When John Thompson Jr. In August, at the age of 78, he stole from the world one of the most titanic figures in basketball, a Hall of Fame coach whose presence and openness about the problems of the game left an indelible mark not only on college basketball but also on society and sport in general. I Came As A Shadow, less than four months after Thompson’s death, is the long-awaited autobiography describing Thompson’s life and career, written by the legendary Georgetown coach in his signature direct and enlightening style. Invincible’s lead author, Jesse Washington, Thompson’s co-author of the project, spoke to ESPN.com about the book, the themes, and the writing process: (Reading of I Come as a Shadow)
How were you involved in this project? What was your relationship with Thompson before you started?
I didn’t have a relationship with the coach before we started. They were looking for a writer, and John Skipper [former ESPN president] was asked if he knew anyone who could do a good job, and he put my name in a hat. The captain suggested I frahlen David Black, who just signed for Coach. Then I had to meet a coach, and I had an interview, kind of a hearing. The Coach, his son John and his daughter Tiffany. Apparently I did well, because he chose me. Much later I asked Coach why he had decided to sign with Nike and not with Adidas or Converse, the biggest shoe manufacturers in the late 70s. And he said: Well, you know, I liked Phil [Knight]. They’re dragging their feet. They had no name or reputation. You know, in a way, that’s why I chose you.
What was the timeline? What were the chances between your first meeting and your publication?
Fault! The file name is not specified. In I Came as a Shadow John Thompson shares his journey as a basketball coach, parent and educator. AP Photo/United States Today/Porters
With co-authors, a tension can arise between what the co-author thinks is important and what the co-author thinks the reader wants or needs to know. Were there themes in I Came As A Shadow that you had to click to record them or put them aside so that you didn’t record too many?
Coach Thompson told me several times during the trial that everyone has a public life, a private life and a secret life. I’m no different. He meant that, yes, I’m not giving you everything in this book. I kept a few for myself. And he wrote it in a book. There was nothing more precious to him than his family, and you could see it in what he got from his parents, and then that love and that deep connection was so evident in his relationship with his own children – with both of them. He only wanted something for himself, but he still talked about things about his children he had never talked about in public, especially the dismissal of his son John as a basketball coach in Georgetown, and I hope he was happy about that.
Finally, a character as outspoken as Thompson in I Came As A Shadow shows how private he was in his personal life.
You won’t achieve what he did without putting on armor every day against a hostile world. So it was difficult, but as time passed and he felt more comfortable with the process and saw the book being read, he was more willing to reveal more of his personal feelings, and he did so to a greater extent than anything I had seen him do before. The coach spent his entire career protecting himself and his players from a rather hostile environment, so it was against his nature to be vulnerable.
It’s amazing how Thompson suffered. The nuns at his Catholic elementary school abused his intelligence, he suffered many insults about his race during his gambling career, he lost a child and he went through a bitter divorce. How much of Thompson’s worldview do you think was caused by that pain? Could he be the John Thompson we knew without him?
I think the pain he felt and those trials have completely shaped his mind. Another thing he liked to say, yes, Jesus said to forgive us. But he said don’t forget. Coach Thompson didn’t want to forget these things because he said remembering makes you strong. He never told the public about such painful times. He’s had it on his chin his whole life. And that made him strong. He became John Thompson. I’m glad he finally told us. Yeah, it hurts. When I was a kid, it was frustrating to be isolated in the back of the church. It hurt me to fight with one of my best friends, who happened to be black, for the last place in the Celtics, where we fought for five or six places and the white players fought for twelve.
