On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
“I always planned to be a teacher, not a basketball coach. I used basketball as an instrument to teach. My classroom was the court.”
-John Thompson, “I Came as a Shadow”
Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, Jr. made history as the first African American coach to lead his team to an NCAA title in 1984. The larger-than-life force behind Georgetown’s rise to national prominence, Thompson passed away in the summer of 2020, but not before penning his autobiography. Thompson was never just a basketball coach, and “I Came as a Shadow” is decidedly not just a basketball autobiography. Thompson’s life on and off the court threw America’s unresolved struggle with racial justice into stark relief, from his childhood in a segregated Washington to our current moment of racial reckoning.
Creating opportunity for Black athletes was a cornerstone of Thompson’s legacy. He saw basketball as a means rather than an end. “Opportunity is what I fight for,” he told Kojo in 2012.
Jesse Washington, co-author of “I Came as a Shadow” and senior writer for ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” joins us to discuss Thompson’s life and enduring legacy in Washington.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Jesse Washington Co-Author, "I Came As A Shadow: An Autobiography," Senior Writer, ESPN'S "The Undefeated"; @jessewashington
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. "I always planned to be a teacher not a basketball coach," John Thompson wrote in his autobiography. "I use basketball as an instrument to teach. My classroom was the court." The Georgetown University Basketball Coach made history when he led his team to an NCAA title in 1984, the larger than life force behind Georgetown's rise to national prominence. Thompson passed away last summer, but not before penning his autobiography.
KOJO NNAMDIHe was never just a basketball coach and "I Came as a Shadow" is decidedly not just a basketball autobiography. Thompson's life on and off the court puts America's unresolved struggle with racial justice into stark relief from his childhood in a segregated Washington to this past summer of racial reckoning. Joining us to discuss Thompson's life and enduring legacy is Jesse Washington. He is Co-Author of the book "I Came as Shadow" the autobiography of John Thompson, Jr. He is also a Senior Writer with ESPN's "The Undefeated." Jesse Washington, thank you for joining us.
JESSE WASHINGTONThanks for having me. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIJesse, I'll begin this program in an unusual way with a phone call from E.W. in Prince George's County who I think captures how a lot of people who have read this book felt. E.W. you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
E.W.Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. First like to say I read the book the first day it was out, big John Thompson fan, and the book was riveting, couldn't put it down, finished it abruptly almost. But I just wanted to also, Kojo, for a basketball fan like me and many of my contemporaries growing up in Prince George's County, John Thompson was for me a mentor, basketball and even becoming life mentor that I never knew. Just, you know, of course, how he handled himself at Georgetown and then later on his radio show. He was the first to tell you he wasn't perfect, but there was a quality that was undeniable.
E.W.And let me just say for the record I rooted against them, because I was a Ralph Sampson fan. And that's when they had the media rivalry between Ewing and Pat Ewing. But after I saw John Thompson handle the Freddy Brown incident when he threw the ball away and how he handled that I heard him say that he did what any human would do. But I must say to know how much the man cared it made, irregardless of what he knew.
E.W.And so that's a prime example of how he drew people. That's about it. God bless you.
NNAMDIE.W., thank you very much for your call. Jesse Washington, I went to E.W. first because the sentiment he expressed, "I couldn't put the book down" is a sentiment that I and a lot of other people who read the book shared. So, for that and for the writing congratulations on that. How did the opportunity to co-write this autobiography come your way?
WASHINGTONWell, the opportunity came, because coach wanted to tell his story finally. And, you know, after decades of being mischaracterized and stereotyped and attacked he figured it was time to define himself, and so that really set it in motion. I just happen to be the right person in the right place at the right time.
NNAMDIWhat was your first meeting like?
WASHINGTONIt was very interesting. It was not what I expected. Coach invited me to come over to his house and met with him, his daughter, Tiffany, and his son, John. And I wouldn't exactly call it a grilling, but it was definitely a stiff questioning. You know, Coach didn't make any small talk. He wasn't about, hey, how's your family? How are your kids doing? Where did you go on vacation? It was all business. And at one point he said, you've never written a book like this before. What makes you think you could write mine? So, I guess the answers were satisfactory, because he ended up choosing me. But he was very intentional and purposeful in the writing of this book. We didn't mess around or make small talk. We came. We got to work, and we got it done.
NNAMDIThompson passed away in August of 2020 at the age of 78. Did he get to see the finished copy of the book?
WASHINGTONHe approved everything that was in it. We finished the book. He did not get to hold it in his hands, which I'm sad about, because that's a very special moment for any author. And it's somewhat of an indescribably feeling. Not exactly like the birth of a child, but a distant cousin. So, we were able to finish the book over the phone during COVID before he passed away. But he did not get to actually hold the physical copy.
