Patrick Ewing’s coaching success is more than a feel-good story
‘The heart of John Thompson’ lives in the revival of Georgetown basketball
At one of his first practices in October, head coach Patrick Ewing gathered his Georgetown team inside the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center in Washington. With all due respect to Ewing’s legendary history as a Hoya and the aura of the late Coach Thompson – it was an underwhelming group.
Nine players were new to the squad, six freshmen and three transfers. Star guard Mac McClung had transferred, following several other key players who bailed out. The Hoyas were picked to finish 11th in the 11-team Big East Conference.
Ewing pointed up. Not to the heavenly residence of Thompson, who recruited Ewing to Georgetown in 1981 and died in August. Ewing pointed to all the banners on the wall, commemorating the 1984 national championship, the 2007 Final Four, the seven Big East tournament championships.
“We have enough in this gym to get one of those banners,” Ewing said.
He may have been the only one who believed that. Six months later, Ewing’s Hoyas destroyed Creighton 73-48 in the Big East tournament championship, returning Georgetown (13-12) to the NCAA tournament after a painful five-season absence. The 12th-seeded Hoyas play No. 5 seed Colorado at 12:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Ewing’s victory was more than the feel-good basketball story of this coronavirus-crushed season. Thanks to Thompson’s decades of advocacy for educational opportunity and racial justice, the Hoyas have a unique place in Black sports history. It was lost on no one that coming into the Big East championship on March 13, Creighton head coach Greg McDermott was fresh off a suspension for telling his players, “I can’t have anybody leave the plantation.” McDermott’s team, seeded second, was overwhelmed by the eighth-seeded Hoyas, a team featuring 15 Black players wearing kente cloth uniforms and coached by six Black men.
Thompson first took Georgetown to the NCAAs in 1975 on a miracle shot by Derrick Jackson. After the 7-foot center Ewing first arrived on campus as a player, the Hoyas appeared in three of four national title games and won the championship in 1984. By the time Thompson retired in 1999, he had coached four future Hall of Famers, boycotted games in the name of racial equality, negotiated with a drug kingpin, saved Allen Iverson’s life and set a new educational standard for college sports. Thompson chronicled all of this in the autobiography that I wrote with him, I Came As a Shadow.
Thompson also is directly responsible for Ewing becoming the coach at Georgetown. After a decorated NBA career, Ewing spent 15 years as an NBA assistant coach, but was repeatedly passed over for top jobs. When Thompson’s son John Thompson III was fired from Georgetown – one of the most painful experiences of Thompson’s life – Ewing got a call from his former coach.
“He’s the one who convinced me to come interview for the job,” Ewing said during a 2019 conversation we had with Thompson while writing his book. “I was like, ‘Coach, are you sure?’ ”
“You know what I tell people?” Thompson chimed in. “It wasn’t one living person on this planet but me who thought Patrick should have this job – including him. I had to say, ‘Motherf—er, you go get that job.’ ”
Ewing encountered doubts he would succeed in the top job at Georgetown, even after being hired in 2017. One high-ranking Georgetown administrator told me point-blank that he didn’t think Ewing had what it took. When all the transfers jumped ship, the vultures began to circle. Ewing was hospitalized with COVID-19 in May, then Georgetown decided not to let any students, including basketball players, on campus over the summer. “This is the first time ever in my life I’ve been part of a team that started a season and never played pickup together,” said Thompson’s son Ronny, who played for his father and is now chief of staff for Ewing’s program.
With nine new faces learning a new system, the team started off 3-8 and 1-5 in the Big East. Then came a three-week coronavirus pause. The season began to turn around when the Hoyas resumed play on Jan. 30. Six-foot-nothing freshman point guard Dante Harris cracked the starting lineup and provided a jolt of scoring and the Hoyas’ trademark ball pressure. All-conference guard Jahvon Blair refused to crumble after Ewing did not allow him to dress against DePaul on Feb. 27 and then removed him from the starting lineup, a move reminiscent of Thompson disciplining players for reasons that were never publicly disclosed. Senior wing Jamorko Pickett stepped up in big moments. The defense ratcheted up to Gene Smith and Mike Riley levels.
Above all, Ewing willed his guys to believe. It culminated in Georgetown winning four Big East tournament games in four days.
