Review by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
On a personal level, my first reaction when I heard the news of the death of basketball coach John Thompson was that the timing was a little interesting.
After all, an advance copy of his autobiography was sitting in my Kindle at the time. I guess Thompson timed this out just right. After all, a good basketball coach knows how to milk the clock when he or she is ahead right until the final seconds.
What’s more, I knew this was a book that needed to be read. In a summer of racial troubles in our society in which conversations need to be held among all of us, it’s good to have Thompson be part of the conversation – even in this form. After all, you just know that he’d be disappointed to miss it.
As a result, “I Came as a Shadow,” written by Thompson with ESPN’s Jesse Washington, is not to be missed either. Not only does he have plenty to contribute in serious discussions about race in America, but he has had a fascinating if unlikely life story.
I can’t say I knew much about Thompson’s upbringing, but it’s quite a tale. His father was not an unintelligent man, but he never had the chance to learn to read and write. Therefore, he did whatever he could to feed his family – such as telling the different types of cement on construction projects apart by taste. His mother was a teacher, but she wasn’t given the chance to teach because of the color of her skin. As for Thompson himself, he was placed in the back row of a classroom growing up, and not because of his height. That was where the kids who didn’t figure to get good grades wound up. (Note I didn’t use the word “dumb kids” there, because they hadn’t been given the chance to show their intellectual potential in many cases.)
Basketball, as you may have guessed, gave Thompson a chance at a better life. He was tall, as in 6-foot-10 tall, and learned to shoot and rebound. That earned him a chance to go to Providence College, which led to a degree and a brief ticket to the NBA. Thompson won a couple of titles as a backup center with the Celtics. Then he decided to get on with the rest of his life, and work as a teacher of some sort.
He may have left basketball, but basketball didn’t leave him. He ended up as a high school coach in his native Washington, and did well. Then in 1972, Georgetown University needed a coach. More specifically, it needed an African American coach. Georgetown had a great academic reputation, but its relationship with the surrounding community was a bit shaky. For once, it was an advantage for Thompson to be black.
If you are reading this, you know what Thompson accomplished at Georgetown. His teams won a national championship, qualified for three final fours, and won several conference championships. As Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pointed out, that was even more remarkable because it was so difficult to win at Georgetown. The Hoyas had never done it in the past before Thompson’s arrival, playing in no NCAA championships and two NITs before Thompson’s arrival. OK, Patrick Ewing’s time was largely responsible for reaching the Final Fours, but he was a lot of games before and after that too.
As one of the few black coaches of prominence during this time, Thompson stood out. It’s difficult for a large, 6-10 man not to stand out. He had something of a platform, and he used it. When the NCAA came up with Proposition 48 to set floors via standardized tests for freshman participation, Thompson went public and took a game off in protest. He always brought his own set of experiences to an argument, and that gave his points more validity.
Thompson had teams that were physically tough most of the time. He points out that he taught his players never to push first – but when they were pushed by opponents, to give back more than they got. He also points out that his teams always worked hard on the court and played disciplined basketball – belying the stereotype about how inner city kids played basketball. Yes, they could run plays and play suffocating defense when given the chance.
Yes, the book shows that Thompson came to compete. He didn’t want to just in the conversation as a good coach; he wanted to be the best coach that he possibly could. That included some “tough love” for his players – actions that the public never saw because his practices were usually closed – as well advice on how to be a better person. He also took some chances on recruiting certain people. Sometimes Thompson won the argument with the school’s admissions department, and those players became better players and people during their time in Georgetown. Sometimes those players didn’t turn out to be a good fit in the college atmosphere and fell away. Power forward Michael Graham, a key part of the 1984 championship team, was the most publicized example of that. Some didn’t make it through the front door of the administration building.
After retirement in 1999, Thompson moved on to the next stage of his life. He became a member of the media, serving as a talk show host in Washington and a commentator. Along the way, Thompson revealed more of his personality. It turns out John Thompson knew how to laugh, and liked doing it. That didn’t mean he was any less serious about the issues of the day.
Add it up, and John Thompson was a man with no apologies and only a few regrets. He overcame many obstacles to reach the top of his chosen profession. I don’t agree with all of Thompson’s actions, but i certainly understand them better now. “I Came as a Shadow” (taken from a poem) is a window into the life and times of a man who is still worth hearing, even when he’s gone.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)