The World as it Was; The World as it Can Be

Over the past few months, I have plowed through two biographies of prominent Black men. I read them back-to-back not out of any specific design; they were both men who loomed as distant but intriguing figures in a certain era of my life, and they both happened to put out biographies at the same time. Reading both proved more taxing than my usual, perhaps because I am still trying to understand what led me to make the decisions I made toward the end of my time in the city that defined both of them, still imagining lives not lived, and forever intrigued by the shadows cast by giants.

I started with Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land. The former president’s tome is a doorstop that takes a feat of endurance to complete. At times the detail is excessive, but to err on this side is, I suppose, preferable to omission, and long-windedness lends itself to an added level of candor. For the political biography genre, it is uncommonly introspective. Obama explains how torn he was at certain moments, shows some of the strain of political celebrity on a man who wanted the freedom to roam the streets and to be an attentive husband and father. In the end, he finds ways to rationalize his courses of action, an apologia for a presidency that was far from perfect but managed to maintain its guiding lights.

Obama’s first term coincided with my full political awakening, his journey to Washington tracking on to my own in the fall of 2008, and I relived those years viscerally as I read his book. The formative events of his first term were the formative moments of my political education, my venture into my own Promised Land at Georgetown. Being in DC gave me a window to the party outside the White House on election night, and to that cold inaugural morning on the Mall. Sitting in the University of Minnesota Duluth library while home for the summer, ostensibly doing research for one of my Georgetown professors, I read up on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and started churning out a jumbled essay on meritocracy, which was my first step into this halfhearted world of punditry that I still inhabit. In the spring semester of 2011, fresh off a semester abroad and hungry for some proof that the arc of history still tilted toward freedom and liberal democracy, I glued myself to the nascent revolutions sparking across the Middle East. A feed of Al-Jazeera English, live from Tahrir Square, ran constantly in the background in my cozy hole of an off-campus bedroom, through hope-filled days and tumultuous nights and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring briefly living up to its name. A few months later, a loud exclamation from the living room of that same house led me downstairs to find my roommates gawking at the announcement that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden. I was in the seat of history, bound up with the trials and tribulations of the world my president wanted to make.

Despite the achievements of his first term, the world did not become the one Obama envisioned in his lofty words. This complication still gnaws at me, perhaps because some of Obama’s more prominent character traits map on to a few of my own. Always ready to listen, loyal to a fault, a man capable of grand words but whose default course through life tends to settle more on the side of what George Packer calls “ironic realism,” a dogged focus on the levers that are actually within one’s grasp. This instinct to campaign in poetry and govern in prose is a major part of why the 2008 election, which so many observers expected to be a landmark shift, turned out to be a very momentary high-water mark for the Democratic Party. Obama was not the transformative figure some of his supporters mistook him for, but simply being who he was proved enough to ignite a vicious opposition.

One of the most poignant moments come in Obama’s observations of Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India through much of his term. Singh is, in some ways, the hero of the triumphant quarter century of liberal democracy that ran from 1990 to 2015 or so. As India’s finance minister in the 1990s, he perhaps did more to lift people out of poverty than any human alive, and once he took control of the Lok Sabha, his administration was one of firm commitment to democracy and technocratic competence. He was, in a way, an elder statesman version of Obama: a member of a minority group with a fraught history vis-à-vis the national majority noted for his thoughtfulness and decency. But Singh’s faults were the faults of the era: he was the anointed caretaker of a political dynasty that was running out of gas, tinkering at the margins and creating a space for people to live their lives, but aspiring to no great change, “just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.” In this more aged version of himself overseeing a ricketier system, Obama begins to see, and is chilled by, just how easily it could go wrong. “Now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”

Some critics portray Obama’s cool realism as a failure, and certainly there are some aspects of that mentality that can lead to blindness over some of the forces that were at work at in American society at the same time. But an acceptance of limits is still one of the most mature traits a politician can have, and is why so many of the ones with a talent for soaring rhetoric and righteous Tweets prove rather ineffective at actually achieving any of the things they set out to achieve. The question, of course, becomes one of where that line is between ironic realism and a resignation that cuts off the possibility of any sort of achievement, and just how content one can be with incremental progress or a gradual turning of the ship.

