Behind John Thompson’s closed-door meeting with drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III
In his new autobiography, the coach describes the famous meeting and the threat to Georgetown’s basketball program
In the fall of 1988, John Thompson, head basketball coach at Georgetown University, found out that two of his players, John Turner and the No. 1 freshman recruit in the nation, Alonzo Mourning, were associating with the drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III. In one of the most legendary moments of his Hall of Fame career, Thompson convened a meeting with Edmond to resolve the problem. Thompson, who died Aug. 30 at age 78, never spoke publicly about what transpired with Edmond behind closed doors – but he revealed the details in this excerpt from his new autobiography, I Came as a Shadow.
knew that Rayful was the biggest dealer in Washington at that time, and I was extremely concerned. First of all, Alonzo’s and Turner’s futures as young men were at risk, let alone as basketball players. If Alonzo and Turner weren’t using cocaine, were they selling it? Even if neither was true, just associating with a drug dealer could ruin their lives. There also was a great danger that Georgetown could have its name dragged through the mud. I had a responsibility to protect the school. The press was already painting us as bad guys, and I knew some reporters would love to put us in a story with a real criminal. I had no idea about the extent of Alonzo’s and Turner’s involvement, so the first thing I had to do was question them about what was going on.
I figured out that while I had been away at the Olympics, Alonzo and Turner got tight. Turner, who everybody on the team called JT, was from suburban Maryland but had an uncle who lived in the city, up the block from Rayful. Turner and Rayful had become friends at an early age. By the time Turner got to Georgetown, he was enamored of the street image of the drug dealer lifestyle and liked to hang around with those guys. Now he was bringing Alonzo with him.
Rayful was crazy about basketball. He had gone to Dunbar, my mother’s school, and was a good playground player. He kept a crew of talented local stars around him, and they played together all over the city. Alonzo and Turner told me they played ball with Rayful and his friends, hung out with them at their homes and at different nightclubs, and went out to eat sometimes. They didn’t mention it, but obviously they enjoyed that Rayful always picked up the check and sprinkled his money around in different ways. They insisted that they never saw or even talked about any drugs and that they weren’t involved in anything illegal. I didn’t find out until much later that Alonzo had played on Rayful’s teams against other squads run by drug dealers, and there was big money bet on those games. Alonzo was a naïve teenager who got caught up in the celebrity of being a Georgetown player in the big city. Turner probably knew more about what was going on. I liked JT — he was a nice kid to be around and a very good player. But he had spent enough time around the neighborhood to know who and what Rayful was.
I told Alonzo and Turner to stay away from Rayful, and repeated the message to the entire team. Everybody promised to do the right thing.
But that only addressed half of the problem. I had to talk to Rayful. Over the years, people made a big deal out of my decision to meet with a person like him. A judge once asked me, “Are you the coach who met with Rayful Edmond? You had more nerve than Jesse James!”
Well, Rayful was not the first person I’d encountered who had difficulty with the law. The first sports uniform I ever wore was bought by a numbers runner. I played one-on-one against my drug dealer friend Big Roy. I did my master’s degree practicum at the city jail, where one of my kids was later identified as a contract killer. I have a friend right now with the key to my house who spent years locked up. One of my best friends in Vegas worked for Meyer Lansky. Rayful’s type was not alien to me. Of course we should talk. I’m not saying I didn’t recognize the danger, but I was not as terrified about it as some other people were.
He wasn’t too hard to find. We knew someone in common. Clarence “Bootney” Green was Division II player of the year at Cheyney State, and was a young basketball legend in the city. A lot of the Washington kids on my team admired Bootney. He was not involved with drugs, but he played on the team that Rayful took with him around the city.
I questioned various people and figured out that after Bootney and Rayful finished playing ball with Alonzo and JT, they usually drove them back to campus. Sometimes Bootney and Rayful hung out in the dorms where all the players lived, buying them pizzas and whatnot. For a broke college student, pizza with all the toppings is like steak and lobster. Hanging with Rayful also gave them status, and Rayful got status from associating with my team. That coin had two sides.
I put the word out that I wanted to talk to Bootney. When I got him on the phone, I said I needed him to bring Rayful by my office at McDonough. Bootney said he’d ask, then called me back and said Rayful would come at a certain time, but it didn’t happen.
