Patrick Ewing once embodied Georgetown basketball. Can he resurrect it?
BY KENT BABB, WASHINGTON POST
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — He pushes through a door and into a crowd, and before long the big man is being swallowed by it.
Strangers surround Patrick Ewing and extend their hands and trail him with cameras. The new Georgetown men’s basketball coach smiles but keeps walking, these parents and coaches no longer his target audience.
This July morning is the opening day of Peach Jam, a Nike-sponsored amateur basketball tournament, but for Ewing it is more than just an important stop on the summer recruiting calendar. It is a chance, in the center of the college basketball viper pit, for Ewing to gauge the current worth of Georgetown’s name. The program’s more recent decline included the past two losing seasons and the firing of John Thompson III, the son of legendary former coach John Thompson Jr., who along with Ewing won the 1984 national championship and made the Hoyas into a cultural symbol.
It also is a chance for Ewing, the player who embodied Georgetown basketball under Thompson and a new coach unfamiliar with the college game’s nuances, to take the measure of his own value to today’s program.
On this Wednesday morning, the crowd in the atrium is older, and to them Ewing is never anything but a king. He shakes hands and nods, disappearing finally behind another gymnasium door.
The next day, he reenters the breach, his 7-foot body walking this time into a lobby crowded with players — the kinds of talented youngsters who could, if Georgetown’s gamble pays off, elevate the program as Ewing once had.
But the teenagers continue their conversations, their gazes fixed on phones. Patrick Ewing, this icon of another time and place, comes and goes and almost no one reacts.
A pathway to the NBA
“It’s freezing in here,” Ewing says, entering a mercilessly air-conditioned room in the building on the Georgetown campus named for his mentor.
Then he remembers who’s in charge, ostensibly anyway, and walks over to turn down the thermostat before flipping up the hood of his Air Jordan sweatshirt and tightening its drawstring down to his eyebrows.
Thawing now, Ewing distracts himself by talking about his vision to revitalize a program that, during the 1980s and 1990s, was among the best in the D.C. region and the baddest in the nation.
“Everybody wants to get to the NBA style. I came from the NBA,” he says between bites of a tuna salad sandwich, and indeed there might be no greater creature of professional basketball than Ewing. “But you have to be able to have the guys to do it. It is my vision and my goal to get those guys.”
This is just one of the many intriguing juxtapositions that have surrounded the four months since Ewing’s hire, which has generated both renewed hope and mighty skepticism. He is an NBA man chosen to resurrect a once elite college program, a symbolic departure from the Thompson family’s 45-year reign over the team but also a continuation of it. He is a recruiter whose astonishing life equips him with a unique pitch but whose experiences have made him a set-in-his-ways messenger who, at 55, is appealing to the whims of teenagers for the first time.
“People say how tough it is,” Ewing says of recruiting, “but I don’t really see it being that tough. It’s all about being able to communicate with people, and I think I can communicate.”
It is precisely the kind of statement that, depending on your initial opinion of Georgetown’s selection of Ewing in April, either underscores his fearlessness or reveals his dramatically oversimplified view of how things are done in big-time college basketball.
Ewing, who has set foot on a college campus only occasionally since 1985, is one of the most accomplished players in basketball history: an 11-time NBA all-star, named one of the league’s top 50 players, the man for whom the NBA draft lottery was implemented. Before that, he was a national champion and three-time all-American, and even before that he was a once-in-a-generation college recruit who snubbed heavyweights UCLA and North Carolina because “Big John” Thompson convinced him to take a leap of faith.
So one of those juxtapositions is more significant than the others: Ewing, a man who has never needed to sell himself or trumpet his bona fides, now exists within a universe where nothing is more important than what he says and how he says it.
“He can’t be quiet at that helm,” former Georgetown teammate and NBA player Reggie Williams says. “It’s too big of a job to sit back and think people are going to come there because you’re Patrick Ewing.”
“To me, that’s been his biggest weakness,” Charlotte Hornets Coach and longtime friend Steve Clifford says. “He has never worried about playing the game. He has never been that way.”
“He’s got what he needs, but you’ve got to say it,” says Keith Williams, an influential figure in the D.C. area’s amateur basketball community, full of both talent and expectations. “They’ve got to sell a story and you’ve got to be a salesperson because guess what: Most 16- or 17-year-olds, they don’t even know who Pat Ewing is.”
