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Freshman Book Series

This guide provides resources supporting each year's common read.

I Came as a Shadow

Cover of "I Came as a Shadow." Black and white photograph of John Thompson with his arms crossed and trademark towel thrown over his shoulderThe Freshman book selected for the Class of 2025 is I Came as a Shadow by John Thompson with Jesse Washington.

Summary

John Thompson was never just a basketball coach and "I Came As A Shadow" is categorically not just a basketball autobiography.

After five decades at the center of race and sports in America, Thompson—the iconic NCAA champion, Black activist, and educator—was ready to make the private public at last, and he completed this autobiography shortly before his death in the historically tumultuous summer of 2020. Chockful of stories and moving beyond mere stats (three Final Fours, four-time national coach of the year, seven Big East championships, 97 percent graduation rate), Thompson’s book drives us through his childhood under Jim Crow segregation to our current moment of racial reckoning. We experience riding shotgun with Celtics icon Red Auerbach and coaching NBA Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson. What were the origins of the the phrase “Hoya Paranoia”? You’ll see. And parting his veil of secrecy, Thompson brings us into his negotiation with a D.C. drug kingpin in his players’ orbit in the 1980s, as well as behind the scenes of his years on the Nike board.

Thompson’s mother was a teacher who had to clean houses because of racism in the nation's capital. His father could not read or write. Their son grew up to be a man with his own larger-than-life statue in a building that bears his family’s name on a campus once kept afloat by the selling of 272 enslaved Black people. This is a great American story, and John Thompson’s experience sheds light on many of the issues roiling our nation. In these pages, he proves himself to be the elder statesman whose final words college basketball and the country need to hear.

** From the publisher

Themes

The book looks at the following themes:

  • Coaching and Mentorship
  • Code-Switching
  • Identity and Blackness
  • Institutional and Structural Racism 
  • Family, Community, and Belonging
  • Injustice and Social Action
  • Struggle and Perseverance
  • Love and Personal Growth
  • Education
  • Sports and Identity
  • Stereotypes

Author Information

US Olympic basketball coach John Thompson talks with members of the Osan Air Base all-star team. The airmen scrimmaged with the American Olympians to help prepare them for competition in the XXIVth OlympiadBasketball Hall of Famer John Thompson's name is synonymous with success, as is the program he built at Georgetown University. Whether the yardstick used to measure that success is overall wins (596- 239), post season appearances (24 consecutive), graduation rate (97%- 76 of 78 students who stayed four years) or players drafted by the NBA (26, 8 in the first round), Coach Emeritus John Thompson built a winner. He established a program which has been a standard bearer for the BIG EAST Conference with League leading records vs. all conference opponents (233-122), vs. Conference opponents in regular season play, (199-107) in post season play (34-15) and in Conference championships (7 regular season, 6 tournament). His teams have: won a National Championship (1984), appeared in three Final Fours (1982, 1984, 1985) and played in 20 NCAA Tournaments, 14 appearances being consecutive.

He was named "Coach of the Year" a total of seven times. The BIG EAST Conference, in the 1991-92 season named him Coach of the Year for the third time (having previously awarded him this title in 1979-80 and 1986-87). The United States Basketball Writers Association and "The Sporting News" recognized him in 1983-84. The National Association of Basketball Coaches acknowledged him in 1984-85 and United Press International chose him in 1986-87.

The 1988 Olympic Head Coach in Men's Basketball for the USA, his team captured a bronze medal in Seoul. Mr. Thompson was also an assistant coach for the 1976 Olympic team, which won a Gold Medal in Montreal and was a member of the selection committee for the 1984 Olympic team, which won a gold medal in Los Angeles.

A major figure in and out of the coaching profession, John Thompson is a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and has served on their board of directors. He is a trustee of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has been a consultant and spokesman for Nike and is a member of its board of directors. He is one of the founders of 4-H in the nation's capital. He established Georgetown's "Kids and Cops" program, which annually gives away 10,000 tickets to Hoya basketball games. His protest of "proposition 42" focused national attention on issues of economic and educational discrimination.