NNAMDIIf you're just joining us, we're talking with Jesse Washington. He is Co-Author of "I Came As A Shadow" the autobiography of Georgetown University Basketball Coach John Thompson, Jr. He's also a Senior Writer with ESPN's "The Undefeated." Jesse, what can you tell us about Thompson's childhood and how he grew up?
WASHINGTONWell, he grew up in the Frederick Douglas housing projects in Anacostia. And there's two things that really jump out to me about how he described his childhood. Number one, it was poverty. It was segregation. He said there were literally no white people around ever that he saw. This is in the 1940s and 50s. But at the same time, he said, "I had a great childhood." And he said very clearly, "This isn't any sob story about, oh, we were so poor and deprived growing up under Jim Crow." You know, he really enjoyed his childhood and that was due -- he credited that to the love and protection and care of his parents, of his mother and father.
NNAMDITalk about his parents. Please, yes. Tell us who were they and what was his family like.
WASHINGTONWell, his mother was native Washingtonian and attended Miner Teachers College and got a college degree as a teacher, but could not get work in her profession. So, he cleaned white folks' houses. She did what they called at that time day's work. And his father was from St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland 55 miles southeast of Washington, and he could not read or write. As a child, he needed to go to work in the fields to help his family earn money and didn't have the opportunity to go to school.
WASHINGTONBut he says his father was one of the most intelligent men he ever met and taught him more than someone with a doctorate. So, it was sort of an odd couple that his parents had an educated black woman and an unlettered black man. But the combination of what the foundation that they gave him really made him into the man that he became.
NNAMDIHis father told him to quote on quote "study the white man." What did he mean by that? And how did Thompson carry that advice throughout his life and career?
WASHINGTONWhen he said study the white man, he didn't mean get in good with the white man or become friends with the white man. What he was saying was, hey, this is 1940s 1950s in America. There is a whole world out there that you can't see that you're not privy to that is preventing you from access to it. Figure out how that works. What goes on when you're not in the room? What are they saying? How are they talking about you? That's really what he meant by study the white man.
WASHINGTONAnd so how he put that into action was. He deliberately put himself in situations where he could see what was -- what that other side was like. It started at Archbishop Carroll High School, which integrated in the late 1950s and had a great basketball team, one of the greatest ever in Washington history. And then he went to Providence College. And when he went to Providence, he said, hey, don't put me in a room with another athlete or a black student. I want to just live with a regular student. And at Providence College, which was all male, that meant a white guy. And he said, I couldn't study the white man living with black kids.
WASHINGTONSo, he very consciously set out to understand this world. And then I guess his final study of the white man was when he came back to Washington and he came back to teach not to coach. But St. Anthony's High School asked him to teach, and he did it in a part-time basis. And he observed the system that all the prominent white coaches, most importantly Morgan Wooten, had setup where they controlled things, where they could influence the game behind the game, where they could influence certain decisions like where games were played or what referees were chosen. That was his final effort of studying the white man and the game behind the game. And then he put all of that into use at Georgetown.
NNAMDIWhat's the story behind the title of this autobiography, "I Came as a Shadow?"
WASHINGTONI'm so thankful that coach's daughter, Tiffany, thought that up. And when she said it for the first time, I got chills. That title is the title of a poem written by coach's uncle. His uncle was Lewis Grandison Alexander, who was a poet in the Harlem Renaissance. He was a contemporary of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes and things like. Now, when coach grew up the only black folks that he saw getting praised or public respect were athletes, Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson, people like that. He lived in the Frederick Douglas projects, but he did not know who Frederick Douglas was as a historical figure. He said black folks were too busy surviving to go down that route.
WASHINGTONSo along comes this black man who is intelligent, who's celebrated for using his mind. And he admired that. It made an impression on him. And he wrote a poem that coach, you know, one day we were doing our work and coach sort of recited this poem front to back out of nowhere. And I was a little surprised, because this was one of the first of many instances when I encountered a John Thompson that was not what the public perception was. That I had of him.
WASHINGTONAnd he referred back to the poem several times, you know, doing the course of our doing our work. And finally, one day I asked him, "Coach, do you identify with the shadow in that poem?" And he gave me this smile that he gave sometimes. It was the smile of a teacher and you might say not to be too cliché, that he had a twinkle in his eye, like, "Okay, you get it Jesse." So, he identified with the shadow in the title of the poem by his beloved and admired uncle.
NNAMDIYou recorded audio of Coach Thompson reading that poem. Let's take a listen.