Ewing has the stories and easygoing nature, but politics and finesse have never factored much into his success. Four months in, the expectations of others — in particular, some of the powerful coaches at basketball’s grass-roots level — seem to make Ewing the most uncomfortable.
The Georgetown brand has faded, its magnetism gone in the Washington, D.C., area and across the nation, and though Ewing seems determined to recapture it, there’s only so much he’s willing to do.
“I’m not going to kiss the ring,” Ewing says, and this might be the most Georgetown thing about him: He, like the school that once signed him to a scholarship 36 years before signing him to a six-year coaching contract, is willing to do things only his own way at a school known for seeing things through its own prism.
And this is how Ewing sees this one: “Did I kiss Michael Jordan’s ring?”
(Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
(Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press)
Part of the tradition
On the days Ewing enters the Georgetown basketball office, he walks into a building named for Thompson and through a lobby whose centerpiece is a bronze statue of Thompson and passes through doorways with colorful sayings by Thompson and boards an elevator not far from the first-floor office occasionally inhabited by Thompson, whom the school recognizes as “coach emeritus.”
Most everywhere on this corner of campus, there are reminders of the accomplishments of “Big John” — 596 wins, 13 combined Big East championships and three Final Fours among them — and, more than 18 years after his final game, of his lingering influence.
“Coach Thompson is the one that started this tradition here. I’m part of the tradition,” Ewing says, sitting at a table that faces an oversized photograph of Thompson with his arm around former Georgetown star Allen Iverson.
So even now, is Ewing the Hoyas’ true leader, or is he — as has been suspected in some quarters of the Georgetown alumni and fan base — the only coach who would allow Thompson, who stepped down in 1999, continued access to the program? Is Ewing, whom the 75-year-old sees almost as family, the only coach Thompson would accept replacing his son?
Indeed, when John Thompson III held practices in recent years, his father would occasionally attend and offer instruction or critiques. Thompson, whose 6-foot-10 stature and Hall of Fame credentials cast a long shadow, sat courtside at many Georgetown games and during postgame news conferences would sometimes bark out answers to reporters’ questions from the back of the room.
“I don’t think that shadow would go away for anybody,” former Hoyas big man Don Reid says, though he believes Thompson’s contributions to the program entitle him to hang around in whatever capacity he pleases.
Patrick Ewing: “If anybody who knows me, they know I’m stubborn. I’m my own man. I’m going to do what I want, when I want, how I want.” (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)
Not long after Thompson III was fired in March, it was Big John who called Ewing to implore his former player to return to the Hilltop and close the circle they started together in 1981. In July, Thompson’s younger son, Ronny, was added to Ewing’s staff in an administrative capacity (Ewing was not allowed to retain his own son, former Georgetown assistant Patrick Ewing Jr., because of a school rule prohibiting nepotism). The elder Thompson declined an interview request for this story through an athletic department spokeswoman.
“It’s Coach Thompson’s program,” says Michael Graham, who after the Hoyas defeated Houston and Phi Slama Jama for the 1984 national championship, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. “As long as he’s alive, it’s always going to be his program.”
Ewing says he spoke often with his mentor during the hiring process, but he — and Georgetown administrators — insist that was the extent of Thompson’s involvement.
Lee Reed, the school’s athletic director, says Ewing was hired because of his own accomplishments and promise — but that, during the search, “you’d be foolish not to seek out [Thompson’s] wisdom.”
“We found the best candidate who happens to have a relationship with Coach Thompson,” Reed says. “It never came up that it should be somebody Coach Thompson approves of or should be somebody who has some sort of relationship with Coach Thompson.”
Though Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Texas’s Shaka Smart were early targets to replace Thompson III, Reed now says Ewing was the school’s “only choice.” But some former Georgetown players suspect other candidates might have been put off by the delicate balance of modernizing the program while managing the individual most credited with establishing it.
“They didn’t want to look down the hallway,” Reggie Williams says, “and see Big John.”
After Thompson’s call in the spring, Ewing says he was uncertain about applying for the job because for years he had envisioned himself as an NBA head coach. He had interviewed for a handful of jobs in recent years but was never chosen to lead a team.
Those who know Ewing considered the possible reasons. Guarded as a younger man, he was a grinder who preferred the behind-the-scenes work and preferred not to stand on ceremony. Film study and instructing players were more his speed; thank-you notes and networking were not. Willing to accept no shortcuts on account of his fame and a noted perfectionist among his peers, there was a glaring weakness in Ewing’s coaching: asserting himself.
