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The roots of Patrick Ewing’s coaching tree

4 men who shaped Georgetown’s new coach

Patrick Ewing coached his first game for Georgetown on Sunday at Capital One Arena, a 73-57 win over Jacksonville watched by more star power (including Michael Jordan) in the stands of a Hoyas home game since President Barack Obama took in Duke-Georgetown in 2010.

It came 36 years after a 7-foot prodigy first suited up for the Hoyas and led them to three NCAA championship games and one title in four surreal seasons. From his style contributions — the T-shirt under the game jersey — to his menacing defense and malicious dunks, Ewing was not merely part of a pioneering basketball tradition on the Hilltop, he became part of the cultural zeitgeist, the all-business, scowling man in the middle on coach John Thompson Jr.’s all-black team. Before Chris Webber and the Fab Five became black America’s team and every kid on the playground began wearing baggy shorts, there was the Hoya Destroya and his gruff, socially conscious coach.

For years afterward, Georgetown sold its past. Now Ewing must sell its future in a hypercompetitive college basketball recruiting landscape that is foreign even to the most highly prized recruit of his time. Ewing is a Hall of Famer and a longtime NBA assistant coach. But can he compete for talent in the world of Calipari, Krzyzewski, Williams and parents like LaVar Ball?

The Undefeated spoke to the four most influential coaches in Ewing’s life. Mike Jarvis was Ewing’s high school coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts, when Ewing’s teams went 77-1 and won three state titles in three years. (He went on to coach at several colleges.) Pat Riley was Ewing’s coach when he led the New York Knicks to their first NBA Finals in 21 years. Jeff Van Gundy coached Ewing during the last seven years of his Knicks career and later hired him as an assistant coach in Houston. And Thompson was his coach at Georgetown. We asked them about who Ewing was, who he became and why they believe Georgetown’s greatest player has the goods to be a great head coach.


What’s your first memory of Patrick that really stands out?

Mike Jarvis: I first met him when he was in junior high school when his phys ed teacher asked me if I would work with those guys to try to help them learn how to play basketball. He was as uncoordinated as hell. He’d probably be mad at me, but, first of all, he didn’t look like an athlete. He was just this tall, skinny, gangly kid. But I do remember one thing: He was always ferocious. Even then. Whatever he did, he did it 120 percent and he kept going.

John Thompson Jr.: The first time I saw him was a high school tournament in Boston Garden. I went to see another kid. I don’t even remember what the kid’s name was now. His team was playing against them. I was sitting with [Celtics president] Red Auerbach and [Celtics assistant coach] Jimmy Rodgers. I was just overwhelmed with his work ethic. He was getting up and down the floor, competing and playing hard. I said to Jimmy, jokingly, ‘Give me him and I’ll win the national championship.’ He was in the 10th grade when I said that.

Jeff Van Gundy: When [Georgetown] lost to Villanova in 1985. I was at the game in Rupp Arena with my brother and father. Although we were the same age, same high school class — it took him four years to get through school, it took me five — that’s all we had in common. For a Division III player like me, Patrick was like a mythological figure when I watched him play. The thing I remember is how they stood out afterward, how they clapped for Villanova. How Coach Thompson, Patrick and his teammates conducted themselves after defeat. Picture of class in their absolutely toughest moment.

Pat Riley: I remember his first day on the court in training camp after I signed to coach the Knicks. We had a three-hour goddamn practice. Then in the evening we had like a two-hour practice. … By then most of them were exhausted, dripping sweat, tired from running so much. And Pat looks at me in the huddle and suddenly he says, ‘Coach, is that it? Is that all you got?’ I look at him like he was nuts and said, ‘You want more? You don’t mean that.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ He meant it. ‘Is that all you got?’ It was like he was telling me, ‘I’m expecting more from you. And I heard so much about your practices and your preparation, and to me this was rather an easy day.’

Ewing has never been a head coach before. Why not? And what kind of coach do you see him being?

Jarvis: He should have been a head coach. Why it’s taken this long? Because a lot of people don’t look at big guys, for the most part, as being intelligent guys. There are size and racial stereotypes working against him – a whole mentality, you know. It’s like the little guys, the point guards, they’re supposed to be the smart guys, even though some of those guys couldn’t even play. That’s what a lot of basketball people sadly think. But a big guy — especially if he’s a big, black guy — it’s like, ‘How bright can he be?’ It’s wrong. See, Patrick worked at becoming a player. Just the word ‘work’ has always been associated, rightfully, with Patrick.

I think Patrick has the potential to be a great coach because he didn’t just become a great player because of his ability. He was a great student of the game. In high school, Patrick knew what everybody on the court was supposed to do and how they were supposed to do it. He fit the definition of center, the focal point, and he was everything. When you see the game through a defensive lens, you see the whole game, OK? Patrick has always seen the whole game.

