When David Wingate went to center court to receive his cup on Georgetown's senior day last Saturday, Coach John Thompson looked at him and said, "Thank God, you're gone." Wingate looked at Thompson for a moment, then burst into laughter.
Thompson, of course, was kidding. It wouldn't be smart for him to leave home at tournament time without Wingate, who is not only one of the best offensive guards in the nation, but one of the best defensive guards, too.
Over the past four years, when the subject was Georgetown's defense, the discussion naturally involved Patrick Ewing. But Wingate has made life nearly as miserable for opposing guards and forwards over the past three years.
St. John's all-America Chris Mullin had scored 10 points or more in 101 consecutive games until Wingate was assigned to him in the teams' Final Four meeting last March and held Mullin to eight points as the Hoyas advanced to the NCAA final.
"He's great," Pitt Coach Roy Chipman said recently. "We don't have anybody who can guard him one-on-one, and he can guard just about anybody one-on-one. That's greatness. He's been great for more than two years, but with Ewing there, nobody knew it."
With Ewing an NBA rookie this season, Wingate is second on the team in scoring with 16 points per game, second among the regulars with a 52 percent field goal percentage, second in assists and first on the team with 48 steals.
Georgetown will need much of the same from Wingate as the postseason begins Thursday with the Big East Conference tournament here.
Rarely is a player with Wingate's offensive talent also a great defensive player.
"Not only has he been the scorer that he is, but he's done a lot of things defensively for us that are very important," Thompson said.
It wasn't always that way. Check the game tapes from four years ago and, without turning up the sound, one can hear Thompson screaming at Wingate, for half of each game, it seems, to be patient on offense and to guard somebody on defense.
Wingate began laughing when the subject of the freshman-year screaming sessions was mentioned.
"I just didn't have an understanding of how he wanted things done on the court," Wingate said. "I was very erratic, and I just wanted to go out and do what I did best, which was one-on-one moves, while he wanted the ball worked around. So that was why he used to holler at me."
Thompson said, "David can tolerate me; that's his biggest accomplishment."
Wingate's primary asset is his quickness. He settles on an opponent like dust, and covers his man without hand checking.
Thompson asks him to mark almost anybody, from St. John's 6-foot-8 Walter Berry to Syracuse's extraordinary point guard Pearl Washington, who said of Wingate: "Great feet, great feet."
Wingate (6-5) doesn't play defense the way former Hoyas captain Gene Smith did. Smith was primarily a defensive player from the outset. For Wingate, sweet as syrup on offense, defense was an acquired taste.
Smith used his chest and body to wear down an opponent over 20 or 30 minutes. Wingate has a habit of getting where an opponent is going before the opponent does. The result is about the same. Wherever Wingate goes, turnovers are sure to follow.
"Some people you have to make play good defense," Thompson said. "Others see the good in it. David sees the good in it now, and he tends to do a lot of things to give us the emotional leadership, the impact on defense."
Several games ago, Thompson paid Wingate an uncommon compliment. "I told him he's played defense as well as anybody who's been around here. We take pride in that. We talk about the best defensive players we've had. And he's done an excellent job, without a doubt."
Amazingly, Wingate, from Baltimore's Dunbar High, might not make the first-team all-Big East squad, yet will almost surely be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft.
This season has had its down moments for Wingate. In January, his older brother Bobby, 27, died of cancer. Not surprisingly, the tragedy showed in David Wingate's play for several games and in his personality. He is the team's biggest spark, sort of a Wally Cleaver, Eddie Murphy and Fonzie all rolled into one.
He had recently lost his mother to a long illness, and then it was his brother. "My brother Bobby and I were really close and it was hard to handle," he said. "But Coach Thompson told me that Bobby had been doing a lot of suffering, which had been on my mind, and he reminded me that at least Bobby was at peace."
It wasn't long afterward that Wingate went through a stretch when he almost couldn't miss a shot.
At Providence, he made all seven of his shots from the field, then nine of 13 against Louisiana State, followed by a nine-for-14 performance at Connecticut, then nine for 15 against Seton Hall.
His real personality has long since returned. Word is that Wingate does the best imitation of Thompson around.
"Most of my players tend to be so serious," Thompson said. "But he's the kind of kid when I'm giving my most serious sermon who will stare at me so seriously. And as soon as I walk out the door, I hear something he's saying about it.
"While you're sitting there, he's saying, 'Oh, Coach is so right, coach is so great.' And the minute you're gone . . . "