WASHINGTON — Patrick Ewing is once again the big man on campus.
Maybe the only thing bigger at Georgetown University is the legacy of John Robert Thompson Jr. or perhaps the imposing bronze statue of the Hall of Fame coach that greets visitors when they enter the John R. Thompson Jr. Athletic Center.
That’s a lot to look and live up to. Even for Ewing, the greatest basketball player in the history of the Jesuit school who was the rock of the 90s Knicks and who has spent the last 15 years working — and waiting — for this precise moment.
“I can’t worry about why it took me so long to get this chance,” Ewing told The Daily News. “I know other guys got their chance before I did. My only thing was that I wanted to be ready when I got the chance. And now it’s here.
“My goal is to be successful. As successful as I was as a player I want to be just as successful as coach.”
A new era for Georgetown Hoyas basketball begins Sunday afternoon at the Capital One Center when Ewing finally makes his head coaching debut. The opponent, Jacksonville, is one of several mid-level schools Ewing hand-picked for the Hoyas’ non-conference schedule to get his young and inexperienced team ready for Big East play. The coach may be a rookie but he’s far from naïve.
The season opener is important to Ewing, obviously, but it seems to mean even more to his family and friends, some of whom weren’t convinced this day would ever come. On Sunday, the Ewing support group will be out in full force. Georgetown greats Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson are expected to attend.
Jeff Van Gundy is flying in and Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks, Ewing’s teammate for one season in New York, is coming. Even Michael Jordan, Ewing’s long-time rival, friend, Olympic teammate and former boss, is scheduled to be in attendance which is fitting.
Patrick Ewing’s iconic 7-foot figure has come full circle from winning national title at Georgetown with John Thompson to glory days at Garden to hitting recruiting trail as Hoyas’ head man.
(Kevin Wolf/Kevin Wolf)
It was Jordan’s iconic jump shot that April night in New Orleans that lifted North Carolina over Georgetown in the 1982 National Championship Game. Jordan’s star was born while the skinny 7-foot freshman out of Cambridge, Mass., also made his mark. Ewing was so caught up in the moment that he was called for goaltending five times in the first five minutes, The Hoya Destroya had arrived.
“It seems like only yesterday,” Ewing said.
In four years, Ewing led Georgetown to three national championship game appearances and one national title. The Hoyas became a national brand and a cultural phenomenon in the early-to-mid-80s. Ewing even landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with President Reagan.
Now 32 years since graduating from The Hilltop, Ewing is attempting to resurrect a program that has won just two NCAA Tournament games in the last eight years. The Hoyas’ top two scorers from a team that lost 18 games last season are gone. They are picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East. Once an elite and feared program, Georgetown has lost its way and is counting on Ewing to make this right again. It won’t be easy.
“I told him there are three things he should want to accomplish in the first year,” says Van Gundy, who has attended four practices and is a constant sounding board for Ewing. “You want to set the tone for your program, whatever that may be. You want to sign a good (recruiting) class and win 14 games this season. You do that, you’ve done a helluva job.”
Ewing has been extremely thorough since taking the reins seven months ago. He’s reached out to St. John’s Chris Mullin and Grand Canyon’s Dan Majerle, two former NBA players-turned-college coaches. He stays in constant contact with his NBA coaching brethren, particularly Jeff and Stan Van Gundy as well as Charlotte’s Steve Clifford. He also has “Coach Thompson” as Ewing calls him to lean on. Ewing’s first hire to become his lead assistant coach was Louis Orr, the former Seton Hall head coach who was Ewing’s teammate in New York during his first three years with the Knicks.
“He’s already good at this,” Orr says. “His competitive nature and warrior spirit are the foundation. You add his work ethic, his hunger to learn and that’s a good start. From Day One it was clear that he’s in charge.”
John Thompson serves as a second father to Patrick Ewing.
Ewing understands that building a program takes hard work, blue chip talent, patience and smart scheduling. In August, Georgetown withdrew from the PK80, a 16-team, two-bracket, dual college basketball tournament over Thanksgiving. (The tournament, held in Oregon, is honoring Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday). The Hoyas were scheduled to face Michigan State and then play either Oregon or UConn.
Instead, Georgetown’s non-conference schedule features Texas, Maryland, Alabama and North Carolina… as in North Texas, Maryland Eastern Shore, Alabama A&M and North Carolina A&T. There’s also Maine, Howard, Coppin State, Howard, Richmond, Mount St. Mary’s as well as an old Big East rival, Syracuse.