Soon I got Bootney on the phone again. He was on campus, in one of our dorms. “Rayful didn’t show up,” I said. “Can you get him over here to meet with me? I need to talk to him.”
I heard Bootney talking to somebody and realized he was with Rayful at that very moment. I heard them going back and forth. Bootney said, “Aww, Coach, Ray is scared. But he said he’ll come see you.”
Now, why would a guy like Rayful Edmond be scared to talk to me? Clearly it was not based on any physical threat that I posed to him. Violence is not part of my profession. He also was not afraid I would run to the police. I didn’t have anything to run to the police about. Yet here I was being perceived as fearsome again. People said it showed my power in the city that Rayful came when called. But it wasn’t about power. Rayful respected me based on what I represented to Black people in the city of Washington. What scared Rayful was the idea that he was causing me a problem. He had a conscience. His thought process was similar to that of a young man who got in trouble with his father.
The next day, as I was watching my team play pickup in McDonough, the door opened and Rayful walked into the gym. He had three guys with him: Bootney; Melvin Middleton, a good basketball player and Bootney’s teammate at Spingarn; and another young man who ran the streets with Rayful. My players were shocked — you never saw so many airballs in your life. They already knew I had caught up with their Rayful activities, but his arrival sent a message that I was now one step ahead of them. Oh, y’all thought it was fun and games when Rayful was in your dorm? Let’s see how you like it when I bring him to the gym. One of our coaches took the visitors upstairs and walked Rayful through the unmarked door into the basketball suite. I walked him into a private room and shut the door behind us. He and I were going to talk alone.
It was a stressful moment. I didn’t know Rayful, and he didn’t know me. A lot could go wrong. My program was in extreme danger, and if I could not solve the problem, everything could crumble. The school’s reputation could be harmed. It’s a lot easier to talk about the experience now than it was to live it.
Rayful was about twenty-three years old, six feet tall, with a solid build. He was handsome and dressed neatly, with a nice polo shirt. He wasn’t wearing a hat, long hair, jewelry, or anything flamboyant, which was somewhat surprising to me. Looking at him, you would never think he was a drug kingpin. He did not look like any type of thug. He wasn’t running around with a nickname like Fast Shot Willie. Right from the beginning he had a humble approach, which also surprised me. Everything about him was respectful, from his appearance to his demeanor. His overall presentation made me think that he thought I had the upper hand.
I recognized his intelligence right away. He behaved like his mind gave him credibility, not acting tough or violent or speaking a whole bunch of street language. I determined that it would be advantageous to let him know that I recognized his intelligence. I treated him respectfully, and as a result he gave me the same respect, and he answered my questions in what proved to be a truthful manner.
My primary concern was to find out what, exactly, Alonzo and JT were doing. I needed to do this without talking directly about drugs. Rayful had not been convicted of anything. He wasn’t sneaking around like a fugitive; he walked into my office in broad daylight. I didn’t want him to think I was setting him up or secretly taping him. I also didn’t want to be told anything that might incriminate him later, because I was cognizant of the fact that he eventually would be caught. I tried not to ask him questions that would put him in a position of confessing anything. He was too smart to do that anyway.
Our conversation was a bit like pig Latin. We spoke around the elephant in the room. We both knew what it was. I had no need to identify it. The conversation was serious and firm, with no small talk. I got right to the point.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, and I don’t care what’s going on, that’s your business,” I said. “But I’m hearing things about Alonzo and JT, and what I’m hearing could cause them a lot of problems. It could affect their basketball careers. I don’t need anything going on with my players, the school doesn’t need it, the players don’t need it. I don’t get involved with anybody’s business, but if there’s anything going on, I need you to let me know right now.”
Rayful said, “Nothing’s happening, Coach Thompson. People are making up a lot of stuff. All we do is play ball, go get something to eat, maybe hang out a little bit.”
