NCAA tournament 2012: Jimmy Patsos legend grows at Loyola

Ask a half-dozen of Jimmy Patsos’s friends for their best Jimmy Patsos stories, and you will likely get the same initial response — “Does it have to be one you can print?” — followed by some toned-down recounting of some epic, long-ago night in Georgetown, which invariably begins in some bar and ends with some sort of mild mayhem that everyone could still laugh about the next day, once their memories had a chance to cut through the morning-after fog and reconstruct it.

“Oh, my God,” said George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan, one of Patsos’s closest friends. “I could tell you stories. He was the life of the party. Everybody loved Jimmy.”

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If ever there was a week to swap Jimmy Patsos stories, this is the one, with Patsos, the former Catholic University forward, beloved ex-bartender at Third Edition in Georgetown and longtime assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland, about to take his Loyola Greyhounds to just the second NCAA tournament appearance in school history and first in 18 years.

Taking note of Loyola’s opponent (Ohio State, the No. 2 seed in the East) and game time (9:50 p.m. Thursday), Patsos is likely the only coach in America who would think to draw this conclusion: “I like it, because we’ll be on [television] in every bar in the country.”

Should the Greyhounds upset the Buckeyes on Thursday night, the rest of America will be introduced to one of the great characters in coaching, a man whose epic, rambling, 20-minute postgame news conference following the clinching win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament name-checked the following: his late mother, Dave Gavitt, Jim Boeheim, John Lucas, Jerry Tarkanian, the Guggenheim Museum, the movie “Love Story,” Red Auerbach, John Calipari, Gary Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and former Black Panther Bobby Seale.

But for a certain segment of the greater Washington area population — a segment that sits somewhere near the intersection of the college hoops community and the bar culture, and that came of age in the 1990s — Patsos, now 44, is already nothing less than a legendary figure: a nightlife-loving bear of a man who, for years, would pour drinks at the Third Edition by night and absorb the brunt of Williams’s lunatic tirades by day in College Park.

“When he bartended, he gave everybody energy to be there,” said Billy Hahn, who served alongside Patsos on Williams’s Maryland staff and is now an assistant at West Virginia. “Nobody wanted to leave when he was bartending. That was part of his secret, to be honest with you.”

“He had these amazing social skills,” said New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who played baseball at Catholic and remains close with Patsos. “He wasn’t loud and obnoxious. You just liked being around him. He was just a good dude.”

Confronted with the evidence of his youthful legend, Patsos laughed and said: “It was a different time. We weren’t breaking the law. We just liked to have a few drinks and go to a lot of establishments.”

He acknowledged only one monument to those days: “My happiest day,” he said, “is when they put my picture on the wall at the Palm. You can take me to heaven now.”

‘Basically, crazy’

The same sheer force of personality that made Patsos one of Georgetown’s most popular bartenders, and that made him one of Williams’s top recruiters at Maryland, has served him well at Loyola. In April 2004, he took over a program that had gone 1-27 the previous season, and within three years produced a winning record. The NCAA tournament bid this year is the program’s first since 1994.

“Jimmy,” Williams said, “took one of the toughest jobs in basketball — a team that had won one game, that didn’t have a great tradition, that didn’t have great resources — and turned it around.”

Patsos said, “These are the second-best kids on each [high school] team, and that’s fine — because that’s what I’ve been all my life. We’ve been the second-best bar, the second-best program. And let me tell you: It’s better than being the 10th-best.”

Along the way, Patsos, a history major at Catholic, has taken his players on a historical and cultural odyssey. When they played GW in D.C., he took his team to the Lincoln Memorial and had them stand on the steps where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In Louisville, they visited the Muhammad Ali Center; in New York, the Guggenheim. In Pittsburgh, site of the Greyhounds’ first-round NCAA game, they will make a quick trip to the Andy Warhol Museum.

“He’s a fight-to-the-death kind of guy,” sophomore guard Justin Drummond said. In pregame speeches, “he might give you certain scenarios where you’re gladiators, or pit bulls fighting — anything that could be a metaphor for a basketball game. He’s exuberant, passionate — basically, crazy.”

Drummond, of course, meant “crazy” in a lovable way. But around the country, if people have heard of Patsos at all, it is probably because of two incidents that occurred in the same week in 2008, and which brought him national attention and caused some to question his sanity.

‘I’ve grown up’

In the first, he climbed up into the stands during a game, leaving his assistants to coach the rest of the game, because he was angry at the officials and didn’t want to pick up a second technical foul. A few days later, against Davidson and its brilliant shooting guard Stephen Curry, Patsos had his players double-team Curry — even when he didn’t have the ball. Eventually, Curry went and stood in a far corner of the court on each Davidson possession, allowing his teammates to play four-on-three. Loyola lost by 30, but afterward Patsos crowed about holding Curry scoreless.

“I had a bad week,” Patsos shrugged, when asked about those incidents. “I’ve had 2,500 weeks in my life; I’ve had one bad one.”

Coincidence or not, that week came during a period of roughly a year in which Patsos completely quit drinking. He said he now enjoys a nightly glass of wine with his wife of less than a year — but nothing like the old days.

“I’ve grown up,” he said. “And I fought that for a while — because I loved Washington. I drink a lot, lot less now. But in the ’80s and ’90s, D.C. was selling more Grand Marnier than anywhere in the country. And that wasn’t good for me.”

Lonergan had already made a preemptive strike against Patsos’s attempts to distance himself from his old persona: “Don’t believe him when he says he’s changed, that he’s calmed down,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t buy that at all.”

There was something else, besides his bartending ability and his outsize personality, that everyone loved about Patsos: He was fiercely loyal. Williams tells a story about Maryland’s tough 1999 NCAA tournament loss to St. John’s in Knoxville, Tenn. At dinner afterward, some local fans in the restaurant were heckling Williams, and Patsos walked over to put a stop to it.

“And Jimmy’s a pretty big guy — so they got the message,” Williams said. “You couldn’t mess with me when Jimmy was around.”

Lonergan said he believes Patsos would “take a bullet” for him, and Hahn said Patsos’s distinguishing feature is a “big, big, big, big heart.”

“If something bad was going down today, and I needed to make one friggin’ call for help,” Hahn said, “I’m going to call Patsos. “Because you know what? He may not be able to help me. But he could find a way to get it done.”

Jimmy Patsos stories? Yeah, these guys had plenty of them. But printable ones? Not so much.

 
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