“Talk more,” former Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who also coached Ewing as a player with the New York Knicks, frequently advised his most famous assistant coach. When Ewing did speak, his experience as a former player and blistering style commanded attention in a way Van Gundy’s more polished approach could not.
“Your actions speak so loudly that I can barely hear what you say,” Van Gundy recalls telling Ewing, who over 15 years on four NBA benches became more confident, if not exactly refined.
Ewing was an associate head coach of the Charlotte Hornets when Georgetown called him about the opening. (Nell Redmond/Associated Press)
For his part, Ewing insists that the guarded and uncertain coach of the past is gone, that he faces plenty of challenges, but asserting himself — even when it comes to Thompson — is no longer among them.
“I would listen to the things that he says to me,” Ewing says. “But at the end of the day, I’m 55 years old. If anybody who knows me, they know I’m stubborn. I’m my own man. I’m going to do what I want, when I want, how I want.”
But Thompson III made similar public declarations, so what if Big John says he wants to . . . ?
“Did you hear what I said?” Ewing says, repeating himself. “This is my program.”
An unconventional approach
At least three times in July, Ewing folded his big body into an airplane seat and set off for amateur basketball tournaments in South Carolina, Kansas and Nevada.
“The biggest challenge,” he says now. “Flying all over the place, goddamn!”
Where Ewing comes from, the acquisition of talent is more to-the-point: which team has the most to offer, in money and championship hopes. In the college game, head coaches have usually spent decades networking and finding their voice as recruiters: which events matter, the dos and don’ts in and around each event, the backstage kingmakers who have earned a prospect’s trust — and who might know the most effective way to charm him.
In his first head coaching job, which happens to be at a highly visible program in the Big East, Ewing possesses little of that institutional knowledge and almost none of the typical basketball recruiter’s polish.
What Ewing does have is a message that, if he and his staff can figure out the best way to deliver it, could reshape the way college basketball recruiting is done. Highest-level prospects don’t just hope to play in the NBA but, in many cases, expect to; who understands the expectations and culture of the professional game better than Patrick Ewing?
At least in an official capacity, discussion of the NBA by college coaches is still seen as culturally taboo; student-athletes are brought to campus for an education and to spend four seasons helping their teams team pursue a championship.
Ewing, with Georgetown’s apparent blessing, is operating as he did as an NBA assistant — unburdened by ceremony and unwilling to soften his words. He plans to deploy an NBA-style offense, tailoring his attack each season to the strengths of the players on his roster, and in early recruiting discussions he has broken from John Thompson Jr.’s insistence that players stay in school all four years — only two of Thompson’s players over 27 seasons entered the NBA draft early — and outlined an efficient yet realistic path to the professional ranks.
Ewing is selling Georgetown, in other words, as a kind of NBA farm team led by a man who has played with Charles Oakley and battled Michael Jordan, who as a coach has gotten in the face of Tracy McGrady and provided instruction to Kemba Walker.
“Everything that they are going to go through,” Ewing says of his future players, “I’ve gone through. Everything that they’re going to see, I’ve seen.”
But his approach is almost jarring in how unconventional it is. He has not, for instance, shared this vision with many of the D.C. area’s more prominent high school or Amateur Athletic Union coaches, who hold the power to steer talented kids to one school or another. One talented player recently eliminated Georgetown from consideration, according to an individual familiar with that player’s thinking, in part because he had no idea what style of offense the Hoyas would run under Ewing.
His approach is, more than anything else, laid back — a style that has turned off some and impressed others.
Ewing was named as one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)
“He’s so relaxed and so chill. He has on a sweatsuit, down to earth, interacts with his players really well,” says Trey Mines, a former Washington high school coach whose summer team once featured Antwan Walker, a promising forward who, after meeting with Ewing, reaffirmed his commitment to Georgetown. Last month another key recruit in the 2017 class, D.C. native Jamarko Pickett, pledged to play for the Hoyas.
“The first impression,” Mines says, “is everything.”
