Celebrating Two Giants

It was late Saturday night when I read the news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. The wife and I had just finished catching up on episode two of Lovecraft Country when my jaw dropped in shock.

How could he be gone? 43?

And Monday morning, just after watching Black Panther with my kids the prior evening to collectively cope, I learned that former Georgetown basketball legend, Coach John Thompson, had also died.

I grew up on Georgetown basketball. For all its academic prestige, and more recently discussed complicated past with slavery, I first learned of Georgetown’s existence because John Thompson put them on the national basketball map, via the Big East conference. Low key, I initially thought Georgetown was an HBCU, because how could it not be? With Thompson running the show, five Black starters on the court, and an all Black bench, G-Town was the basketball equivalent of Grambling football. When I found out it was a selective predominantly white institution, and Thompson was graduating the vast majority of his largely Black teams, I was in awe. Looking back on this now, through my college success lens, it’s even more monumental. Nothing like this was happening anywhere else (outside of HBCUs). But here it was on ESPN during the week, and CBS on Saturdays.

Thompson’s unapologetic recruiting ran parallel to his unapologetic team defense. G-Town would lock other squads down. For as much as I could in my time on the court, I tried to bring that same intensity and attitude. On my good days, in my mind, I was headed to be a Hoya and lace up in the gray and blue Air Force Ones, like tens of thousands of other hopeful Black boys around the country. (But in reality, on all the days — even my decent ones on the court — I was headed somewhere to study my ass off and play pick up on Fridays at the school gym).

That picture says it all about Coach Thompson. Again, I was not going to be cracking any of his rosters, but watching his teams, seeing his style, understanding his approach and expectations, and witnessing the care that he put into the people who made up his basketball family, I still felt like he was my coach. I saw a lot of my recently passed mentor Harold Haskins in John Thompson, and vice versa. Towering Black figures who knew how to navigate institutions and guide others through to other side, with their dignity in tact. It’s never an easy thing to do, and even harder when the spotlight is always on.

Chadwick Boseman is another person I felt like I knew without knowing. In my head, he’s a guy who could have been a few years behind me at Penn, except his heart told him that Howard was a better fit for his undergrad goals. We could have easily crossed paths on social media or an Afro Tech conference, or could have served on a future nonprofit board together, doing our part to bring as much of Wakanda to life.

At Penn, we rented the theater when Black Panther dropped, and we Wakanda forevered for weeks after. The hype was more than justified. This was the most positively Black moment in an otherwise dismal sociopolitical era. It served as a critical reminder that we already are everything we needed, and that we had the power to shape our way through the chaos.

I didn’t put the pieces together at first, but subconsciously I had been thinking about the Black Panther’s energy during this summer’s wave of protests. The affirmation of Black presence and the demanding of truth and justice is, for me, the essence of freedom. The Black Panther film showed the world that other things are possible, and now people are mobilizing to create an equitable reality, free of the threats of injustice that our current ways of policing — rooted in anti-Blackness — allow to persist.

Throughout Boseman’s career he played heroes that stood for change and shifted their times. The many posts and tributes to Boseman showed that he too was one of these heroes. I can not begin to imagine the strength and courage it took for him to continue the arduous work of preparing for roles, filming, and living a very public life while also secretly battling cancer for four years. It is a testament to his commitment to purpose and leaving a legacy.

As I continue my work, helping current and future college students thrive while nurturing my own family during these challenging times, I will set the bar for excellence, coach with compassion, and give everything I can to get us through.

We are everything we need, and there is much to get done. Go higher.

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