Does Patrick Ewing have the goods to restore Georgetown’s glory days?
The Thompson family legacy will help, not hinder him
“Don’t get me wrong. I love Patrick,” said the man, who is as close to the program as you can get without being employed by the school. “Forget just basketball — he might be my favorite athlete ever.
“But I want those memories to stay there. I don’t want them tarnished in case it doesn’t work out. Because if Patrick can’t turn it around, if he fails, then I’ve got nothing left.”
Welcome to Joylesstown, where hiring Hoya icons is surprisingly fraught.
- A stroke of nostalgic genius
- Proof that university President Jack DeGioia and program patriarch John Thompson Jr. are still enmeshed in a codependent relationship, or
- A Hail Mary heave from the nation’s oldest Jesuit university, which settled for Ewing only after it reportedly failed to attract the big college names it actually wanted.
Ewing officially came home Wednesday, 32 years after the original Hoya Destroya scowled, soared and swatted all those shots away — a 7-foot center made up of equal parts grace and grit, with a pterodactyl wingspan and a gray T-shirt beneath his tank top that became part of basketball’s zeitgeist.
The man whom Big John often called “my son” will replace Thompson’s actual progeny, John Thompson III, who was fired last month after 13 seasons and just one NCAA tournament appearance in the past four years.
And that’s where the rub, much of it unfair, begins.
See, when they say “Georgetown family,” they mean all the good, bad and awkward that family entails.
Patrick Ewing Jr., for starters, just finished serving on JT III’s staff. But in his first radio interview with the team’s flagship station, Ewing Sr. said his son won’t remain because of — wait for it — Georgetown’s nepotism policy.
Since Big John signed off on Ewing Sr. taking the reins, which Georgetown officials privately confirm he did, does that mean he also signed off on jettisoning his own flesh and blood?
It became obvious the JT III era was done during the Big Ten tournament when news spread that Trey Mourning, Alonzo Mourning’s son, would be leaving Georgetown. Think about it: ‘Zo’s son didn’t want to play for Big John’s son.
Crossing bloodlines is unavoidable on a campus that sells its past as much as its promise, and Ewing has clearly been a victim of that past as much as a beneficiary of it the past few days.
Still, the largest elephant in the room today — in a news conference held inside, yes, the 144,000-square-foot John Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, where 75-year-old Big John still keeps an office — is how much influence Ewing’s former coach will exert over the program. And if it remains substantial, can Ewing really be his own man?
“Can I answer that one?” said Jeff Van Gundy, Ewing’s former coach in New York who is now an ESPN color analyst. “I don’t understand anybody who wants to run away from Big John’s legacy. That’s the only time they have had a sustained level of greatness in their history, a level they haven’t seen since.
“So I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to embrace Big John. The guy graduated his players. His players have made their mark in society positively. I’d be hard-pressed to find what you could be against.”
Indeed, the more you kept hearing and reading things this week, such as, “Can you really envision Ewing sitting in a Kansas AAU gym in the middle of the summer?” and “If he really was such a good NBA assistant for 15 years, why didn’t one franchise offer him a head coaching job?” it brought back troubling echoes of the demeaning, racially loaded things they used to say about Ewing as a college player.
Remember the handmade placard the student held in Providence in 1983 that read “Ewing Can’t Read This”? Thompson took his players off the floor until the sign came down. How about the game against Villanova in Philadelphia where a raised bedsheet sickeningly read “Ewing Is An Ape”?
The obstacles today aren’t as much racial as they are generational — especially the big-man bias that says a 7-footer whose teams were built on defense and rebounding can’t be contemporary enough to win in the one-and-done, run-and-release-from-30-feet NCAA.
“When people say, ‘He needs good assistants,’ well, no s—, that’s what he was for [the Knicks],” Van Gundy said. “You have to have good people around you as a head coach. But if that is also tinged with, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ I would just have everyone hit the pause button and not underestimate him. That’d be a mistake.”
Confession: I am in the tank for Ewing. I covered him for his final six years in New York and came to appreciate him as one of the top 50 players to ever play the game, one of the top 10 centers of all time. The most enduring memory I have is kind of humorous: a pregame ritual in which he dribbled the ball through and around his legs as he sat at his cubicle. Often, he would dribble the ball off his foot, it would roll toward Anthony Mason or Charles Oakley, and they would shake their head, sigh and roll the ball back. And Ewing would begin bouncing that ball again, like Sisyphus rolling that rock.
He never took a single shortcut. The magic was in his work. The truth is he never had great mitts. But he willed himself into being one of the greatest jump-shooting centers the NBA has known because that’s the only way he would survive, especially as his body began to betray him later in his career.
I don’t have any misconceptions about the difficult transition he faces, from career NBA assistant to recruiter/fundraiser/booster-soother and a good enough in-game coach to outwit the Big East’s Jay Wright and Chris Mack.
With just eight players under scholarship, Ewing instantly needs to stock a bare cupboard. In 13 years at Georgetown, Thompson III never landed a single player from Gonzaga High School, his alma mater and as much of a powerhouse in Washington, D.C., hoops now as Morgan Wootten’s DeMatha teams.
The I-95 corridor has produced Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Green, Victor Oladipo and June’s likely No. 1 pick, University of Washington freshman Markelle Fultz. Ewing has to scour the District, Maryland and Virginia to win.
He’s going to have to deal with the stage moms and dads, the LaVar Ball-a-thon of college basketball, who no longer are awed when someone such as Rick Pitino or Shaka Smart walk into their living room.
He’s going to have to re-instill a culture of rebounding, defense and heart to a program that became pillowy soft the past couple of seasons.
And, lastly, Ewing has to remind the faithful of what Georgetown was and what it can be again. The Hoyas and St. John’s were once the standard-bearers for Catholic hoop powerhouses. Now they’d gladly settle for being referred to as the Gonzaga of the East.
If I’m him and all the reservations about my hire are brought up Wednesday, I’d make a few things clear:
Anyone with 15 years of coaching experience in the world’s greatest league is a strong candidate.
Should he distance himself from the Thompsons? No. Georgetown has been to five Final Fours in the history of its program. You know the last names of the coaches who took them to four of the five? End of story.
Can he recruit? He was arguably the most recruited player in the history of high school basketball. He knows how important it is to look a young man in the eye and tell that player he would educate his mind and body and take care of him.
Will he be prepared for the grind? Ask Jeff Van Gundy. “People say he was terse before games,” Van Gundy said. “But I had no doubts that the priority in his mind wasn’t to gain favor with the media. It was not to befriend the opponent. He was coming to work, and he was coming to kick a–.”
How should he feel about not being the university’s first choice? Georgetown is taking a chance on him. And he’s taking a chance on Georgetown. And sometimes things are meant to be. (Especially when those things pay you around $4 million per year.)
What if this doesn’t work? What if Georgetown has to fire the greatest player in program history?
Well, it was already bad enough that it had to fire JT III. And if Ewing can’t fix this, Georgetown will become another St. John’s or DePaul — a once-storied program that never fully regained its 1980s glory.
But don’t underestimate Ewing. Start dreaming.
This article has been changed to correct the number of Final Fours in which Georgetown has played.