The Common Word Community Read

The Common Word Community Read brings the UNC Asheville community together each semester around a shared text to engage in a collective educational experience that features lectures and discussions in a welcoming and respectful environment. The program is curated by Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author, alumnus of the class of 2000, and UNCA’s Executive Director of Literary Arts.

I Came As a Shadow by the late John Thompson is the fall 2023 selection of the Common Word Community Read. I chose this book because it made me uncomfortable. This might seem like a strange reason to select a work that you plan to share with others, so please allow me to explain.

I have always been drawn to works of art that make me uncomfortable. When I teach writing, whether to our Creative Writing majors at UNC-Asheville or to a community workshop, I always stress the importance of never allowing the reader to be too comfortable while reading. The reason for this is obvious: When we get comfortable we often stop paying attention. We might even fall asleep. But in terms of the mental mechanics of reading, keeping the reader uncomfortable ensures that they will be forced to actively engage with the page in order to constantly assess how to approach it. I liken it to the difference between sitting on a stool with three legs and sitting on a stool with one. It takes a lot more muscle coordination and balance to sit on that one-legged stool, and I want my readers to use every mental muscle they’ve got when navigating my pages. As a reader, I want the same from the books I read.

John Thompson accomplishes this throughout his book, often qualifying statements with seemingly oppositional points or going against the grain of our cultural maxims. For example, of his decision to stop supporting a former player with a long history of making particularly bad life choices, he writes, “When I got my counseling degree, they taught what you can’t counsel too.” In terms of his leadership style, he writes, “I think people who treat everyone the same are fools. Not everyone requires the same treatment.” At first, this seems to fly in the face of the equality Thompson pushed for during his long career, but further reading and consideration reveals a much more nuanced argument for meeting people where they are and assessing their needs on an individual level. Thompson shares that he also kept his players on their toes by bringing a certain level of discomfort to practice, writing, “When I blew the whistle at practice, I might curse out Michael Jackson about the defense we were supposed to be running, or I might ask David Wingate, ‘What happened in Iran today?’”

Aside from how John Thompson frames his arguments and structures his points, I was also made uncomfortable by some of the language in the book, especially his use of the n-word and his willingness to curse at his players. I was also uncomfortable with his admitted desire to capitalize financially on deals with Nike and other personal and business relationships that opened professional doors during his coaching career and after. But when I found myself being uncomfortable I had to ask why. John Thompson always worked within the confines of NCAA rules, claiming that not only were neither he nor his program ever investigated for infractions, there was never a single inquiry made during his tenure as head coach. And who am I to judge the language someone uses, especially when they use it to powerful effect? While reading this book I had to let go of my preconceived notions of leadership and professionalism so that I could understand them on Coach Thompson’s terms. After reading the book, I confronted why I believed what I believed, and I was forced to ask how much Thompson’s race and reputation played into any discomfort I experienced.

John Thompson could have predicted my discomfort and its causes. He lived life as a 6’10” Black man with a booming voice, and he writes about how his physical appearance provided people with plenty of space to exercise preconceived notions that would lead to their discomfort. He spent his life fighting those preconceptions, and he does it in his book as well.

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my childhood was steeped in basketball, and I admit to having plenty of preconceived notions about John Thompson and his basketball teams. I was a Tarheel fan, and Dean Smith was the George Washington on my Mount Rushmore of sports heroes. Somewhere along the way, perhaps by social or familial osmosis, I grew to believe that Dean Smith ran the cleanest program in the NCAA. Dean Smith had the most clean-cut players. Dean Smith’s teams played with poise and discipline. I felt the opposite about John Thompson and Georgetown, but now, looking back, I had absolutely no grounds on which to feel this way. I simply believed that John Thompson was the opposite of Dean Smith, therefore his program and his players were opposites as well. Now, as an adult and even before reading Thompson’s book, I know that could not have been further from the truth, especially because Thompson and Smith were the best of friends and inspired and influenced one another in countless ways. Regardless, recalling my childhood misconceptions about Thompson and Georgetown makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort that I need to face, investigate, and exorcise. Reading this book helped me do that.

In the book’s introduction, Thompson writes, “I used basketball as an instrument to teach. My classroom was the court.” I Came As a Shadow proves that Coach John Thompson was an exceptional teacher, and you don’t have to have been one of his players to now be one of his students.