The limitations of the Obama way of being has led me to explore alternatives, and a second book took me back to the same time period, but for very different reasons. John Thompson, Jr., the iconic Georgetown basketball coach who I eulogized on this blog after his passing last year, has published a posthumous autobiography, I Came as a Shadow. While co-written with Jesse Washington, it is most certainly in Big John’s voice: blunt, certain, unapologetic. The book traces his journey from Southeast DC projects to the Celtics to his long tenure at Georgetown, where I, as a sports-loving freshman, ate up the story of his reign over the Big East. But the book is less a basketball book than a treatise on race in America and one man’s journey to smash any and all obstacles that dynamic imposed upon him. “Who wants to be equal to the next guy?” he asks. “I want to kick his ass.”

Thompson proceeded to kick many asses during his tenure with the Hoyas, both as he whipped his own players into line and as the on-court results cemented his reputation as one of college basketball’s great head coaches. He did it amid a torrent of abuses, obvious and hidden. He wore glasses to look learned and forced his players into suits, the results of a lifelong process of studying the white man and learning to win on his terms; he reveals that his all-Black teams were not for a lack of effort to recruit white players. At times he seems like just a good partisan coach, as when he questions refs’ motivations. But while reading the book, I re-watched the 1984 national championship game, and was struck by how composed he was. He doesn’t come across as a screamer or a radical, and yet here he is, getting labeled “the Idi Amin of college basketball” because he was big and Black and had his big, Black players run a full-court press. (Thompson’s response to this charge is classic: “Amin was a Ugandan dictator who killed thousands of innocent people. I’m still trying to figure out who I’m supposed to have killed. Maybe Oregon State, because we beat them 69-45 to reach the Final Four.”) Above all else, he unsettled some observers because of the totality of his control.

Georgetown and Thompson were a fascinating odd couple: a Catholic school from a place famed for its establishment cocktail parties that went and hired a Black man who ran the nation’s most transgressive basketball program. Race, Thompson argues, is exactly the reason he was hired: he’d achieved some success as a coach in the DC area just as Georgetown was starting to think it had to do more for Black people in Washington in the aftermath of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Thompson allowed the school to check a lot of those boxes. Basketball played no small part in giving Georgetown its national reputation, and Georgetown gave Thompson a platform to prove himself right about everything he believed in. Thompson largely praises the Georgetown administrators who let him be himself, even as he casts his stare on the institutional constraints that both created Georgetown and keep it as it is. The book concludes with the revelation from several years ago that Georgetown sold a bunch of slaves in 1838 to preserve its existence, and with Thompson’s speculation that his own ancestors were almost certainly among those very slaves.

Thompson makes passing mention of his respect for the Obamas, and like the basketball-loving former president, the coach can see the complexities in American race relations and is much more nuanced than the 80s press sometimes made him out to be in popular imagination. But when it comes to ways of being in the world, it’s hard to imagine a much bigger gulf. Obama carefully calibrated everything he did, weighing options and testing waters, ever seeking that ideal of democratic consensus, wrestling with processes and seeking input and collaboration. Thompson, on the other hand, simply did things his way. Part of that divide probably just stems from the nature of their realms; at the end of the day, for all his justified insistence that he was more than a basketball coach, Thompson’s record still falls heavily on wins and losses, while judgments of Obama run through the much murkier and subjective world of politics. But Obama and Thompson come off as diametric opposites in temperament and approach.

Or were they? Both men are scholars at their core, with Obama’s Harvard Law instincts and Thompson’s undying insistence that his players come for the education. Both were trailblazers, but knew they had to do what they were doing on society’s terms: Thompson always speaks of studying the white man and learning his ways, while Obama’s broad appeal has its roots in an expansive view of the American Dream that has its most obvious roots in the very white realm of midcentury American liberalism. Both men were integrators, not assimilationists or among those who sought revolution. They wanted a world in which what they stood for was not radical at all.

That, however, was not the world in which Thompson or Obama lived. Their circumstances did not allow for such anonymous walks down the street. We could debate their methods and the extent of their successes ad nauseam; in fact, we should, and they would both probably appreciate recognition on those terms. But the reason I’m reading their biographies now is because of what they did in the face of a world that would not allow them that anonymity. It is because they had the insight to know their worlds were not quite right yet, and because they had the tenacity to use the tools before them to change those worlds. They were men in the arena.

Exit John Thompson, Jr.

In sports, we often use words like ‘iconic’ or ‘monumental’ to describe people whose job it is to direct the athletic feats of others. We claim they have influences over society beyond their courts or fields or rinks, which can be a reach. But there are rare figures who earn every one of those accolades, and who use their tenures to do a lot more than pile up a few victories. Former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, Jr., who passed away this past week, was one of them.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thompson was an exceptional coach who built a prestigious, small Jesuit school into one of the nation’s greatest basketball powers. He made three Final Fours and won one, in 1984, before winding up in the Hall of Fame. He made the Hoyas into Big Man U, coaching superstars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo, plus a little Allen Iverson for good measure. His teams won, and they won with style.