COACH THOMPSONNocturne Varial by Lewis Alexander, "I came as a shadow. I stand now a light. The depth of my darkness transfigures your night. My sole is a nocturne. Each note is a star. The light will not blind you. So, look where you are. The radiance is soothing. There's warmth in the light. I came as a shadow to dazzle your night."
NNAMDIThat was late Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson, Jr. reading his Uncle Lewis Grandison Alexander's poem "Nocturne Varial." Jesse, why did John Thompson, Jr. identify with that shadow?
WASHINGTONWell, you know, I'm going step out on a limb here, because Coach was very adamant about defining himself in this book, and he choose not to spell it out. I think he wanted readers to make the inference for themselves. However, in my opinion after talking to him for two years to write this book, I feel like when he came on the scene everyone was scared. Here was a big, 6'10" black man with a loud voice, who was not shy, who was not apologetic who would not just shut up and go along with the program, who stood up for black folks and for the rights of his athletes and himself. And that intimidated a lot of people not because he was trying to bully them, but because of their own insecurities.
WASHINGTONBut then as time went on, we came to understand what Coach Thompson was really all about and the gifts that he brought us and the way that he illuminated certain aspects of life in America for athletes, for students and most importantly for black people. And so, she shone that light on us. And so, I think that that's how he identified with the shadow.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jesse Washington, Co-Author of "I Came as a Shadow" the autobiography of Georgetown University Basketball Coach John Thompson, Jr. Jesse, the team John Thompson played for at Archbishop Carroll was legendary. How did his own career as a basketball player unfold? Was it always clear he was destined for the basketball court even before he shot up in height?
WASHINGTONNo. It was not. You know, coach loved baseball. He loved baseball to the end of his days. And he was walking around the neighborhood with a baseball bat over his shoulder. And by this time, he had moved over to Benning Road and 19th Street in Washington. That was his neighborhood. And then the folks in the neighborhood were like, hey, man, you're mighty tall to have that bat. You know, you need to get over to the court. And he says he wasn't very good when he started. But then he started hearing stories about the great Elgin Baylor, who was known as Rabbit.
WASHINGTONAnd Elgin received so much attention and adulation that even before ever seeing him play, Coach Thompson was smitten with the idea of this basketball star. And then when he finally did get to see him play it was over. He became not an idol. He said something more than a hero. And that influenced him to try to become a better player. And coach did become quite a good player, one of the best players in Washington and the nation, and was highly recruited at many colleges across the country.
WASHINGTONInterestingly enough, when he graduated from Carroll in 1960 and they had won 55 games in a row, and he said that Georgetown University was one of the schools that did not recruit him, his hometown school, because at that time Georgetown did not allow any black players on their team.
NNAMDIWell, he eventually went to play at Providence University and went on to join the Boston Celtics. In the book, he says that "People say that I played for the Boston Celtics." He said, "I never played for the Boston Celtics. I sat on the bench because Russell never came out of the damn game," he said.
WASHINGTONCoach was sort of salty about that. It was very interesting. You know, and I looked in the -- they've got these great statistics on the internet. I said, "Coach, the internet says you played 10 minutes a game, you know, five points, five rebounds a game." He said, "I don't give a blank what the internet says. Russell never came out of the game."
WASHINGTONWhat that really was about was coach was all-American coming out of Providence. Averaged 26 points and 15 rebounds, you know, against some great players. But he didn't get an opportunity to really express that in the pros because he played Russell. Now he appreciated what Russell was as a player and most specifically as a black man. He appreciated being on the dynasty with the Celtics and winning to championships, but he did regret not being able to express his basketball talent in the pros.
NNAMDIWhen did his career as a player come to an end, and how did he get interested in coaching?
WASHINGTONYou know, it's funny because he did something very atypical almost unthinkable for most athletes today, but really it shows you what kind of person coach was. He played with the Celtics for two years. And then they had the expansion draft. NBA was opening up to more teams. And the Celtics left him unprotected and he was chosen by Chicago. And he said, You know what, I don't really need to play basketball anymore. I'm fine. I've always intended to be a teacher. You know, he had so many teachers as a young person who influenced him growing up who he credits with saving his life for teaching him how to read when he had a reading disability in the 6th grade. And that is what he wanted to do.
WASHINGTONAnd so, he said, All right. I'm going to go back to D.C. I'm just going to be a teacher. And that's what he did, and he worked in youth programs with troubled youth, kids coming out of jail. He worked in 4H programs. If you could picture Coach Thompson out in the park sitting around a campfire singing songs, you know, neither could I. And then St. Anthony's High School, which was a doormat had no program to speak of asked coach, hey, would you be interested in coming over and coaching these boys?
