The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
“I Came as a Shadow” by John Thompson, Jr.

Mar 15, 2021

Thompson’s autobiography lets you into the deep and militant mind of the first black coach whose team won the NCAA national college basketball championship.

Thompson saw potential in young, poor, black men, especially from the Washington, D.C. area where he was raised and where he coached at elite, Jesuit-run, formerly white-only Georgetown University from 1972 to 1999. After all, he himself had been judged mentally disabled by white teachers, before going on to play two years for the Boston Celtics basketball team and getting a master’s degree in counseling. He always said his father, a manual laborer, was the smartest man he knew. His family had lived in many working class neighborhoods, including in public housing.

Thompson recruited youths like Allen Iverson, a star local high school basketball and football player from a poor background, to Georgetown. Thompson told a competing white coach, “Where you come to recruit your kids, that’s where I live.”

From the start Thompson demanded his players develop their minds as well as their bodies. The first staffer he hired at Georgetown was a young white woman he tasked with making the players study for an hour before going to practice.

Thompson constantly had to battle racists trying to hold him and his student athletes back. For example, when he first coached at a majority-black Catholic high school in D.C., his team faced dirty tricks by opposing white coaches to keep them out of tournaments. While at Georgetown, Thompson famously walked out of a game—effectively going on strike—to protest a short-lived NCAA rule that limited poor and black students’ possibilities to become college athletes. “I never had the luxury of just being a basketball coach,” he writes.

Thompson died last August, but he had finished the book. Take some lessons—and some entertainment—from reading Coach Thompson’s book.