Thompson was a trailblazer, the first African-American coach to win a national championship, though don’t tell him that: he scoffed at the notion that he deserved any special recognition for achieving something that wouldn’t have been revolutionary in a just society. He was unapologetically Black and recruited so many Black players that the casual fan could be forgiven for mistaking stodgy old Georgetown for a Historically Black College or University. (Thompson likened his recruiting efforts to that of the hockey team at his alma mater, Providence University, which exclusively recruited Canadians: why not go back to the same well if you knew that was where the talent and hunger was?) He was decades ahead of polite society on questions of racial justice and bore his share of abuse for it, once pulling his team off the court at Villanova when they were subjected to vicious chants. But whether by inertia or design, he embraced it when his program become a symbol of an aspiration, an exemplar of Black greatness on its own terms. Georgetown Starter jackets became such icons of 1980s Black Culture that the museum of African American history features one in a display case.

Thompson’s toughness was legendary. Most famously, when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond tried to get close to some of his players, he ordered the godfather of the DC crack epidemic into his office for a meeting. Edmond was responsible for dozens of murders and countless broken lives; witnesses at his 1989 trial were hurt, the jurors were kept secret and hidden behind bulletproof glass, and he was flown from prison to the courthouse in a helicopter rather than risk a jailbreak from a vehicle. The one man he couldn’t break, though, was John Thompson. No one knows exactly what he said in that conversation, but Edmond never came close to a Hoya player again.

That legendary tale is just one: Big John also brought sky-high demands for his players’ conduct, demanding excellence on and off the court. “Don’t let eight pounds of air be the sum total of your existence,” he told his players, and graduated 97% of them from one of the nation’s more rigorous institutions otherwise populated by a bunch of East Coast Catholic bluebloods. At the same time, he pushed to do away with test score standards that could limit his talent pool, which drew its share of critics; Thompson countered that he was giving talented young Black men opportunities they would otherwise never have. Iverson, who certainly was a beneficiary of the changed policy, has repeatedly, and tearfully, insisted that Big John saved his life.

By the time I set foot on the Georgetown campus, Big John was a larger-than-life figure looming over the program. His son John Thompson III, fresh off a Final Four appearance early in his tenure, was a beloved figure, and there was no doubt his dad still had considerable sway. Those warm, fuzzy feelings faded some as JTIII’s restoration soured in the early 2010s, and the installation of Thompson’s greatest protégé, Ewing, whose tenure (which I fully thought was worth the chance at the start) gets an incomplete grade at best to date. Outside of the honeymoon of the early JTIII years, the Hoyas have never come close to returning to the elder Thompson’s heights in the 20 years since his retirement. In some ways the game has moved on; no longer do teams win on the strength of unmovable big men and a plodding pace, and in an era of one-and-dones, the benefits of a Georgetown degree may be less apparent to a budding basketball star than living like a king in Lexington or Chapel Hill.

Still, I refuse to believe Georgetown’s basketball glory days are only a thing of the past. The style may change, but the swagger of the Thompson era still looms from time to time, and the formula is still there. The brashness that led a young coach, fresh off an upset of 2nd-ranked Syracuse in their final game at a venerable old arena where they’d won 57 straight games, to grab the microphone and declare “Manley Field House is officially closed” is just as powerful today. The Thompson era is officially closed now, too, but that long shadow will continue to loom over the basketball program he built, the cloistered university he taught to be cool, and the ongoing admiration of disciples who learned something about poise, about self-respect, and about what it meant to chase greatness against a backdrop that so often failed to live up to its alleged equality. John Thompson, Jr. used basketball to show us how the world can be if it unflinchingly stares down reality, and anyone who touched his legacy, no matter how tangentially, is richer for it.

So farewell, Big John, and let the quote at the top of this blog be a reminder that, even if we cannot build Heaven on earth, we can still have Georgetown. And that can mean much more than a few wins on a basketball court.

Exit JTIII

On Thursday, the axe came down on John Thompson III, the head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team for the past 13 seasons. He took the Hoyas to a Final Four in 2007, won three Big East regular season titles, and brought a program a heap of thrillers against top tier competition. It was time for him to go, however, and I was mildly surprised that the university had the guts to lay Thompson’s tenure to rest.