But that impression, like Ewing’s bare-knuckle honesty, is not for everyone. What some see as casual and low pressure, others see as a refusal to conform. He neither maintains social media accounts nor trumpets his and Georgetown’s ties to Nike and the Jordan Brand. David Falk, Ewing’s close friend and a powerful NBA agent who negotiated the first “Air Jordan” shoe deal, is a longtime Thompson ally and an influential Hoyas booster.
“He’s got stuff that, if [recruits] saw it, they’d be like: ‘Oh damn!’ ” says Keith Williams, a private coach in Maryland whose most recent protege, Prince George’s County native Markelle Fultz, was selected No. 1 overall in this year’s NBA draft days after signing an endorsement deal with Nike. “He can’t be talking about: ‘Google me.’ You’ve got to make them see it.”
Williams says Ewing was “almost unapproachable” during his earliest weeks on the job but has loosened up in the months since; several other influential figures in the D.C.-area basketball community say Ewing, whose coaching staff features no assistant younger than age 40, has been slow to introduce himself and begin building bridges — if he has done so at all.
“I’ve talked to the assistants, but I’ve never talked to the boss guy,” says one prominent individual in the local hoops scene, who requested that his thoughts be shared anonymously because he remains hopeful of developing a relationship with Ewing. “I want Pat to do well but don’t big-time; don’t make people feel like you’re Pat Ewing [and] you don’t have to be talking to me.”
Ewing disputes this and questions the value of it anyway, saying he prefers to spend his time recruiting the player himself and not those within his inner circle. Besides, he says, he has spent most of the past four months traveling the country to reintroduce himself to college basketball and learning the important figures within its complicated ecosystem, a crash course in the subtleties of the college game and, yes, making his way through a list of Washington movers and shakers — many of whom could have expectations Ewing may or may not be willing to fulfill.
“I’ve reached out to all of them,” he says. “But I also feel that — and I have reached out to maybe not all of them but most of them. Maybe I’ve missed a few. I doubt it, but I’d say I’ve reached out to most of them.”
He keeps talking, and the more he explains it becomes increasingly clear this — the sales and politicking — will be the most challenging part of a major adjustment.
“I’ve called some. I haven’t called all. I’ve made calls,” he says. “I’ve only been here four months.”
Brutal, blunt honesty
A few weeks after Peach Jam, the unofficial kickoff of the Patrick Ewing era, he’s in storytelling mode. This one is about Michael Jordan and unexpected paths.
Not long after Ewing retired as a player, he was feeling adrift. What would he do now? He was 40 years old in 2002, plenty of time left on the shot clock of life, and so one evening over dinner with Jordan, his close friend despite his Chicago Bulls eliminating Ewing’s Knicks in four consecutive postseasons a generation ago, he brought this up.
Jordan said he had always envisioned Ewing as a coach. Ewing scoffed, never imagining himself on some sideline in a suit and tie. But Jordan, facing Ewing and sensing vulnerability in his opponent, wouldn’t let up.
Try it, he insisted. Jordan still held considerable influence in the Washington Wizards’ front office despite having stepped away from his administrative role to play; he would see to it that Coach Doug Collins found a place for Ewing on his bench, a kind of coaching internship. If it doesn’t work out, hey, there’s always the front office.
So though he didn’t kiss Jordan’s ring, he did submit to him, and sure enough Jordan got him again. He was right.
“Sometimes I tell him: ‘If it wasn’t for your ass . . . ’ ” Ewing says, and he laughs about the power of these little intersecting moments.
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Another happened in early April, when the Charlotte Hornets traveled to Washington for a game against the Wizards. That evening, Georgetown sent a black SUV to pick up Ewing, at the time the Hornets’ associate head coach, and he traveled to a law office in Penn Quarter, where he was led through a back entrance and up a service elevator to meet with Paul Tagliabue — the former NFL commissioner is now vice chair of Georgetown’s board of directors — and John DeGioia, the school’s president.
Ewing laid out his vision and answered questions with blunt — and in some cases brutal — honesty, including pointing out a few design flaws at the $62 million Thompson Center.
The men finished their conversation and parted ways. DeGioia had revealed nothing. Ewing thought he had blown it.
While Hornets players boarded the team bus the next day, Ewing talked to Clifford, the team’s head coach. Had he been too honest? Would he ever get his chance?
As the men spoke and the bus idled, Ewing’s phone rang. Lee Reed, the Georgetown AD, was calling with good news. Ewing asked Reed to hold the line, and he turned again to Clifford. He told him he needed step off the bus and take this.