Georgetown, race and ‘Requiem for the Big East’

About halfway through “Requiem For the Big East” — the 30 for 30 documentary that will air on ESPN Sunday night at 9 — the history of a basketball conference takes a brief pause to become the history of a basketball program. For about 10 minutes, the film focuses on all things Georgetown: the racial tension the Hoyas encountered in some road gyms, the media prickliness of John Thompson Jr. and his program, the national championship, the way the Hoyas entered pop culture, their style of play and the racial pride surrounding the team.

Vintage Howard Cosell appears, lamenting the insults Patrick Ewing faced. Charles Pierce is there, talking about how the program was “actively contemptuous” toward the press. Michael Wilbon, Georgetown’s beat writer at The Post for part of that time, talks about Thompson’s attitude.

“What black man born in ’40s or before in this country wasn’t paranoid when he was working in the environment John was working in?” Wilbon asks in the film. “Paranoid? Okay, sure. There were some people out to get him, and he was paranoid. What, more than one thing can’t be true?. … He didn’t give a damn about what people thought – and let’s not sugarcoat this – what white folks thought of the way he was going about this.”

“Everybody in black America loved us,” Ewing says. “I remember grandmas and grandpas coming up and saying that we admired the things you guys are doing, admired the way that we carried ourselves.”

Even Villanova’s Ed Pinckney– one of the best voices in the film — remembers buying Georgetown Nikes in the ’80s, and keeping them at home.

“Wearing Georgetown gear said something about your consciousness and what you were about,” Pinckney says in the film. “It represented the way we all felt.”

It’s a fascinating 10 minutes, filled with old clips of Thompson, incredible Ewing highlights and images of fans holding racist signs and mocking Ewing’s intelligence. And if it feels like a slight detour from the rise-and-fall of an athletic league narrative, well, that’s okay.

“My perspective definitely informed that,” said Ezra Edelman, the film’s director and a D.C. native. “That could have been skipped and you could have told the rise of the conference in the same way.”

But Edelman was a kid in Washington during those years, a black kid whose favorite team was led by America’s most powerful black coach. Combine that experience with his belief that Ewing is underappreciated as both a player and a personality, and he knew he would find time for this detour.

“I always have a desire to show why something is relevant beyond the basketball court,” he told me. “That, to me, is what interests me in these kinds of stories. I don’t care that much about who won what game. From my experience as a black kid that grew up in D.C., I’m always going to be sensitive to the [grief]  they took.

“And I didn’t realize how consistent the dislike was that they got,” he said. “People hated them, and that also contributes to the rise in popularity of the conference. How do you tell a story that also makes you understand why they meant so much to a black audience? And one reason they meant so much was not just because they were black, not just because they were good, but the way they played and what they had to endure. That helps form that loyalty and allegiance to this team.

“I thought that was important to convey,” Edelman continued. “Yeah, the fact that that happened in 1983 and not 1963, I’m gonna be inherently more interested in that, as a story, than I am in the sweater game. I just think it’s objectively more interesting. You have 19,000 white kids calling the star player an ape and getting away with it. That was important to me.”

As someone who, during the mid-’80s, was only dimly aware of any of the racial stuff surrounding the Hoyas, that part of the film was likely the most gripping and memorable. A small part of it is above.

Over the past 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have been one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball, but as Syracuse prepares to leave the Big East conference for the ACC and Georgetown moves to the Catholic 7 next year, former players, coaches, journalists and alumni recall the history of the rivalry. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
Comments
Show Comments