“There’s a reason Coach Ewing is a top 50 all-time greatest NBA player,” said Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed. “It’s his work ethic, his unwavering belief in himself and in Georgetown. It’s just been remarkable to witness. He never gave in to any of the scrutiny, he never gave in to any of the critics. He never gave in to any of the adversity or negativity.”
Said Georgetown president John DeGioia, who was an undergraduate there in the 1970s: “He just keeps showing up and giving it everything he’s got, like he always has. If there’s a word that I would use to describe Patrick, since I’ve known him now for 40 years, it’s unrelenting. I mean, think about the year we’ve had. He had five days in the hospital with COVID. And then we lose John.”
I watched Ewing carry Thompson’s casket at the funeral. Then Ewing got back to work, with those vultures visible in the distance. If Georgetown could fire Thompson’s actual son John III after he made the Final Four but missed the NCAAs twice in a row, what might it do to Thompson’s basketball son Patrick if he failed to make the tournament four years in a row?
Ewing cut that issue off at the root. Just like Thompson did early in his coaching career, when he made his first NCAA tournament after a midseason six-game losing streak that featured someone tossing a sheet into the gym during a home game that said, “THOMPSON THE N—- FLOP MUST GO.”
“Patrick has the heart of John Thompson,” said Jackson, who hit the jumper in 1975 that sent Georgetown to its first NCAA tournament in 32 years. “That’s the big key. When you’re playing for somebody like that, the coach that he was, you learn to love him. He becomes a father figure to you, and you want to carry out his legacy. Coach Thompson started something, and you want to walk in his shoes.”
Now a feeling of optimism has replaced the doom and gloom. “The volume of Georgetown basketball-related text messages that have been exchanged among alums in the last 72 hours is probably 10 times the volume that I’ve had in the last decade,” said Dan Helfrich, Class of 1998. “The theme of those messages, beyond elation and pride, is a love of the style of play, a love of the defensive intensity, a love of the personality of the team, which in many ways matches Coach Ewing’s personality.”
When Ewing arrived at Georgetown 40 years ago, his personality was misrepresented by racist members of the media and opposing schools who resented an outspoken Black coach with an aggressive, all-Black championship team. Ewing was called stupid, a thug, an ape and worse. Bananas were thrown at him on the court. Opponents tried to counter his size and dominance with cheap fouls, and Ewing did retaliate when provoked. But “off the court Patrick was the nicest, most polite kid you could imagine,” Thompson said in his book. “He treated the custodian as respectfully as he did the president of the college. If you said show up at eight, he arrived at seven forty-five. It wouldn’t be a mistake to call him a sweet person.
“But when the ball went up for the tipoff, Patrick flipped that switch and didn’t back down from anybody.”
Now, years later, there is an outpouring of goodwill in the basketball world toward Ewing and what he accomplished this season. Like Thompson and many other large, dark Black men who refuse to back down from a challenge, Ewing’s humanity took far too long to be recognized.
“It feels great,” Ewing told me Tuesday on a Zoom call for reporters. “I think back then, because of me and how good we were, people perceived us a lot differently. We were the bad guys, the guys with the black hats. But things have changed.”
No change looms larger than the absence of Thompson, who was a consistent presence at Georgetown in retirement and loved attending the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Ronny Thompson still instinctively picks up the phone almost daily to call his pops. Ewing would call Thompson late at night after coaching the Hoyas to a big win and say, “Thanks for believing in me.” I heard Thompson grumble about Ewing being too hard on his players in practice, and Ewing would respond that he had heard far worse in the gym from Thompson.
When Thompson died, “there was truly a feeling of a kind of fear that, in some ways, we didn’t have that rock to be there for us as we navigate the future,” said Reed, the athletic director.
“There have been so many times, good times and bad, whether you wanted to hear what he had to say or not, that you knew he was going to be there and you could rely on him,” Reed said. “He would give you some real truth. Whether it was Coach Ewing or me as the AD, he would be the only one to give it to you unvarnished. Maybe fear is not the right word, but there certainly was a moment there where we were like, ‘Wow, we’re on our own now.’ ”
And then, Reed said, “you started to realize that he had given us enough to move forward.”
Starting with Patrick Ewing.