Other than Jim Boeheim and the Orange visiting the nation’s capital on Dec. 16, Georgetown’s non-conference schedule would be what Dick Vitale describes as “cupcake city.” Ewing, however, is not making any apologies.
“We’re a team that’s young and is coming off two bad years,” Ewing said while sitting inside a conference room at the Thompson Center. “You know (John Thompson III) got fired after having one of the toughest schedules in college basketball. And now I’m here.
“I remember a few years ago we were sitting around watching the NCAA tournament and one of the NBA coaches I was with said that if you want to be successful in college sports it comes down to recruiting and scheduling. The first thing I remembered when I got the job was recruiting and scheduling.”
Ewing’s predecessor, John Thompson III, was dismissed last March after 13 seasons in charge of the Hoyas. His resume includes eight NCAA Tournament appearances and one trip to the Final Four. But last season, the Hoyas finished 14-18, including a 5-13 record in the Big East. Fans and alums began demanding for a new voice to lead a program that is synonymous with the Thompson name. It became a sensitive issue.
The patriarch, John Thompson Jr. spent 27 seasons at Georgetown, compiling a 596-239 record which includes a national title in 1984 with Ewing as his All-American center. The elder Thompson has an office at his namesake facility and occasionally attends practice. In the past, he was known to answer reporters’ questions that were directed at his son during press conferences. The not-so-subtle message; that’s my son and this is my program.
John Thompson, and Kid from Kid N Play, cheer on Patrick Ewing at the Garden.
(Charles Rex Arbogast/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Whether Thompson will remain as visible and vocal with Ewing as the head coach is unclear. Some distance may be needed for both. But again, this is a sensitive issue.
Ewing may not be blood related but he and Thompson have a player-coach bond that goes back 37 years when Thompson visited Ewing, one of the nation’s top high school players, at his home just outside Boston. It was during that meeting that Ewing’s mother, Dorothy, made Thompson promise that he would look after her son and that Patrick would graduate. An agreement was reached. A year later and just months after Ewing’s transformative freshman season, Thompson visited Cambridge again to advise Ewing’s family that if Patrick entered the NBA Draft he would receive a lucrative contract.
Dorothy Ewing moved the family from Jamaica seven years earlier for a better life and here was an opportunity for a shortcut. Instead, Mrs. Ewing appreciated Thompson’s counsel before reminding him of the promise they made. Ewing returned to Georgetown and although Dorothy passed away the following summer Ewing fulfilled his mother’s dream.
Thompson has always served as a second father, life coach, security blanket and head coach. Last March, it was Thompson who asked a reluctant Ewing to pursue the Georgetown job, thus easing the awkwardness of replacing Thompson’s son. It was a complicated transition because Ewing’s oldest son, Patrick Jr., was on Thompson’s staff but could not be retained because of the university’s nepotism policy.
Thompson attended Ewing’s introductory press conference but declined to be interviewed that day, citing the need to give Ewing space to create his own niche and build the program his way. It was a good start.
As an ode to his former coach, Ewing wants Georgetown to get back to being a relentless defensive team that plays a more up-tempo offensive style now favored in the NBA.
Practices are closed to the media and access to players is limited but before you mention the words “Hoya Paranoia” just know that Ewing, 55, recently joined the social media world by opening a Twitter account. When you are recruiting millennials it is wise to adapt to their world.
Georgetown head basketball coach Patrick Ewing (r.) joins other coaches as they watch a game during the opening night of the Nike Peach Jam at Riverview Park in North Augusta, S.C. in July.
“When I was getting out of school I remember the first cell phone,” Ewing said. “Now, it’s social media.”
Ewing’s players don’t remember him as No. 33 who ruled the paint at Madison Square Garden for 15 years. It’s been a long time. Ewing last played for the Knicks 17 years ago. They’ve only heard the stories about the Hall of Fame center that made the Knicks contenders every year and reached two NBA Finals.
“Even though I didn’t win a ring I still had a great career,” Ewing said. “Naturally, I would have loved to have won a ring. That was my goal. But it just wasn’t in the cards.”
