Recording the life story of a historic coach

Photos courtesy of publisher

Jesse Washington spent roughly the last two years of John Thompson’s life helping to write the late coach’s autobiography. “I Came as a Shadow” came out about four months after Thompson’s death on August 30 at age 78.

His name was drawn out of a hat full of prospects to work on the project. “When we first met,” Washington recalled, “Coach Thompson specifically brought up if I’d never written a book like this before, what makes me think I could do [his]. And I said, ‘You’re right. I have not done a book like this before, but I’ve written a whole lot of articles in my career.”

Washington is the senior writer at The Undefeated.

Thompson’s autobiography came among the many books I received during the pandemic shelter-in-place that kicked in a year ago. It is a great read, learning more about a proud man, how he grew up into such a historic figure, reading his thoughts and feelings about being Black in America from a first-person perspective.

We already knew Thompson briefly played in the NBA before embarking into coaching.  Ditto for his successful run at Georgetown, where he won a national title, two runners-up finishes, and a NIT finalist when the Hoyas lost to Clem Haskins’ Gophers in 1993. That tournament championship game was the first time two Black HCs faced each other.

Washington knew these things as well: Georgetown in its heyday during the 1980s was Black America’s team. “I was a Georgetown fan. I grew up on it,” admitted the co-author.

“I had to get over the aura I had in my mind on how he was,” noted Washington on Thompson, who was both loved by his players and supporters and loathed by his critics, many of whom were White sportswriters, because of his unapologetic manner, especially in defending his players.

“There were big names in major publications that I read the clippings [while doing research] where they treated Coach Thompson unfair,” he said. “Then when he died, [they] turn around and praise him. That bothered me.”

Photos courtesy of publisher Jesse Washington

“He decided to open up his life” throughout the project, said Washington on Thompson, who approved the final draft before he died. When asked if he knew the coach and Hall of Famer was sick, he said, “Pretty much. Coach was private and didn’t share the details.  Working together, I knew when he was having struggles.

 “It was very important for him to finish the book properly,” continued Washington. “He wanted to make sure we got it done.”

It didn’t help that COVID-19 struck during the book’s final phases of completion. “When COVID hit, we would talk over the phone. I could tell he was anxious on finishing up the book.”

Washington then invited Thompson to call him anytime. “He said to me, ‘You will regret that,’ noted the co-author. “He had a reputation of calling people in the middle of the night.

 “I didn’t regret it from then on. From then on, we would spend three hours on the phone, going over the book, reading the book and correcting things. Coach was very respectful of my time. He didn’t make a lot of demands on my life. 

 “It took an extraordinary amount of time to make sure everything was correct,” said Washington. “He wanted to make sure the Allen Iverson chapter was the way he wanted it to be. We spent hours and hours on the phone toward the last few months of his life, making sure [the book had his approval]. I did not regret the time I spent with him.”

Actually, Washington said he did have one regret: Coach didn’t hold in his hand the finished book after it was published. “I wanted him to hold it, which is very special for an author. He deserved that.”