Wiley Cash’s Discussion Guide for “I Came As a Shadow”

  1. In the introduction to the book, Thompson writes, “I always planned to be a teacher, not a basketball coach. I used basketball as an instrument to teach. My classroom was the court.” As you read the book, can you identify clear lessons Thompson imparted to his players?


  1. Also in the introduction, Thompson writes, “Discrimination is a lot more complicated today than when I was growing up and they made Black people sit in the back. Trying to fight discrimination today can feel like shooting at ghosts.” What does Thompson mean by ghosts here? Does he mean that discrimination is harder to see and explain than it was decades ago, or does he mean that these ghosts are hauntings from an earlier time?


  1. Thompson recalls that during his childhood the only examples of Black excellence he and his friends were ever shown were athletes, which limited their knowledge of Black achievement. For example, he grew up in the Frederick Douglass housing projects, but admits that he never knew who Frederick Douglass was. He argues that society only permitted certain Black Americans who used their bodies – whether athletes or garbage collectors – to be truly visible, later writing, “I had never met a Black person who was praised for using his mind.” What was the goal of these limited representations and what was its larger effect on American society?


  1. Early in his life, Thompson was diagnosed as being intellectually challenged in several instances with all of the diagnoses coming from white people. Later, he is able to find academic success under the tutelage of Black educators and administrators, writing, “There’s a theme here, which is that Black educators were able to help me and white ones did not.” How did this realization influence him going forward?


  1. Thompson benefited from relationships with powerful and successful mentors throughout his life. Some of them, like Red Auerbach, were more talkative, while others, like Dean Smith and Bill Russell, spoke more with their actions. Consider the many mentors Thompson had and the lessons he learned from each.


  1. As a college athlete at Providence University, Thompson admits to feeling that although Coach Joe Mullaney was a nice guy, he did not give Thompson what he needed to develop as a player and individual. At this point in his life, a college student away from home and living among white people for the first time, what do you think Thompson was looking for in a mentor?


  1. Thompson cites Malcolm X as a major influence on his thought and style of leadership, especially in the way Malcolm X “was not apologetic or even accommodating.” But Thompson does acknowledge that Malcolm X was willing and able to change and develop as a leader, especially after leaving the Nation of Islam. Throughout his life, how did Thompson change and evolve as a thinker and leader?


  1. Thompson cites Dr. Anita Hughes as having a profound effect on his life as an educator after he studied under her in graduate school. He writes, “Teaching is more than just giving students information. A big part of teaching is informal education. Dr. Hughes taught me how to relate to students in a way that would affect their lives outside of school.” Can you point to instances during which Thompson put this to practice while working with his players?


  1. On being offered the head coaching job at Georgetown in 1972, Thompson writes, “Over the twelve years since I had graduated from high school, Georgetown went from not recruiting me because I was Black, to hiring me because I was Black.” Consider the many shifts in American political, social, and cultural thought during these twelve years, as well as the many events from the Korean War through the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War. Can you discuss how Georgetown’s evolving stance on race might be reflected in the evolving stance of the nation?


  1. Thompson was legendary for keeping a deflated basketball in his office. What became a metaphor started out as a practical joke. Still, what message did that deflated ball send to the countless people who visited Thompson’s office?


  1. Raymond Medley, more commonly known as Pebbles, represented many things to many different people in Georgetown’s history, including Coach Thompson. Discuss the ways in which Medley was portrayed throughout his life and what he may or may not have symbolized.


  1. Thompson’s teams had the reputation of being overly physical and lacking mental preparation, although he argues the opposite was true and that these portrayals were driven by racism. He writes, “We had to work twice as hard to show people we were half as intelligent as we really were.” Do these stereotypes of Black athletes as being more physical and less intellectual persist in sports? Do they persist in our larger society?


  1. Thompson dispenses many lessons on leadership throughout the book. One in particular comes to mind: “[…] when you blame the kids, you’re saying they’re the problem. When you blame yourself, you keep searching for the answer.” What are other lessons in leadership that you took away from this book?


  1. Thompson makes clear that during his tenure as head coach Georgetown “was never accused of any NCAA violations whatsoever. The NCAA never even made an inquiry.” What’s remarkable is that so many of the best college players of the era played at Georgetown without the influence of incentives that would have drawn scrutiny from the NCAA. What made players like Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Patrick Ewing choose Georgetown, and what made so many of them stay to receive their degrees?


  1. At every level of the game of basketball – from high school to college to the Olympics to the NBA – John Thompson experienced unprecedented levels of success, including being the first Black head coach to win an NCAA championship. But in the book he points out that “I rejected the implication that I was the first Black coach with the ability to win a championship,” adding, “Barack Obama wasn’t the first Black man with the ability to be president.” Why is making this clear so important to Thompson, and why is it so important that we understand?