There were 13 minutes 55 seconds left to play in the first half, and Syracuse was leading Georgetown, 10-8, when David Wingate launched a jump shot from deep in the left corner of the Madison Square Garden court. Just before Wingate went up -- maybe an eye blink before, maybe a heartbeat -- Patrick Ewing and Dwayne (The Pearl) Washington made contact underneath the basket while jockeying for position. It was the kind of contact that is often described as "incidental" when two men of similar size and strength bump and clang down low. But Ewing is 7 feet tall and weighs 240 pounds, and Washington is 6-2 and weighs 190. Apparently, Washington thought the contact belligerent, and he responded by closing his fist and swinging at Ewing, who by this time had turned the other way and was looking at the basket. Washington says it was his right elbow that struck Ewing in the ribs, but the blow appeared to land lower, in the abdomen. Clearly, it caught Ewing completely by surprise, and as Wingate's shot was dropping through the net, tying the score, Ewing's legs buckled. The next thing that happened -- the thing that everyone in the arena saw -- was Ewing taking a full, roundhouse swing at Washington.
Patrick Ewing in another fight.
With another smaller man.
You might remember this kind of thing happening before in Ewing's career at Georgetown, with Michael Adams of Boston College, for example, and Kevin Williams of St. John's.
When order was restored, and the misconduct penalties were assigned, it was announced that Washington had been charged with a personal foul, which was later described by offical Larry Lembo this way: "Pearl pushed Patrick, cocked his arm and looked to throw a punch."
The crowd loudly booed the foul call on Washington.
It then was announced that Ewing, who had fallen to the ground in pain from Washington's blow, had been charged with "an intentional technical foul; Syracuse gets two shots and possession of the ball."
Thunderous cheers greeted this news. Thunderous.
I have never seen an athlete and a coach and a team booed so vehemently, so personally and so consistently as I have seen Ewing and John Thompson and the Georgetown team booed, before, during and even after games. Not just Friday night. But often. It is a type of booing, I think, that goes beyond reasonable, appropriate expression of sporting partisanship and flirts with something ugly, something vicious and, perhaps, even something insidious.
Patrick Ewing did not swing first at Pearl Washington.
Pearl Washington swung first at Patrick Ewing.
Yet for the rest of the half, whenever his name was mentioned, whenever he touched the ball, Ewing was booed. Regardless of how impressive his play was, regardless of how determined and even inspirational his play was, he was booed. This is, by the way, the same Patrick Ewing who played on the U.S. Olympic team last summer. Our team, my fellow Americans.
I ask myself why he is booed like that, and I am uncomfortable with some of the answers.
There is, of course, the fact that he is a huge man, and as such can never be the David in the equation, but must always be the Goliath. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the first to say it: "Nobody loves Goliath." There is, too, the fact that he plays with such intensity, such furious passion, such strength. He is not a kind man on the court, and the fact that he rarely smiles out there adds to the common perception that he is a villainous player. There is a historical component in this too; Ewing has been an overly aggressive player at times, and at some point your history catches up to you and won't let you go. And I am troubled by the thought that some of these boos -- the totality of them and all the people they are directed against -- have to do with color more than competition.
By the same token, neither Ewing nor Thompson is without some responsibility here. Ewing, as is his perogative, has not been particularly forthcoming with or accessible to the media, that segment of society that most often communicates image to the American public. Like it or not, we live in a world in which celebrities are expected to invite Barbara Walters into their living rooms, tell her a few nice, homey stories, smile, and kiss us all tenderly goodnight. Ewing hasn't done that. More often than not he has chosen to keep his own counsel, and in so doing he has incurred the enmity of the media. I would suggest that Ewing, and Thompson, who has never gone out of his way to court the media, have seen some of the chickens come home to roost. I think Thompson knows this and accepts it, because he said Friday night to a large group of reporters, "I'm going to tell you something; you hear me very clearly: if we had tried to build our program on popularity, we'd have never won the national championship."
They are honorable men, but perhaps they have not always been savvy. The notion of Hoya Paranoia did not simply come upon a midnight clear. And at this point I suspect that Thompson uses it as a rallying point and a glue.
Last week I thought that Georgetown had finally outrun the hounds. I thought it a brilliant stroke of public relations when Thompson unveiled his T-shirt copy of the famous Looie Carnesecca Sweater before the St. John's game. The crowd loved it, and seemed to love him, too. Unfortunately, that spirit of affection was short-lived and Friday night, for Thompson, Ewing and the Hoyas, it was hostility as usual.
Both Thompson and Ewing were asked about the fight. Thompson, who has shown great grace under pressure lately, dealt with it by admitting that in big games "emotions often flare," and tried to put it behind him by saying that "people have a tendency to make more of it than they should." Ewing, on the other hand, declined to discuss it even a little. Given an opportunity to show us his best side, instead he gave us a stone wall.
Both men also were asked about the booing that resulted from the fight. Again, Thompson chose to deflect a potentially acrimonious and explosive situation with humor. He smiled and said, "I thought they were cheering to tell you the truth. I didn't hear any booing." Then, turning to Ewing, Thompson asked, "What did you think?"
Ewing smiled and followed the lead.
"I didn't hear anything either."
Would that it were so.