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In the 1980s, John Thompson Jr. and the Georgetown men’s basketball team left a lasting impression on Jesse Washington. Even though Washington lived more than 300 miles away from D.C., in Poughkeepsie, New York, the Hoyas were “a thousand percent” his team.
“Wait, let’s just stop. They were every Black kid’s team,” Washington, a senior writer for the Undefeated, tells City Paper. “And a lot of White kids too. Georgetown was the favorite team of Black America. That is not at all an exaggeration.”
Washington, 51, remembers going across the hall to his neighbor’s home to watch Georgetown beat Houston and win the 1984 NCAA Championship because his family did not own a TV. He devoured articles on Thompson and the Hoyas. Washington loved the fact that Georgetown was a majority Black team led by a Black coach.
“At that time, in the early ’80s, you did not see Black people in positions of authority very much at all,” he says.
Fast forward to 2018, and Washington was sitting in Thompson’s home after being chosen to co-write the coach’s autobiography. The pair finished the project about a month before Thompson, a D.C. native and member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, died on Aug. 30, 2020, at 78.
The book, I Came As a Shadow: An Autobiography, was published posthumously last December.
City Paper spoke with Washington about the writing process for the book, Thompson’s legacy as a coach and educator, the misconceptions and racism Thompson faced, and stories that Thompson shared that didn’t make it in the final version of the book. The interview has been edited and condensed.
WCP: What was the writing process like?
Jesse Washington: I did all the writing. He did all the talking. And my job was to turn that talking into the writing. And then we would go over it, and then he would make changes. He made all the changes with us sitting there talking about it … The way he preferred to engage with this work was for me to write it, and then I would sit there … This is how every session started, “So what do you got for me today, Jesse?” And what he was asking for was a question, a topic, something to talk about, or something that I had written. And when I wrote something, I would bring it in, I would read it, and then he would make corrections. He would tell me he liked it, he didn’t like it, etc. … He made a lot, without ever using a pencil on a piece of paper, he made an incredible number of very subtle, but hugely important changes to the text of his book, down to word choice, all from listening and describing to me what he wanted.
WCP: What were your initial impressions of Thompson and what did you know about him before you met him?
JW: He had a huge impression on me. I was a teenager, I was in high school, and I love basketball, I love to read. Coach Thompson and I both grew up in the projects, we didn’t have a TV. So if there was a big game on, one of the first games that I remember watching, I went across the hall to my neighbor’s house, and watched Georgetown beat Houston for the championship. So I watched a couple of Georgetown games. And I really loved the fact that it was a Black team with a Black coach and having a Black coach really made an impression on me, because at that time, in the early ’80s, you did not see Black people in positions of authority very much at all. You didn’t see that. And so that really made an impression on me. And then also, I admired him and his team, what he was doing … I was a huge reader. My parents didn’t have a TV, but … they had the New York Times in the house all the time. So I would read that. They’d be writing about Coach Thompson. I was a big fan of Sports Illustrated. My grandparents, knowing that I like to read bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated starting when I was probably in junior high school. So I read every issue, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were covering him often, not always, but often in a racist fashion.
WCP: What surprised you most about Thompson while you were working on the book?
JW: His influences, specifically the Black women, starting with his mom. And then the influence of his father. But most specifically … I look at it as two sets of influences on him. No. 1 was the black women, with his mom, his sixth grade teacher who figured out that he needed to learn how to read, Sametta Wallace Jackson, and the director of his master’s degree program, Dr. Anita Hughes. He said those two women and his mother had as much influence on his coaching as some of the greatest minds in basketball. So that’s pretty profound. He learned how to coach from these people who were not coaches. And then, the other thing that really surprised me, even as a basketball junkie and somebody who reads a lot, was that his two biggest coaching mentors were Red Auerbach and Dean Smith. I mean, it gradually dawned on me that all the things he got criticized for at Georgetown, the way he ran his team, the way he controlled everything, how he yelled at the refs, all that stuff, he learned it from Red and Dean. But when they did it, it was fine, but when the big Black guy did it, he was trying to be a bully or a racist or all this other stuff … I think very few people knew that Coach Thompson spent hours and hours alone, driving with Red Auerbach as a teenager … I think very few people knew that he would talk late into the night on the phone with Dean Smith.