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I’m glad he showed that it hurt because it shows a more human side of him, and it shows that he wasn’t Superman, that he really paid the price. I think one of the great things that comes out of his book is that I paid the price for doing these things and reaching these heights and making these points, and I paid it so you could carry the torch. He appreciated the athletes who have shown themselves in these modern times, starting with LeBron. If we know what price people have paid, it gives them more value and we can give them full credit. I hope this is part of what this book does.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
For a man known never to use words, Thompson often writes that he feels misunderstood and that his intentions are misinterpreted. He complains that he was perceived as intimidating and suggests that people have seen a meter long black man with a booming voice and have drawn conclusions. He said he was very disappointed that people interpreted his feelings about race as evidence that he was racist. What do you think this book says about developing an appropriate protocol on these topics?
A considerable amount of money. It was very important for him to see him as intimidating and a bully to solve this problem. Because he never talked about it. He didn’t do it on purpose during his career because he didn’t want to give oxygen to this discussion. During the two years I worked on the book, I realized that it hurt when it was presented that way, but he could never miss it. But it hurt him deeply, and it hurt him a lot, so this book was certainly a chance to express what he felt. His description of how and why this misunderstanding arose was perfectly correct, perfectly correct, and I hope people will read that and really think about how we still stereotype black people today.
The story of Thompson’s confrontation with drug lord Rayful Edmonds has become a legend. Thompson wrote about Edmonds for a long time, but seemed to want to disprove the episode. Did that surprise you? He certainly could have doubled the myth – and some other myths about his life and career.
I was surprised! I grew up thinking it was Rayful who ran down the street, stuck his finger in his face and yelled at him [laughing]. He’s a legend, and that’s what we thought we knew about Coach Thompson. So yes, I was surprised, but when he described it, it made perfect sense. And he said: Jesse, why would I do that? That man had all the influence. My program was online. Why would I piss her off?
Everyone had great respect for Coach Thompson’s intelligence and knew he was a smart man. But the level of depth and the layers of thought he applied to everything, and the way he always analyzed situations from different angles, were really clear when I worked with him on this book, and it was really incredible to see how you could bring that down. That’s what I was trying to convey in the book. He could see things from different angles, like when he said Martin Luther King was right, but he was also wrong. It was typical of his way of looking at things. This is how he analyses Rayful Edmond’s situation and that is exactly how he approaches all his problems.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Game
Tom Izzo, head coach of the state of Michigan, and Rob Murphy honor legendary coach John Thompson with a towel on his shoulders at the season opener of the Spartans.
I Came As A Shadow expresses how much Thompson enjoyed the match. His battles with Jim Boeheim, Lefty Drisell and Morgan Watten are recounted in the book, as well as his basketball fights with personalities such as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Arthur Ashe. How important was it for Thompson to beat people intellectually, rather than just beating them in a game?
You know, I don’t think he wanted to hit her. I think he wanted to talk to them. Especially with Arthur Ashe, he said, I can test the courage of my beliefs by having a debate with someone I respect. And so it is with Jesse: I disagreed with Jesse about what he did, but I respected his big goals. Intellectually, Thompson was very fond of intelligent people. He liked to be around intelligent people and talk to them, and he liked to bring out the intellectual aspects of his players. He challenged her: Come on, man, think about it. Have a rational mind. Learn how to express yourself. Read what’s in the paper and we’ll talk about it. Which basketball coach would appear at practice and tell you what’s going on in Iran today?
He was an exceptionally strong competitor in basketball, and he kept telling me how important winning was to him – so much so that he threw his own need for education out the window when it came to winning in basketball [laughing]. He arranged for himself, just like when you try to hide the dessert in your house, you tell your wife to hide the dessert so you don’t eat it. In basketball, he was determined to win every time he took the court.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Led by Patrick Ewing, Thompson won the first national championship in Georgetown Hoyas in 1983-84. AP Photo/news
Thompson was excited to make an impact in Georgetown in the years following his retirement as head coach. But his name is on the basketball court. The three coaches who followed him have direct ties to Thompson, including his son, John Thompson III, and current coach Patrick Ewing. What impact do you think Thompson had in Georgetown?