We went back and forth in this manner as I tried to gather as much information as possible. I was the authority figure and led the conversation, but I knew I had very little leverage. I couldn’t control him. If what I had heard about him was true, Rayful had all the money in the world. If he wanted to cause problems for me, that would have been easy. He could simply keep showing up on campus, or keep taking my players to restaurants and nightclubs. He could arrange for something to be left in their dorm room. If he got arrested, he could say they were involved. All these possibilities ran through my mind. But I quickly recognized that Rayful wasn’t hostile toward me or my team. This young man loved basketball. He respected what I represented in the game he played every day. He might have been running an operation that made millions, but Rayful was also a Georgetown basketball fan.
I had a level of respect for Rayful, too. I didn’t respect or condone selling drugs, and I was probably a bit naïve about the extent of his activities when we first met. I knew he ran the city, but I didn’t realize his operation extended up and down the whole East Coast. Still, I didn’t look down on him as a human being. I didn’t want to judge him, and I still don’t. As a Black kid growing up in his neighborhood, his opportunities were limited, which inevitably affected the choices he made.
“So, what can we do here?” I asked. “Because I really don’t need this kind of stuff in my life. My players’ careers could be ruined, the school could be hurt. Can you control this situation? We both know the type of things that should not be happening. Can you make sure they don’t happen?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s no problem,” Rayful said. “You don’t have anything to worry about. Not with Alonzo.”
Wait a minute. He only said Alonzo.
“What about JT?” I asked.
Rayful tried to be tactful about it. “JT isn’t doing anything, Coach Thompson, but he enjoys being around guys who might be, you know, who might be doing something. He’s attracted to the lifestyle. I tell him to stay away from all that, but you know how he is.”
Rayful shared a detail I found particularly significant. You remember the huge cell phones back in the 1980s, that were the size of a quart of milk against your ear? Rayful said JT carried one of those around, but the service was not activated. He just wanted people to see him with it.
I was sympathetic to why a kid like Turner would feel that way. America worships people with money. Young Black kids had so few examples of wealth in their communities, they naturally gravitated toward drug dealers. Even if they didn’t, drugs were so embedded in the culture of the city at that time, it was hard to play basketball and not be associated with someone from that world. That said, JT had to make better decisions. He had to leave the streets alone.
“I’m not asking you to tell me anything,” I told Rayful. “I’m just asking for you to handle it. You know what I mean? Because you know some folks want to see us go down in this situation.” Exactly what the situation was, we never said.
“I got you, Coach Thompson. You don’t have to worry about anything with Alonzo. But JT, I don’t know.”
Throughout the whole conversation, Rayful was as polite and cooperative as could be. I was polite, too. It would have been stupid to make Rayful angry.
Over the years, many people have said what they thought happened in that room. Everybody says it went this way or that way, but there were only two people in there, Rayful and me. A myth has grown about me threatening Rayful and ordering him to stay away from my players. Some people like to say I stood over him and pointed my finger in his face. That’s nonsense. Why would I threaten someone who could bring down my whole program? That myth is based on the perception of me as intimidating and a bully. Like when I argued with the refs, I supposedly scared them. When I met with Rayful, the thinking goes, I had to threaten him. I’ve always been offended when some people assume our interaction had a physical component. They don’t want to give me credit for the fact that Rayful respected me.
My conversation with Rayful was less than what everybody said, and also more. It wasn’t like meeting some outlaw in the woods. I thought of Rayful as my neighbor’s child, who was exposing my kids to some trouble. I wanted to protect my players, my university, and myself. The conversation was between two Black men from Washington who both loved basketball, respected each other as human beings, and had enough intelligence to work out a solution to our problem.
I was never afraid for my own safety. Someone compared it to summoning Al Capone, but that was based on people transferring their fear of Rayful onto me. They thought violence was the only way Rayful had relationships with people.
We finished talking, walked out of the office, and said goodbye. Rayful went downstairs past the practice court and left with Bootney, Melvin, and his friend. Bootney and Melvin later got jobs working at Georgetown. I wonder how that happened?
According to Bootney, Rayful smiled the whole drive home. When Bootney kept asking what we talked about, all Rayful said was, “Man, Coach Thompson is cool as hell.”
Excerpted from I CAME AS A SHADOW: An Autobiography by John Thompson with Jesse Washington. Published by Henry Holt and Company December 15th 2020. Copyright © 2020 by John R. Thompson Jr. All rights reserved.