WCP: What misconceptions about Thompson did you feel bothered him the most?
JW: Being perceived as a bully and trying to intimidate people. That one bothered him more than, in my opinion, being called a racist. Being called a racist was just absurd. It was so ridiculous, that like anybody with any sense would look at it and look at his closest friends, and the people he worked with, the people he hired, the White players that he recruited, anybody can look at that and see that was nonsense.
WCP: The story that got some attention was about Rayful Edmond. I remember reading the story that was told over and over again was that Thompson intimidated this guy. Once you learned the real story, what was your reaction to that? Why do you think he didn’t come out and correct the narrative on that?
JW: I’ll answer the second part of your question first. He always said, “I’m not going to give any time to defending myself against false accusations.” He said, “If I come out and defend myself, it becomes an argument between pro and con. If I don’t, and I sit back and say nothing, then I let those people argue about it over there, people will come out and defend me.” … So that’s why he didn’t go out there saying, talking about. I think that is the perfect example of how his reputation was misconstrued, because … people just assumed, “Oh, yeah, Coach intimidated him. Coach yelled at him.” And that fit our image of him, and not always in a negative way, ‘cause the brothers around the way, it was like, “That’s right, Coach was like, man, stay the blank away from my team.” And that’s not what happened. Also, by the time we got around to that story, I wasn’t surprised … We didn’t deal with that topic until easily a year into the project. He took his time getting to that. I think he was figuring out exactly how this was going to go because this was something he’d never spoke about publicly. And so it was at least a year into the project before we got around to it. So when he did describe what had happened, we had already debunked the whole intimidation business.
WCP: When you’re working with someone who has as many stories as Thompson does, I’m sure there are things you left out. Was there something you wish you could’ve kept in?
JW: There were some of those. But more so it was just stuff, like I think Coach said it in the book, everybody has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. So after about a year, year and a half, I knew what things he wanted in there and what he didn’t. And so those are some of the things that I think about that are not in the book. And almost all the time, he’s protecting somebody with that. He’s being nice. He doesn’t want to talk bad about somebody. You’ll notice there’s very few things in that book that talks about mistakes that his players made. But, I mean, let’s be honest, they made a ton of mistakes. I’m sure there’s a number of hilarious stories about how he had to go get this person, or go save that person, or go curse out this kid because he was doing something wrong … So all the stuff that he left out, he was trying to protect other people because he knew the weight of his words … Here’s an example of something that’s not in there. He was talking about [how] he was hanging out at Boys’ Club No. 2 And the drug dealers used to sponsor teams, you know, it’s pretty typical thing. So he was at No. 2, and there was a hustler from New York and he brought his team down to play some squad from D.C. And Coach was just sitting around with his friends at Boys’ Club No. 2, because that was one of his favorite things to do. He said the hustlers from New York, his squad walks in, and one of the best players in the Big East is on his team … It was a good name, too.
WCP: What are some main takeaways that you want readers to come away with from this book?
JW: Well, Coach would want readers to come away with the inspiration to succeed using your mind. Yeah, basketball is great, and dunks and touchdowns and all that kind of stuff. But you can think your way to greatness. That’s what he said in his book. So that’s one of his most important things. Coach would want people to come away from this book with a belief in the power of education. Now for me, I hope that people come away with a deep appreciation for the historical significance of Coach’s life. Coach wasn’t about that. Coach was rather modest with these type of things. He continually downplayed how important a figure he was. But I really hope that people who read this understand this was a person who bridged eras in a very remarkable way, who grew up during Jim Crow and then met six presidents. And the reason why he was so revered was yes, because he was a coach, but he stood for more than basketball. He’s probably the only famous coach who is known more for things that don’t have to do with basketball. He’s known for education. He’s known for social justice. He’s known for speaking out for disadvantaged people. So that’s what I hope people get out of that, that he was very special.