WASHINGTONAnd coach decided that he would like to apply his teaching techniques in a basketball setting. He said that he felt like he could use the lessons that he had learned and absorbed. And he was studying for a master's degree at this time also in counseling and guidance. He said, I can put all this into effect in a basketball context. So that's why he took the job.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, at this point I guess when you mention that he had trouble reading when he was a kid, we need to mention Ms. Sametta Wallace Jackson, the teacher he credited with guiding him out of that dilemma and teaching him how to read, and to the end of his life he carried a certain reverence for her, didn't he?
WASHINGTONAn immense reverence, she was his teacher at Harrison Elementary School. And he said that Mrs. Sametta Wallace Jackson taught him things about young people that informed his coaching as much as someone like Red R. back from the Celtics. She taught him how do deal with young people, how to protect them. He felt protected and sheltered, and his insecurities were understood and turned into confidence. You know, that's what she did for him. And if you think about it, that's exactly what he did for so many of his players at Georgetown.
NNAMDIHere's Glenice in Washington D.C. Glenice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GLENICEYes, good morning. How are you?
GLENICEWell, my experience was I went to St. Anthony's High School. And in 1968, I was a junior that year. I had been playing in the band. And then I was at Turkey Thicket one day and Mr. Thompson came up to me and he says, you go to the school there. I said, yes, sir. He says, wait, don't you need to be playing basketball. I said, why is that? He says, because your parents probably couldn't afford to send you to college, and you might be able to get a scholarship. And I want you to learn the best things in life and have the best things in life. And I said, well, you know, strange this man, doesn't even really know me, just knows me as a student. But went I went to the rehearsal and went to practice and saw what he was doing with these young men at our school, I was just blown away.
GLENICEHe really, really cared more about their future as the coach their basketball ability. And he carried that on, and he showed so many young men at that school how to grow up the right way and how to learn and take advantage of their education. That man is just an unbelievable person. I just can't say enough about him. I mean, we all loved. Butler loved him. Dwight Datcher loved him. Everybody that played for him loved him. Even though he cut me from the team, I loved him as well.
NNAMDIGlenice, thank you very much. I have another friend, who he cut from that team as a matter of fact. Here's Jim in Rockville, Maryland. Jim, your turn.
JIMHi, gentleman. I have a question concerning his high school experience. And I was on hold and you may have talked about it, because I heard the lead into college. I went to Archbishop Carroll probably about 10 years after him. And, of course, he was on the team that had won something like 55 straight games back in the late 50s. And I was just curious, does the book talk much about that? And did he have much to say about his high school experience at Carroll?
WASHINGTONOh, yes. He absolutely talks about it in the book. He devotes an entire chapter to it. And it was a very formative experience for him. Just the people that he played with, the way that he understood and started to observe Washington -- integrated Washington work. And this was the first one he had been exposed on a regular basis to white classmates, to other white folks, white coaches, things like that. He also remembers very specifically that although their high school team was integrated certain summer tournaments like Gel of Boys Club were segregated and he was not allowed to play in certain tournaments and playgrounds in and around Washington. And he carried that with him for a long time as well.
NNAMDIJesse, John Thompson coached the basketball team at Georgetown University for three decades. There were not many black coaches at white schools in his day. How did he end up coaching at Georgetown?
WASHINGTONThat was one of the big surprises for me in the book. Georgetown in the late 60s and early 70s really recognized that they were falling short of what they claimed to be as Catholics, as Jesuits, and just as a university in a predominantly black city. There were riots in D.C. after the assassination of Dr. King and Malcolm X. And Georgetown said, wow. We need black people here at this school. And the Dean of Admissions, who is still there, Charlie Deacon was a basketball fan and he had watched St. Anthony's become one of if not the best basketball team in Washington on the high school level. He knew Coach Thompson had played with the Celtics. And he knew that this would be an avenue to connect to black Washington.
WASHINGTONAnd so, he went to the president of the school at the time and said, hey, we need to hire this guy. Now, mind you, the basketball team at Georgetown the year before coach got there had a record of 3-23. So, it wasn't like some big risk that they were taking. And as Coach Thompson also points out in his book, when Georgetown decided to get black people, they didn't go looking for professors. They went looking for basketball coaches and basketball players. So, you know, they knew that their team would get better, because coach had a lot of black talent. And they wanted to hire a black coach. So, they basically decided to give him the job before he even applied for it.
NNAMDIYeah. Plus, he knew what was going on on all the playgrounds around D.C. and who he could find.
