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In His Autobiography, the College Basketball Giant John Thompson Is Plainspoken and Profound

“I’m six feet 10 inches tall,” the longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson writes in his posthumously published autobiography. “I have a large mouth, a big head and a deep voice. I naturally make a big noise. Not only am I Black, but I have dark skin. My feet are big, my body is big. Sometimes I’m loud, but I’m loud because I’m composed of big things.”

Thompson, who died in August at 78, has left behind an unusually good sports memoir with an unusual title: “I Came as a Shadow.” Though he grew up in the Washington, D.C., projects and his father never learned to read or write, Thompson had an uncle, Lewis Grandison Alexander, who was active in the Harlem Renaissance. Alexander wrote a poem titled “Nocturne Varial” that began:

I came as a shadow,
I stand now a light;
The depth of my darkness
Transfigures your night.

This book is about Thompson’s own shadows, ones he was sorry to cast. As a large, dark-skinned Black man coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s, he felt sorely underestimated — he sensed that white America instinctively considered him inelegant and unintellectual. Later, when he began to win as a college basketball coach, the nature of that shadow changed. Suddenly he was viewed as a fearsome intimidator and a bully, designations he deplored but learned to use because they gave him a competitive edge.

If you followed college basketball in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, you’re aware of the reputation of the Georgetown Hoyas. (The team won an NCAA championship in 1984.) They were thought to play rough. They were a team many loved to hate. “Bands in opposing arenas,” Thompson writes, “played the Darth Vader theme music when I walked by.”

Thompson considers that reputation overblown and deeply racist. People weren’t used to seeing a big Black man yell, or Black players who would not back down. When his star center Patrick Ewing retaliated after being consistently fouled, Thompson writes, “a whole bunch of people who never played the game saw a Black team defending itself and called us thugs.”

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