the beginning was beautiful. Don’t forget the beauty. If anyone knows how to deal with the harshness of reality, it’s Big John. But tell the whole truth. That’s what he asks.
Inside a facility that emphasizes his legend, Thompson doesn’t want to be a statuesque figure. He doesn’t want to be a newsmaker, either. He’s just human, extraordinary but human. In silent reflection, he’s preparing to make one final, strong statement.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.