WASHINGTONThey probably Turkey Thicket. I mean, coach loved to hang out at the playgrounds. I asked him, Coach, so when you were -- you were recruiting at the playgrounds? He said, I wasn't recruiting. I was just hanging out living my life. That's where I liked to be. And if I saw some players so be it.
NNAMDIExactly. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Jesse Washington. He is co-author of the book "I Came As a Shadow," the autobiography of Georgetown University basketball Coach John Thompson, Jr. Jesse Washington is also a senior writer with ESPN's "The Undefeated." What was Georgetown like when John Thompson was hired in the 1970s?
WASHINGTONThat's a great question. It was not this elite, nationally known institution. It was a middle-of-the-pack, regional school that had a lot of kids from down south, and it was almost exclusively white. They might've had 50 to 100, less than 100 black people there, not only students -- faculty, the whole nine yards. And their basketball team was lousy. (laugh) That's pretty much what you need to know about Georgetown. They did not have a national reputation, and to this day, the school credits Coach Thompson and basketball with putting them on the map, nationally.
NNAMDIHere, now, is Rob in Arlington, Virginia. Rob, you're on the air, Rob. Go ahead, please.
ROBYeah, hey, Kojo, thank you for taking my call. And this is going to be a really touchy question for the author of the book. But I moved here in '86, right out of college, hung out in Georgetown, at The Tombs, met a lot of students. As the author was saying, you know, Georgetown -- there were a lot of young, white kids, guys, that wanted to play basketball, the whole Danny Ferry thing.
ROBSo, again, touchy question, but Coach Thompson just never gave a scholarship to a white kid, gave him the opportunity to play. Then Brent Musburger called him out on (unintelligible). I remember watching it. And, you know, obviously, that upset Coach Thompson, but, you know, in the whole thing of fairness, couldn't he have had at least, you know, one white player -- you know, give the opportunity to play and go to an elite school? And so, I know it a whole touch subject, but it's something that has bothered a lot of people for a long time. So, I wanted to get it out there.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, wait a minute. No subject was too tough for John Thompson. Jesse Washington, how did Coach Thompson respond to that criticism?
WASHINGTONWell, I'm glad that you brought that up. So, let's start here. The facts there are false, and people made up stories about Coach, because they didn't like who he was and what he was about. Coach Thompson had plenty of white players. He gave plenty of white kids scholarships to go to Georgetown University, you know.
WASHINGTONBut, over time, people started lying about Coach and saying he was a racist and saying he didn't like white people, which was absurd, because, as you read in the book, really, his closest and most dearest friends in life were white folks. So, people started lying and created a perception of him as somebody who would not recruit white kids. And then there are two very specific examples in the book of where other white basketball coaches lied to his white recruits and said, you shouldn't go to that school. Coach doesn't really want you, you know.
WASHINGTONOne of them went, anyway, Jeff (sic) Bolus, who ended up being a very significant contributor on a team that went to the (unintelligible). So, this idea that coach would not recruit white players is false, and really, it's a manifestation of the racism that he had to deal with. He was being treated in a racist fashion. He and his team were being called N words and having bananas and oranges thrown at them at the court. And yet, somehow, the media and certain people would turn that around into this belief that he was the one who was racist. I'm amazed that he dealt with it as calmly as he did.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rob. Here, on the same topic, is Bill in Arlington, Virginia. Bill, your turn.
BILLI will say that -- first of all, thank you for taking my call and thank you very much for the book. I think that the issue of race is certainly a touchy subject, but I am a 60-plus-year-old white kid who went to Georgetown. And I had more in common economically and from an opportunistic standpoint with the players on the basketball team than I did with most of my classmates. So, consequently, I hung out with more basketball players than I did with the average student.
BILLCoach Thompson treated me the exact same way that he treated the players. He was every bit as profane around me. (laugh) He was every bit as loving around me. He was every bit of a teacher, and I can't thank him enough. He helped make me into the man that I am today, and I will go to my grave loving the man. So, thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. But it's funny, Jesse Washington, because John Thompson, Jr. said he never used to be that profane as a young man. (laugh) That came on in later years, right?
WASHINGTONAnd it came on strong, boy. It came on heavy, you know. Coach enjoyed -- and here's another time where I'm going to take a -- go out on a limb, here. And I'm looking over my shoulder to make sure Coach ain't going to smack me in the back of the head for defining me. (laugh) But I think it's apparent in the book that he enjoyed keeping people off guard and challenging their assumptions about who and what he was. And profanity was part of that.
