“I’m six feet 10 inches tall,” writes longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson in his posthumously published autobiography. “I have a big mouth, a big head and a deep voice. I make a big noise, of course. Not only am I black, but I also have dark skin. My feet are big, my body is big. Sometimes I’m loud, but I’m loud because I’m made up of big things. “
Thompson, who died in August at the age of 78, left an unusually good sports memory with an unusual title: “I came like a shadow”. Although he grew up in Washington, DC 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 called “Nocturne Varial” that began:
I came like a shadow
I now stand a light;
The depth of my darkness
Transfigured your night.
This book is about Thompson’s own shadow that he unfortunately had to cast. As a tall, dark-skinned black man who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, he felt severely underrated – he sensed that white America instinctively considered him inelegant and unintelligent. Later, when he started winning as a college basketball coach, the nature of that shadow changed. He was suddenly seen as a formidable intimidator and tyrant, terms he regretted but learned to use because they gave him a competitive edge.
If you followed college basketball in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, you know the Georgetown Hoyas reputation. (The team won an NCAA championship in 1984.) They were believed to be playing hard. They were a team that many loved to hate. “Bands in opposing arenas,” Thompson writes, “were playing the Darth Vader-themed music as I passed.”
Thompson believes this reputation is exaggerated and deeply racist. People weren’t used to seeing a tall black man scream, or black players who wouldn’t back down. When his star center Patrick Ewing retaliated after being constantly fouled, Thompson wrote: “Quite a few people who never played the game saw a black team defend themselves and call us thugs.”