Thompson: I thought he earned the right to be a coach in the NBA but was never given that opportunity. I certainly knew he was intelligent enough. I certainly knew he worked hard. One thing I didn’t know? That he aspired to be a coach. I found that out when I saw him paying his dues as an assistant. … He put in his time. And in any profession, you resent the people who just walk in the door and they let them do it. That’s the thing that I always respected about him. It’s not like somebody’s doing him a favor. He earned this.

One of the things that I said to him way back: They label big former players as a big man’s coach. Now, I never heard the reference ‘little man’s coach.’ ‘Big man’s coach’ puts you in a box right away. You’re not perceived as being the guy who runs the whole show. It always amazed me how I never heard smart men who played the center position in consideration for jobs. That’s just the society that we work in, that we live in. … The little guard is running the team. The little guard is real hot. Guess what? A whole lot of them are damn dumb too.

Riley: When you spend that kind of time coaching in the NBA, you definitely distinguish yourself. Patrick will bring something very strong to the table. But a lot of it is going to be pouring out of his experience. His assistant coaches understanding how to coach the younger players, understanding who the talent is out there to recruit, that’s their job. He needs assistants that are gonna sit in those gyms and watch those AAU tournaments. And then one of those guys comes back to Patrick and says, ‘You need to come into this gym and watch this guy.’

He doesn’t spend his time around the first phases of recruiting. That isn’t where his energy goes. His energy as the head coach goes to the philosophy and how he’s going to coach. It’s going to go to the planning system in which he’s going to set up where he’s gonna be able to get a result. It’s gonna go to his practices and how he formulates them. It’s gonna go to the pride that he teaches his kids in how to accept that philosophy. Then, finally, it’s going to be getting these kids to feel the same way he felt, which is privileged to be here at Georgetown.

“It always amazed me how I never heard smart men who played the center position in consideration for jobs. That’s just the society that we work in, that we live in.”

Van Gundy: It’s a crime he didn’t get an NBA head coaching job, because he’d be a very good one. Having already seen him run a practice at Georgetown, I think he’s a great communicator. You have to coach to your personality and your beliefs. I think he’s staying true to himself, who he is, and his communication is direct. It’s honest, but it’s not sarcastic. I think the players know exactly where he stands. If you care deeply about getting better, you’re going to want to play for a guy who’s that direct and honest. He coaches without ambiguity. They know what he’s feeling.

He also understands it’s a huge undertaking in that he’s never coached in college, he’s never been a head coach and Georgetown is down right now. I know there is some doubt. And, frankly, I think some people want him to fail. And I’ve never understood why. Because this guy is … from a friendship standpoint, a loyalty standpoint … he’s everything you’d want in a person. I don’t understand how you can’t root for Patrick Ewing.

Any advice for a first-year coach — albeit one that was the greatest player to ever suit up at Georgetown?

Riley: Now he’s the voice, he’s the face, he’s the one that’s gonna be in front of the microphone every day. He’s gonna be there at pregame, postgame, other interviews, all these things. He’s just gotta be himself. That’s what you stick to. You don’t get too far out of your box.

The one thing players don’t want to hear today, the millennial players, is, ‘Back in my day … ‘ If I ever give any advice out, I’d say don’t ever say, ‘This is the way we used to do it.’ You just can’t use those words today with the young players.

Ewing had a reputation off the court as a moody enigma who rarely let his guard down. He’s come out of his shell since he’s been an NBA assistant, but do you think the perception still hurts him?

Jarvis: Patrick was always private, in the sense that his mom taught him the value of friendship but also how important it was to pick the right friends. He had a very small group of friends that he couldn’t be any more loyal to and friendly with. He kept a lot of things inside, but they also motivated him.

I don’t think he was represented properly from a marketing and promotion standpoint when he first went to the NBA. You know, one of his first commercials, I’ll never forget, was for a sneaker company, and he’s climbing the Empire State Building like King Kong. Every bad racial stereotype was being incorporated. If I was managing him, he would’ve been doing ‘Got Milk?’ commercials. He would’ve been doing some stuff that really would’ve portrayed him. But, you know, they wanted him to be the big, bad guy — the ferocious player. The warrior. I never felt like the true light of Patrick Ewing was ever shown.

Did he shut down because of the racism he suffered in high school and college — the fans with signs that said ‘Ewing Can’t Read This’?

Jarvis: Hey, listen, there still is racial animosity in the world we live in. Most of it was based on fear and jealousy. They knew that wherever he went he was going to whup their behind, and there was a lot of jealousy involved.

There were some ugly moments. I remember one night we were playing in the playoffs and one of the other team’s fans came in dressed as a gorilla. We had tires slashed on our bus on one or two occasions. We had rocks thrown through our bus windows. Obviously some of that affected him.

