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A Wrinkle in the Debate: Who is the G.O.A.T.? Thank you, John Thompson

In preparation for my travels to Washington DC, I picked up "I Came As a Shadow," the autobiography of John Thompson at my local library. As my mother's daughter, I wanted to read more about a place I'm visiting; sports is always my preferred point of entry.

John Thompson was a native of Washington DC, a Catholic who was devoted to Our Lady, a coach, father, grandfather and champion. He died on August 30, 2020. Thompson is known as Georgetown University's legendary coach. He became the first Black-American head coach to win a major collegiate championship in basketball when he led the Hoyas to the NCAA Division I national championship in 1984. The setting of his story is our nation's capital through and through. However, what I did not expect was the way Thompson's message would resonate and reveal a truth about women's sports—one that I learned en route to Washington. Here it is.

If there's one topic—one question sports fans love to discuss, debate and defend, it's Who is the G.O.A.T? What athletes are on your Mount Rushmore? Who are the Top 10 athletes of all time?  Thompson presented an important point-of-view. Hhis wrinkle, a real quagmire, offers an important truth worth careful consideration.

In Chapter Two: The Rabbit, Thompson tells the story of  his hero, his friend and who he believes to be among the very greatest, DC native Elgin Baylor. Affectionately known as "The Rabbit," Baylor was born seven years before Thompson. While The Rabbit played at Spingarn High School, JT played at Archbishop Carroll High School, on an integrated team (but one that still had quotas). Both men, however, developed were formed and performed on the city's public courts. Thompson writes,
The competition on the playgrounds was a lot tougher than at school no question. So many terrific Black players didn't get an opportunity to play organized ball. Think about the fact that someone as incredible as Elgin Baylor didn't get recruited out of high school, and would end up at some obscure college in Idaho basically by accident before he went to Seattle University. 
Lots of other guys could have been outstanding in college or the pros. One cat named Chicken Breast could really get it done. I have no idea what his given name was, but everybody knew Chicken Breast. Another very tough player was Gary Mays, who had one arm and was known as Bandit. You heard that right: Gary had one arm, but if there were fifty guys at the park and they chose sides, Gary was always on the court. The tiny scoring guard Wil Jones could have been great in the NBA. Little Wil was a shooter's shooter, talked a whole lot of trash, and always backed it up. 
I could go on and on about all the great players you never heard of. That's one reason I laugh at people who argue about this or that player being the "greatest of all time." Some of the best basketball players in history never got the opportunity to put on a uniform. And yes, I saw both Michael Jordan and Bill Russell play, up close and personal. But we'll never know what some of these other guys could have been. 
I read these words and I know they are true. Willie Mays said so much about his own father, who taught him to play baseball, but didn't have the chance to take his talent beyond regional play in Alabama (Say Hey! Willie Mays HBO Series is worth watching). As a sports fan, an American and a human being, I can't help but mourn what we lost....what we never saw....what we all missed out on. Sadly, this truth is not limited just to people of color.

On Saturday, June 3 of reunion weekend at the University of Notre Dame, the alumni group, Notre Dame Women Connect hosted an event "Champions and Champagne." This gathering brought alumnae together to raise a glass and celebrate and learn from the women who work in athletics to help female student athletes become champions. Our panel featured Kayla Miller, NILI Athlete Marketing Manager, 
Caroline Powers Ellis, Head Coach Women's Golf and Alex Bechard, Director of Sports Nutrition. 

Our moderator, Kristin Sheehan—Director of Play Like a Champion Today and a monogram award winner herself (varsity cheer) asked each respondent to name and tell us about their favorite female athlete. Alex said "beyond the celebrity athletes: Serena and Venus Williams, I would have to say my mom. She didn't really have a chance to compete in the way that women do today, but she was and still is an outstanding athlete." Caroline, who played golf professionally said "My cousin. She is ten years older than me and she had a career in professional athletics before me. I learned so much from her on what it takes to play at the highest level." Kayla added, "I'm someone who grew up watching Mia Hamm. At the age of five, I wanted to be just like her."

In their responses, I was reminded of the importance of role models, who can show us how to work, overcome, stay strong and make an impact. But I was also reminded of the fact that like Alex's mom, too many weren't given that chance. Fortunately, the story for women in sport is much different today. To a large degree, we write our own...but for too long, that story was short. The G.O.A.T. debate rarely includes a woman. Why shouldn't Mt. Rushmore have the face of a female athlete? (or President?!) I hope some women do crack that Top 10, or rather, let's create our own.

I want to very clear, I have no intention of conflating racism and sexism. "I Came as Shadow,"  attests to the nuances, dynamics and the reality of racism—in DC, in basketball and beyond. As Bill McGarvey writes,  "The game was never the objective for Thompson; it was just the instrument. Basketball became a way of kicking down a door that had been closed to Black people." 

Thompson adds, "It was a way for me to express that we don't have to act apologetic for obtaining what God intended us to have, and that we should be recognized more for our minds than our bodies." I think women can understand that...whether or not they are in sports.

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source https://sportsandspirituality.blogspot.com/2023/06/ia-wrinkle-in-debate-who-is-goat-thank.html


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