Mostly, Ewing’s players know him as the one of the actors from the movie “Space Jam.” In the recruiting world, coaches look for any edge. Saying you were an 11-time All Star and a top 50 Player of All Time, only gets you so far. Being a one-time teammate of Bugs Bunny has cache. Ewing is still learning the recruiting game on the fly.
“Georgetown is squeaky clean,” Van Gundy says. “Not every school plays by the same rules. Unlike the NBA, not everyone has the same salary cap in college basketball.”
“Most of the people I talked to kept saying that recruiting is brutal, just brutal,” Ewing added. “But it hasn’t been that bad.”
Ewing has received commitments from a top prospect out of Louisiana, forward Josh LeBlanc and Virginia point guard Mac McClung. He also beat out Maryland for Jamorko Pickett, who is a D.C. native.
Being pals with Bugs Bunny can only help Patrick Ewing on the recruiting trail.
And now the question becomes not whether Ewing can recruit but whether Ewing can be a successful head coach. That clearly was a question among NBA executives. Van Gundy and Thompson find it astonishing that a player with Ewing’s credentials and experience never got a shot despite working as an NBA assistant in Washington, Houston, Orlando and Charlotte. The Knicks had plenty of job openings but never even called Ewing.
“Pat was frustrated and justifiably so,” Clifford said. “Two summers ago he was a finalist in Memphis and Sacramento. He was on people’s radar. But last summer there were no jobs. He was going to get a job in the NBA. But Georgetown is different. He has true love for the school and coach Thompson. He loves that place.”
Thompson believes centers are typecast and not given the respect nor the opportunities afforded point guards, a position generally associated with leadership and intelligence.
But then, Ewing has been fighting the battle of proving himself for most of his life. Long before anyone thought “Maybe Ewing Can’t Coach” there was a sign at a game in Providence that said “Ewing Can’t Read.” One in Philadelphia said “Ewing Kant Read Dis.” Those were the type of racist taunts Ewing often encountered during his college career.
“It is cheap, racist stuff,” the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown, said back in 1983. “No one on the face of the earth can tell me if Patrick were a 7-foot high white man that people would still carry these signs around. I’m a white man and I know it. John (Thompson) is a black man and he knows it… This all strikes me as dreadful.”
It was indeed an ugly and sad time. Ewing’s admission to Georgetown was questioned. His academic standing probed to the point where the school held an impromptu press conference at the Big East Tournament to confirm that Ewing was in fact in good academic standing at the school. The New York Times even covered Ewing’s college graduation.
“For the last four years, Ewing has been the most dominating player in college basketball. He has also been a student, much to the chagrin of a few men who would rather have had him playing for them in the National Basketball Association and much to the surprise of a few skeptics who charged that Ewing wasn’t being educated as much as he was being protected,” the Times wrote. “Today, he proved those skeptics wrong by obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in fine arts.”
Patrick Ewing: ‘We’re a team that’s young and is coming off two bad years.’
(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
The coded language — “leadership” and “intelligence” – is insulting but it also serves as motivation for Ewing. The coaches that he’s worked for and the players he’s tutored don’t question Ewing’s basketball acumen.
“I worked under him in the Orlando Summer League and Patrick was very intense but very much under control,” Clifford added. “Leadership and game management come naturally for him. As an assistant coach he had a great feel for where the ball should go.”
No coach has spent more time with Ewing in his post-playing career than Clifford. They first met when Clifford joined Van Gundy’s staff in New York. Clifford and Ewing then worked together in Houston, Orlando and Charlotte.
“I told my mother a few weeks ago that Patrick leaving has left a void,” Clifford said. “We went to dinner a couple of times a week. We lived in the same building. We communicated daily. It’s been different.
“But I’m happy for him. He’s already put in an incredible amount of work to building a foundation. The way they practice, the way he’s organized. The recruiting, running the program. College is 24/7 and he dove right into it.”
Clifford is hoping to make it to Ewing’s first game which will feel more like a reunion; friends, children and even grandchildren. Ewing’s lone regret is that his parents, Dorothy and Carl, who taught their son to value sacrifice and having a strong work ethic, won’t be there to enjoy this moment.
“When I think about my entire journey I think of both parents and that they would be proud,” Ewing said.
“Both have passed on but every time I go to their grave I place flowers down and I make sure to thank them for bringing me to this country. I don’t know where I would be or what I would be doing if I wasn’t given the opportunity to come here. My parents gave me the opportunity and I took full advantage of it. And now there is more work to be done.”