Van Gundy: We perceive ourselves to be so progressive now about all these things. And yet, 30 years ago, think about the abuse that he took in arenas. I’m not talking boos, I’m talking [racist] signs, the attacks on his intelligence. Yeah, and then we wondered why he was maybe a little standoffish from the media. How hypocritical, right? What’s the lyric from the Barbra Streisand song, What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget? That’s what happened with Patrick. We wanted to sort of gloss over what he had been through. I don’t think in large part he was accorded the same sensitivity to what he went through as those people who portrayed him would have wanted for them and their children. I think it even carried on to his NBA coaching career. Everybody wanted to judge him by how he was at 25. I mean, we all hopefully grow and get better, and I think so often he was maybe pigeonholed into people still seeing him in front of his locker with his headphones on, in a full sweat, bouncing the ball and not talking before a game.

Thompson: I never thought of Patrick as being shy. I’ve met a lot of players that I felt were shy, but Patrick was more I thought a very private person. He’s very selective of who he invites into his world.

You know what’s crazy? Because of my relationship with him, my friendship, the affection that we have for each other, people tend to think that I am influencing every thought that he has. That’s ridiculous.

“We perceive ourselves to be so progressive now about all these things. And yet, 30 years ago, think about the abuse that he took in arenas.”

Is that an added burden, that he comes from the John Thompson coaching tree?

Thompson: If it is, it’s foolish. How come when two black guys talk with one another, it’s a conspiracy? It’s no conspiracy. We’re friends. I also think it is an insult to his intelligence if he did not refer back to the sources of knowledge. Not just me, but everybody. He’s been fortunate enough to have been around a lot of coaches. When I wanted to learn how to be a better coach, I spoke to Dean Smith.

Who the hell learned everything without relying on the people who they’ve been around, or the people they’ve had experiences with? That’s my relationship with Patrick. If he asks, I give him my opinion. But he’s got to make decisions. I respect him for that. It’s amazing to me that people will always attempt to make you what they accuse you of being. And in our case, that’s insulting. In fact, I think it has a lot of racial implications, as if this former athlete couldn’t possibly be smart and intelligent enough to do this on his own.

What encapsulates Ewing in your mind?

Jarvis: The person that Patrick became, to see him grow into a man and what he’s become as a person. I am most pleased and most proud of the fact that his mother, Dorothy, would be proud of him. That she would stand there and say, ‘That’s my boy. That’s my son. Look at the man, look at the person he has become.’ He’s done it without compromising his character and his integrity. He’s loyal, he’s honest, he’s hardworking, he’s trustworthy. All the things that his mother wanted him to be and his mother was. She was the glue, OK? The one that originally came from Jamaica, got a job at Massachusetts General Hospital and, one by one, brought the whole family over, including her husband. His mother is smiling down on him from heaven.

Van Gundy: Most guys run away from confrontation. But Patrick never ran away. Whenever Pat would come in and have an issue, we may not even agree at the end. But we knew where each other stood. I mean, I worked for like four guys who have 700 wins or more, right? But when I was talking to him about a month ago and asked him how it was going, he said, ‘Trying to make you proud, like a proud member of your [coaching] tree.’ I was like, ‘My tree? I’m a f—ing branch. You’re the tree.’ What, are you kidding me? Take Coach Riley out because obviously he’d already had his success in L.A. But if not for Patrick, myself, Steve Clifford and Tom Thibodeau and others wouldn’t be where they are. You don’t get those opportunities to coach a Hall of Fame player in his prime — in your first job. You just don’t. And to have that guy also have his level of talent and integrity, and basketball character, it’s impossible to find, let alone get the opportunity to coach. I’ll always be indebted to him.

Riley: People forget this, but when I went to New York, I went not knowing if they were going to sign Patrick or not. He was up for an extension. I thought he was going to sign it, but if he didn’t he was going to be a free agent soon. And I remember saying this to Dave [Checketts, Madison Square Garden president at the time]: ‘If Patrick signs, I’m all-in. If he doesn’t, I’m gone.’

The New York Knicks came after Showtime, but it was one of my all-time favorite teams. Those four years with those guys, led by Patrick, I loved that. The biggest disappointment in my career was losing the [1994 NBA] championship. I let him down. I let him down. I didn’t do enough. I could’ve made a couple of different moves. [Riley regrets not using a fresh Rolando Blackman in Game 7 to spell John Starks, who shot 2-for-18, against Houston.] I could have gotten him better shots. To this day, I can’t look him in the eye.

Thompson: First of all, I don’t just admire Patrick, I love him. You know what I mean? Not based on what I have seen him do right with me, but with other people too. Patrick isn’t the only player I had that kind of relationship with. But because of his success and his prominence in being Patrick, people tend to focus on that. I love him because of what he’s accomplished, and the man that he still stood for. The things he stood for are good things.

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.