They must have listened to him! He couldn’t let them do what he wanted, because like he said, if I could, they wouldn’t have fired my son. But he’s certainly had his say. As it should have been. First of all, he was a smart man with a lot of wisdom. I saw so many people working on the book with him…. His phone rang and it was one of his former players who looked a bit like the commissioner of a sports conference who called him somewhere and asked for his advice, or like a TV presenter that we see every week on TV who just came by to say hello and ask his opinion on something. Even Georgetown’s current president, John DeGioia, who has been president for nearly 20 years, had incredible respect for the coach. They didn’t do what he told them to, and he wasn’t arrogant enough to try and tell them what to do, but they certainly listened to him, and they were better for it. In Georgetown he has made a considerable impact – a well-deserved impact – for the rest of his life.
Eventually, the post-Thompson era will have to come to the coaching position. Coach Ewing, if he succeeds, there won’t be forever. But the statue of [Thompson] is in the building. His name is on the building. This season they’re playing on John Thompson’s field. The university itself wouldn’t be the Georgetown we know without what he did as an educator and coach. At this point, I hope there will never be a post-Thompson era in Georgetown. He left his mark on university and college athletics that we must remember forever.
Thompson died on the 30th. August, a few days after his 79th birthday. Birthday. What stage was the manuscript at when he died?
Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough! We were able to finish him off, and he went through everything in detail before he died. He’s still a hearing man. And much of what we experienced with the material in the book from the beginning, I came to him, sat down with him and talked to him: Okay, I have new material, I just read it and then he comments and corrects. When COVID came by, we spent hours on the phone reading and talking about it, and that’s how the book was born.
I’ve read it to him more than once, so he asked me to make an audiobook because he said they understand what’s behind it. It was a bit surreal – it’s an exaggerated word in our business – but the only surreal moment was when I read John Thompson’s words to John Thompson and really felt like John Thompson. But he enjoyed it and searched every word in the book. This book was very close to his heart and he knew, on a certain level, that it was his last public will and testament. He did everything he could to make it happen, and I think the results will speak for themselves.
Fault! The file name is not specified. The love between Thompson and his children, including his son John Thompson III, is emphasized throughout the book. Jeff Burke-USA Sports Today
Have the three Thompson children seen the book? What kind of feedback did they give you?
John III, Tiffany and Ronnie have been with us from the beginning. They were the ones who convinced him to write the book in the end, and they were one of the motivating factors. Tiffany found a title [a line from Thompson’s uncle’s poem] that still surprises me, the title of the book. You read it all the way through to the end.
We usually met in Georgetown to work in or at the basketball office, and Ronnie works on the team, so I probably saw Ronnie more than anyone else, but I talked to everyone, and it was great to see Thompson’s relationship with his children. I’m a father of four, but my children are younger. Coach Thompson’s kids are my age. See this relationship and the love they share Although, as he writes in the book, he had to sacrifice a lot of time with his family to do what he did, win games and fight for black emancipation, that love was still strong.
I’ve noticed one thing: Coach Thompson could walk, but he usually used a chair. Ronnie used to come into the room where we worked and kiss his father on the head. That’s not what we think of John Thompson. His children have been closely involved with the book. He often asked his opinion about what should be in the book, and the book has greatly improved as a result.
He trusted them in many ways, and they were always lovingly cared for. They knew it was important for him to tell his own story. They knew he wanted to do this, so they gave him a push, and when the book was written, they helped him understand what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
You played basketball in college. After working with him on this project, do you think you can play the role of John Thompson?
I was never close enough to being a good player for Georgetown, but when I wrote the book, I felt like a player [laughs]. Coach Thompson was a coach to the end and a teacher to the end, so the way we treated each other, I wanted his approval, and I understood why the boys played hard for him. I understood why he got the best out of his players because he got the best out of me as a writer. I wanted to do a good deed for him. I couldn’t play for Georgetown, but there were a few fleeting moments when I felt like I had Hoyas on my shirt while I was writing a book. And I’m grateful for that.