Patrick Ewing looking to return Georgetown to its former glory

By Mike Vaccaro

WASHINGTON — The temptation is there, of course. Patrick Ewing’s favorite part of coaching is seeing an idea in his brain become a habit in his players’ daily routines. Right now, as he tries to rebuild the Georgetown Hoyas to a program strong enough to lure the next Patrick Ewing, that is the key talking point.

“It’s not how you say it,” he says, “it’s what you say.”

And there are plenty of satisfying moments, too. Sometimes, he wonders if the Hoyas actually listen to him or if they simply nod their heads to ward off one of his withering glares — and then, in a stolen moment, he’ll see those players do exactly what he told them to do. At this point in his career, that’s the win-loss record that matters most to him.

But there is the secret weapon. There are reams of old videotape strewn about the Georgetown offices, of course, primary evidence that the old man preaching hard work and intensity actually practiced those beliefs while wearing the very same uniform they wear now.

“I might have to do that!” he says, with a big laugh that fills the conference center just off the practice court at the John R. Thompson Jr. Center. “When I’m talking about energy and getting up and down the floor and multiple efforts, maybe one of these days I’ll pop in one of the old tapes and let them see what I’m actually talking about. They all know I walked in their shoes but, then, actually seeing it …”

A few years ago, Ewing’s forever rival, Chris Mullin, also laughed when he talked about the futility of convincing 17-year-old kids that the gray flat-top in front of them used to be one of the best players in the world.

“They don’t have any idea,” Mullin said then. “Of course their fathers — or, yikes, their grandfathers — they don’t want to stop talking to me about the old days.”

Ewing understands.

Modal TriggerPatrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, who battled each other as players at Georgetown and St. John’s, are looking to rebuild the programs they once brought to prominence.Anthony J. Causi

“If these kids know me at all,” he chuckles, “it’s because I was in ‘Space Jam.’ ”

The name does still carry a distinct magic in certain circles, however. It was last January when Ewing walked into Madison Square Garden to play Mullin’s St. John’s team for the first time, and amid the raucous reception, Ewing spotted a familiar face from the old days who cupped his hands around his mouth to be heard over the din.

“Patrick!” the fan said. “It’s so hard to hate you!”

It wasn’t always so, of course, and for those whose memories do go back to the early ’80s, when Georgetown was college basketball’s essential team and Ewing its face, swagger and sneer, they understand. Fifteen years with the Knicks softened those hard old feelings substantially. And now it’s hard for even the most devoted Johnnies fans to conjure those old resentments.

“I’m a Knick,” Ewing says. “I’m always going to be a Knick. If you spend 15 years in a place and you don’t feel you’re a part of it then something is wrong.”

Whatever old grudges might have existed are all gone now, and if there was any question about that, Ewing and an old coaching pal, David Fizdale, buried them forever when Fizdale invited Ewing to speak to the Knicks before they played their first exhibition in Washington against the Wizards on Oct. 1.

It was the first time since Ewing left the Knicks in an ill-fated trade with Seattle on Sept. 20, 2000, he had been invited to do that. That’s 18 years and 11 coaches and a lot of water under the bridge, and since Ewing spent many of those years serving an extended apprenticeship for four different NBA teams, it might have been awkward even if someone had thought to ask.

But Fizdale asked. Ewing said yes, and it tugged at his heart.

“It felt good to be in front of guys who were sitting in what was once my locker room, was once my locker, and give them some advice about what it’s like to play in a great city like New York,” Ewing says. “And, hey, maybe it helped: they went out and won that night.”

Around the Georgetown program, there are two presences that loom around every corner. One is obvious: Thompson, the man for whom this complex is named, whose life-sized statue greets visitors on the first floor, who is a regular visitor to basketball practice and a daily commuter to his office where he’s working on a memoir. There’s even a half-deflated basketball in this office, similar to the one Thompson famously had in his.

“Different ball,” Ewing laughs. “Nike ball.”

Modal TriggerPatrick Ewing and John Thompson won a national title together at Georgetown in 1984.AP

Ewing is told a Thompson story he’d never heard before. This was maybe a year before Ewing took the Georgetown job. Thompson said, “It isn’t just that he played hard. It’s easy to play hard when you’re an All-American at Georgetown and everyone’s praising you. It’s easy to play hard when you’re on a great Knicks team and it’s New York and everyone loves you.

“But go back and watch Patrick when the Knicks were awful his first couple of years. The team stunk, the coaching stunk, they lost all the time, yet look at 33. That sonofagun would still never take a play off. That’s why he’s going to be a great coach.”

“I could always pick up the phone and ask for advice from Coach Thompson,” Ewing says. “That’s the relationship I want with my players. I want them to be able to ask me for advice, good or bad. I want to be one of the people they listen to. He always told me: you never know who’s watching. That means practice. That means pickup games. It’s a lesson I try to share.”

The other silhouette? That one’s a little bit of a shocker. Ewing grins when someone points to the large Air Jordan logo that dominates one wall, then points to his own shirt, where there Michael is again, flying across Ewing’s chest to an imaginary basket. Jordan robbed Ewing of one title in college and any number of others in the NBA.

“I can’t escape him,” he says, laughing. “But business is business.”

It is also a business Ewing is in largely due to his old rival. After his one season in Seattle, and a curtain call in Orlando, Ewing called Jordan to let him know he was retiring as a player.

“What are you going to do with yourself?” Jordan asked.

Ewing realized he didn’t really have an answer to that.

“Come on down here,” Jordan said. It was during Jordan’s time running the Wizards. He’d already seen Ewing’s future before Ewing could.

“I never thought about coaching,” he says. “It wasn’t even something I’d ever thought about. But I also knew I had a lot of years ahead of me. So I took Michael up on his offer. And almost immediately, all I’m doing is trying to reach guys, tell them what it means to be a professional basketball player.”

His eyes light up at the memory.

“And they were listening to me,” he says. “I was hooked right away. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. They listened.”

Of course, if necessary, there’s always the old videotapes. That’s a solid backup plan, too.

Jack Benoit