WASHINGTONYou know, he enjoyed keeping people off guard and on the defensive. And so, he used it because he enjoyed it, but part of it was that it surprised people, and because it was an expression of his freedom. I think that the fact that this white gentleman who just called and said that Coach treated him just like his black players shows his primary mission as an educator. You know, Coach was like, okay, here's another student, and I'm here to help this student the same way I'm helping these students who are on my basketball team. That was a great story.
NNAMDIHere is Bernadette in Frederick, Maryland. Bernadette, your turn.
BERNADETTEHi. I just wanted to say that my brother played for Coach Thompson at St. Anthony's, and my brother died about seven years ago. He died when he was 60-something. And the coach showed up to his funeral, and he literally, you know, stood out in the crowd, for one thing because he was so tall.
BERNADETTEBut there he was, you know, 40 years after he had coached him. And my brother wasn't one of the best players. He was a white guy on his team, but it was that team that did really well, and they all enjoyed him and, you know, kept in touch with him. He was just a wonderful man, and to show up after all those years. Bless him.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bernadette. Jesse Washington, I'm wondering if you might read a passage from the introduction, when John Thompson, Jr. is reflecting on his own legacy.
WASHINGTONSure. Sometimes I did not speak up when I should have. Other times, I should've kept my mouth shut. But as I got further in my career, basketball became a way of kicking down a door that had been closed to black people. It was a way for me to express that we don't have to act apologetic for obtaining what God intended us to have, and that we should be recognized more for our minds than our bodies. All of this came out of the strong responsibility I felt to teach kids more than how to throw a ball through a hoop.
WASHINGTONToo many black kids are conditioned to seek recognition based on physical instead of intellectual attributes. We have to stop thinking about power as being able to dunk on somebody or lay somebody out on the football field. Real power is defined by the capacity to think and excel in various situations. Compared with physical abilities, intelligence places you in a better position for a longer period of time. Far more money is made sitting down than standing up.
NNAMDIThat was Jesse Washington, reading from "I Came As a Shadow: the Autobiography of Georgetown University Coach John Thompson, Jr." You know, Coach Thompson joined our show back in the year 2012, because one of the ways he made money sitting down after he left coaching basketball was the same job I do. He used to host a radio show, a radio talk show here in Washington. And it was fascinating, because he did that for decades after he retired from coaching. But, as I said, he joined our show back in 2012 to talk about his coaching and his mentorship of young, black athletes. Here's John Thompson.
COACH JOHN THOMPSONSo, let's understand one thing. We want to play. We want to win. That's very significant, because that gives you leverage to walk out on Proposition 42. That gives you leverage to question why there aren't African-Americans refereeing or African-Americans coaching. If you win, people listen to you. If you lose, they say you're sour grapes, okay. But if the opportunity comes for these kids, then they better take advantage of that opportunity, or I'm going to tell you that you got to get out of here.
NNAMDIJesse Washington, can you explain what he was talking about in that clip and what effect that tough love approach had on Thompson's reputation?
WASHINGTONMan, that was fantastic. Thanks for playing that. So, what Coach was talking about was this. He's going to bring these kids to Georgetown to graduate, number one, and that's his primary focus. And, you know, numerous players from Patrick Ewing on down, told me: Coach didn't promise me I will play a minute, no starting, no nothing. All he promised was that if I did what I was supposed to do, I would get a diploma from Georgetown. So, that was his primary focus.
WASHINGTONAnd if the young people that he brought to campus were not going to go to class, study, apply themselves academically to really fulfill the main reason they were there, which was to graduate, it didn't matter how well they played on the court, he would kick them out of school. He would get rid of them. And he made plenty of student athletes who are on his team, who could've helped him win more championships, he said, no, you can't stay here because you're not serious about school. And that's an amazing thing for a coach to do, to prioritize education at the expense, at the literal expense of him winning.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones, now. Here is Paul, in Washington, D.C. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
PAULThank you for the opportunity -- I appreciate, you know, the opportunity to talk about Coach. I'm from Philadelphia, originally, and John Thompson's peer was John Chaney, who also transitioned very recently. And, you know, they were similar in their outlook and fought battles together with the with respect to equality, which I'm sure the author knows a lot about. And I just wondered if there was any -- in the course of your discussions with Coach Thompson, did you ever talk about other black trailblazing coaches that were his peers, like John Chaney at Temple University in Philadelphia, and their battles for more opportunity and equality for players?
NNAMDIJohn Chaney was his friend. Jesse Washington?
WASHINGTONAbsolutely. He loved John Chaney dearly, and he mentioned that frequently in the book and throughout our conversations. And they had a crew, those guys, and they called themselves the Final Four, and it had nothing to do with the NCAA tournament. It was the Final Four basketball coaches with real influence. And it was Coach Thompson, John Chaney, George Raveling and Nolan Richardson. And he spoke very lovingly of these men.