Mr. Thompson's bachelor degree from Providence College was in economics, but he also holds a master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of the District of Columbia. He has received honorary degrees from Georgetown University, St. Peter's College, Wheeling College and most recently from the University of the District of Columbia. He holds the titles of Coach Emeritus and Presidential Consultant for Urban Affairs at Georgetown University. He has received the two highest awards which Georgetown University can confer: the President's Award and the Patrick Healy Award.

Prior to his arrival at Georgetown, John Thompson was a highly successful high school coach, amassing a record of 122-28 at St. Anthony's High School in Washington DC. Before that, he played on two Boston Celtic World Championship teams under the tutelage of fellow Hall of Famer, Red Auerbach. While attending Providence College, Thompson led the Friars to the NIT Championship in 1963 and was named "New England Player of the Year" in the following season. The Providence College Student Congress named him "Most Outstanding Senior". Before college, Thompson led his John Carroll High School team to 55 consecutive victories and two city championships.

From Georgtown.edu

Co-author Interview

Discussion Questions

I Came as a Shadow is an autobiography that provokes a lot of discussion about institutional racism, coaching, education, and perseverance among other topics. Here are a few discussion questions to get you started talking about the book.

  • The title of the book comes from a poem by the John Thompson's uncle. How do you interpret its meaning?
  • What role does education play in Coach Thompson's life? What value does he place on education?
  • Coach Thompson called the basketball court his classroom, how does he teach using basketball?
  • Coach Thompson's father never learned to read. What impact do you think that had on Coach Thompson's life?
  • The NBA used a "quota system" to limit the number of Black players. How do you see quotas existing today?
  • Street basketball plays a large role in Coach Thompson's life. How do recreational sports play a role in your life?
  • How does institutional and systematic racism appear in the book? What role and impact does it have on Coach Thompson?
  • This is an autobiography of a basketball coach. Does the sport actually matter in how your read and understand the book?
  • Coach Thompson is clear that his goal is to win games. How does that influence his coaching and behavior around his players?
  • Coach Thompason doesn't apologize for using the "n-word"? Why? How does he use it?
  • John Thompson has a degree from UDC. What does that mean to you?

Related Books

Research Resources

Instructor Resources

The ideas in the tabs above act as prompts to help you develop discussions, projects, or assignments related to I Came as a Shadow. They offer suggestions for ideas to include in your class or on your syllabus.

Here are some tips for leading a successful book discussion:

Before the Discussion

  • Read the book completely and take notes about the themes, motifs, and topics. Write down important page numbers and highlight important passages.
  • Come up with eight to ten questions about the book. 

During the Discussion

  • Ask your question and let others answer first.
  • Make connections between comments.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Bring the conversation back to the discussion if people go off on tangents.
  • Don't feel obligated to ask all your questions.
  • Don't end a conversation if people are on-topic and really enjoying what they are sharing.
  • Wrap up the discussion by highlighting key points.
  • Thank the participants.
  • Create your dream team of mentors and coaches. Explain why you need each of them as your players.
  • Draft a proposal to protest a policy you think is unfair.
  • Create a playlist of songs representing the different eras of Coach Thompson's life. Explain why you picked each song.
  • John Thompson wore a towel over his shoulder to honor his mother. What props do you use in life? Who do they honor? Why?
  • Map out Coach Thompson's life in DC. How does it overlap with your life?
  • The title of the book comes from a poem. What poem would provide a line to the title of your life? Why?

The following may be used as writing prompts for I Came as a Shadow:

  • Discuss institutional racism. What is it? What impacts does it have on your life?
  • How do you define yourself versus how others see you or stereotype you?
  • What do you think it would have been like to play for Coach Thompson? Why?
  • What were you most shocked to read or learn? Why?
  • Share a favorite quote from the book. Why did this quote stand out?
  • What aspects of the author’s story could you most relate to?
  • If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question, what would it be?
  • What do you consider to be Coach Thompson's most enduring legacy? Why?