I missed the good years. JTIII’s downfall began with a long string of losses to double-digit seeds that coincided with my first interest in Hoya hoops. (In 2008, as a high school senior with hopes of heading to the Hilltop, I watched them lose in the NCAA Tournament to unheralded Davidson and this Stephen Curry kid who came out of nowhere to have a huge game. I wonder what ever happened to him?) The Davidson loss set off a string of can-you-top-this losses to double-digit Tournament seeds: Ohio (no, not Ohio State, Ohio), Virginia Commonwealth (hello there, Shaka Smart), North Carolina State (at least they’re a power conference program…?), and Florida Gulf Coast (the last and worst). But lately, those years when they gave talented young coaches the breaks they needed to land more prestigious jobs are a happy memory. With just one Tournament appearance in the last four seasons, with transfers out and decommitments and with the same obnoxious shortcomings, it was certainly time to bid JTIII farewell.

JTIII’s dismissal has to be among the most pained firings in sports history, as evidenced by Georgetown President Jack DeGioia’s glowing retrospective in the announcement. (DeGioia, a Georgetown man through and through, named his own kid J.T.) And for good reason: despite the underperformance on the court, JTIII has done nothing but represent the program with dignity and class, and the 2007 Final Four run will forever be a proud moment, and one that restored pride to a program that had been on a downhill slide. JTIII fit the Georgetown ethos well: a blueblooded coach carrying forward a legacy, and doing it with cool composure, high standards off the court, and a somewhat antiquated but largely successful (for a while, anyway) Princeton offense built on pretty cuts.

But, enough beating around the six-foot-ten elephant in the room: the proud old Princeton Tiger’s firing was momentous because of what his name means to this program. His father, John Thompson Jr., built Georgetown up from nothing. He did it in brash and memorable ways, and in ways that went far beyond the court. He made Georgetown Big Man U, with names like Ewing, Mourning, and Mutombo all rolling through, plus a little Allen Iverson, too. He was an early pioneer among black coaches, withstanding abuse to blaze trails. John Thompson was such a larger-than-life figure that he could confront and intimidate the most dangerous of D.C.’s druglords at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. With five years from longtime assistant Craig Esherick wedged between the two Thompsons and a continued presence around everything Georgetown basketball eighteen years after his retirement, his son’s dismissal is a sudden shock to the system.

The Hoyas now head out into the great unknown. The decision to name former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (an alumnus and Board of Directors member) co-chair of the search committee would seem to suggest the Hoyas are ready to play big league. It’s tough to guess what sort of interest the program will draw, given that it’s basically been in one family for 45 years. The Hoyas are a big name in basketball, with an NBA home arena and a sparkling new practice facility, but the cupboard is also pretty bare at the moment, and Georgetown has some quirks that could drive people away, including its high academic standards, the lack of a big state school’s huge following, and the very long shadow of John Thompson Jr. As with any other major program with an opening in recent years, Shaka Smart’s name is getting tossed around. More realistic, really, is Danny Hurley, who has done a very nice job with Rhode Island and comes from a famous basketball family that will give him some added credibility. Tommy Amaker at Harvard fits the academic pedigree this program would like, but his track record is fairly meh. Tom Crean, freshly dismissed from Indiana, has won at a high level; Notre Dame’s Mike Brey has local ties and a relatively small paycheck from the Golden Domers. Even Minnesota’s Richard Pitino is getting some serious mentions. (Hey, he already knows how to lose to a double-digit seed in the first round.) Whatever course Georgetown takes, it will be a clean break from a long tradition.

Unless, of course, they go with an alumnus who is incredibly loyal to the Thompsons, and has been biding his time as an NBA assistant for the past 14 years. A man by the name of Patrick Ewing. There are reasons to question Ewing as Georgetown coach; the NBA game is different from college, and he will certainly need to find himself some assistants who can give him a quick education in the recruiting game. At 54, he’s at a point where the kids who would play for him have no memory of him as a dominant player. It’s no secret he’s been angling for an NBA job, too; does he really want to go all in on a college program?

But I’m a sucker for tradition and continuity, so if everyone wants it to happen, I’m on the bandwagon. He’s a loyal man who will honor the brand. The program is at the point where it could use the buzz of celebrity, instead of the moderately successful mid-major coach this program is likely to command at this point in time. His return would, presumably, come with the blessing of John Thompson Jr., and spare the program any fallout there. Sure, there are risks, but there is also incredible potential. Bring the big man home.