WASHINGTONThere's a clip that you can find on YouTube of the four of them going on the PBS television show "Charlie Rose" and talking about more equality and pushing back against discriminatory rules from the NCAA. But one of the biggest points that Coach made in his book was that, at this point right now in college athletics, there are no black coaches with the influence and stature that those Final Four had. And that goes back to what Coach said in the clip from his appearance on your show. You got to win to get the leverage. And so, the fact that we have sort of moved backwards in that way is something that was definitely on his mind.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. There are, indeed, whole chapters in this book devoted to Thompson's former players, people like Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and, of course, Patrick Ewing. What did Thompson have to say about Patrick, who is now, himself, the coach of Georgetown's basketball team?
WASHINGTONPatrick had a very, very special place in Coach's heart. And I think it began because he appreciated the fact that at the time when Patrick Ewing committed to come to Georgetown, he was the superstar high school player of America. He was like the Zion Williamson of his day, and he chose to play for a black coach. No top player had ever done that before, you know. It was very unusual, and it reflected the trust that Patrick and his family had for Coach. So, he appreciated that.
WASHINGTONAnd then I think that his feelings about Patrick, Coach Ewing, were summed up when he said, look, if someone asked me who the greatest player to ever come to Georgetown is, I'm going to say Patrick, because I believe that is true. But if someone -- another player came to Georgetown who I thought was greater than Patrick, I would lie and say the best player was still Patrick, (laugh) because that's how much I love that man.
WASHINGTONAnd I got to witness their relationship, because we did a lot of the work for the book at Georgetown, in the basketball office. And to see how they interacted with each other all these years later with Coach Ewing as the coach and Coach Thompson as his elder, it really made clear the extraordinarily respectful and loving relationship that these two giant black men had.
NNAMDIHow did he stop himself from interfering when his son, John Thompson III, was coaching, and when Patrick Ewing is coaching?
WASHINGTONWith extreme difficulty, (laugh) I think he says in the book that, on some level, I did want to coach John's team, you know. But JT3, as he's known, was raised in his father's image and was intelligent enough to say: Okay, pops, what do you think? You know, what do you think about this situation? And then the younger John would do what he felt was right, and Coach says in his book, a lot of times that wasn't what I said. (laugh) And it bothered me. But he's my son. I raised the man to make his own decisions. So, I had to live with it.
NNAMDIBefore I go back to the phones, Jesse, what impact did he have on the life of another Hall of Famer, Allen Iverson?
WASHINGTONWe would not know the name Allen Iverson now if Coach Thompson had not decided to help a young man who had gotten into some trouble and needed help. We would not know the name Allen Iverson if his mother had not said to Coach Thompson, please, you've got to take my son, or they're going to kill him. The back story is what happened with Allen is that he was unjustly convicted of a crime which he was not guilty of. And all of his hundreds of scholarship offers disappeared, and no one was willing to give him a chance but Coach.
WASHINGTONAnd Coach says in his book, he was the type of challenge that I needed to help a young mother and her son, somebody who needed help. He didn't know that Allen Iverson was going to be the great Allen Iverson, the revolutionizer of basketball and things like that. He was more concerned with helping him out.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, Allen Iverson said that when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, that his mother, in his words, literally begged John Thompson to take me, and he did. Here is Joe, in Washington, D.C. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEThanks, Kojo, for letting me comment. I'm a big Georgetown fan and even bigger John Thompson fan. Two things. I used to see Coach at church. He would come into Santa Augusta's Catholic Church on Sunday, some Sundays, and he would always stand in the back or near the front door. He always stands (unintelligible) so when they would have peace be with you and so forth, I would go and speak to him and so forth. So, I was always seeing him in the back there.
JOEAnd the other thing is that I used to see the commentators, from time to time. There were certain commentators would try and make a comparison between teams like Duke and Georgetown. And what would get on my case, they would say Duke's the all-American team, the intelligent players, the good guys. And Georgetown, you know, the (word?) or the bad guys, especially after they got the following of the hip-hop community. So, I always thought that was very annoying and unfair and it used to piss me off.
JOEBut Coach Thompson left a legacy that I don't think will -- be hard to duplicate. So, I'm glad -- I'm looking forward to getting this book. I'm looking forward to reading it.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Jesse Washington, there was a time when, during John Thompson's tenure as coach of that team, there were black kids all over the country who were following Georgetown basketball, who bought Georgetown basketball gear, who just liked the manner in which the Georgetown players played. Talk a little bit about that.
WASHINGTONYeah, I was one of them, you know. (laugh) I was a teenager when Georgetown basketball took it to the next level and went to three championship games in the span of four years. But, yes, we liked them because they were successful, but really what made an impression on us was they had a black coach, and they were uncompromising in their attitude. They didn't apologize for living, as Coach would say.
WASHINGTONAnd, you know, that perception that the caller just described and the way that they were stereotyped in a racist fashion as being animalistic brutes. Whereas some of their white players who also played hard and aggressive and pressed full court would be intelligent and tough, you know. That was another reason why, on a conscious level, we identified with them, because the things they said about Georgetown were the same things they said about us in terms of black people in the community.
WASHINGTONAnd the fact that Georgetown overcame that and didn't change who they were to appease the insecurities of unintelligent people is really what endeared them to a whole nation. And, of course, they won. Like Coach said, you have to win to get that credit and to get that respect and to do anything. It all starts with winning.
WASHINGTONAnd so that combination was extremely potent, and it was the dawn of the hip-hop era. And that attitude crossed over between hip-hop and the players. And then there was the Nikes that they wore. And Georgetown helped put Nike, period, as a corporation on the map with their attitude and style in sneakers. So, it all really came together in a very powerful fashion. And, definitely, for me, and to get to help Coach Thompson describe that in his book, was a real privilege.
NNAMDIWe've got to talk about that 1984 championship victory over Houston. History will remember John Thompson, Jr. as the first black coach to lead a basketball team to an NCAA title, but he always bristled at that phrasing. Why?
WASHINGTONIt really says a lot about him, that he rejected that supposed compliment, because he was very cognizant of the fact, and he says in his book, look, you're acting like I was the first black coach with the ability to win a national championship. And that is false.
WASHINGTONPlenty of coaches before me had more than enough talent and ability and intelligence to win a championship. But they were denied the opportunity to do so. The great John McClendon, Cal Irvine, Clarence "Big House" Gaines. These were tremendous coaches who were segregated away from success in basketball. So, when you say that I'm the first to win a championship, I'm thinking about all the ones who were denied the opportunity to win a championship before.
NNAMDIHere is Jason in College Park, Maryland. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASONGood afternoon, gentlemen. And my question is for Jesse. Jesse, working with Coach Thompson -- well, here, let me back up. I used to listen to Sports Talk 980, and I remember Coach saying people make more money sitting down than standing up. And he actually, over the radio, encouraged me to go back to school and finish getting my degree. So, I'm proud to say I'll be a college graduate at the age of 50 because of Coach Thompson. So, that's one of the things he did for me, because the opportunity I had to meet him, I was too afraid to go up and shake his hand. So, (laugh) I'm getting my degree because of Coach Thompson.
JASONBut my question to you is, out of all the things that you learned with working with Coach Thompson, what is one message that you would pass on to people who respected him, like me? Like, what is one lesson that the book doesn't touch on that you got from Coach? And that's my question. Thank you.
WASHINGTONMan, well, first of all, Jason, congratulations for getting that degree. And Coach Thompson is definitely smiling down right now because he cared about that more than anything. I think that the biggest lesson I took, personally, away from it was to -- and my interactions with Coach. And I was in class with this man for two years, taking notes. And it's really to not be apologetic on getting the things that we have earned.
WASHINGTONAnd he pointed out, very clearly, that a lot of times we're made to -- people try to make us feel thankful for us getting an opportunity that we deserve, that we've earned. So, you don't have to be apologetic for that. You don't have to be grateful for having the rights that God intended you to have. And so, I've actually changed my vocabulary. And now when I'm receiving things that I've earned, I used words like I appreciate it. And I'm not going to say, well, I'm grateful for this. Thank you, sir, you know. No, I'm not going to do that. And I got that from Coach Thompson.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time, so we won't get the opportunity to discuss what happened when John Thompson met with then-drug kingpin Rayful Edmond. I guess you'll just have to read the book to see what happened there. (laugh) But, Jesse Washington, thank you so much for joining us.
WASHINGTONThank you for having me. This was wonderful. Coach loved Washington, D.C., his hometown. And to have it explored in this way and hear from the callers today would've been great.
NNAMDIJesse Washington is the co-author of "I Came As a Shadow: the Autobiography of Georgetown University Basketball Coach John Thompson, Jr." Jesse Washington is also a senior writer with ESPN's "The Undefeated." Today's show on the legacy of John Thompson, Jr. was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, homicides hit a 15-year high in D.C. last year. We'll speak with community organizers about how gun violence affected their neighborhoods and how the pandemic has changed their work. Then George Pelecanos joins us to talk about how the Washington region shaped his career as a crime novelist, screenwriter and producer. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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