The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As coach of Georgetown’s men’s basketball team, Patrick Ewing is always thinking big

Georgetown University’s men’s basketball coach, Patrick Ewing.
Georgetown University’s men’s basketball coach, Patrick Ewing. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Last year Patrick Ewing, 56, became the men’s basketball head coach at Georgetown University, his alma mater. During his four years there, Ewing led the Hoyas to three Big East tournament titles before joining the New York Knicks. He is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008.

Recruiting is obviously a big part of your job. With NBA rules changing around eligibility, how do you make the case to recruits that Georgetown is still a good stop on their career path?

Well, the rules are still changing, but they will impact college basketball. The star power — players who would be stars in college — will now be going straight to the league. If I was playing in this era, I probably would be one-and-done. Or maybe even go straight from high school. My mother was very big on education, and that’s one of the reasons I stayed and got my degree. But you can’t fault a person for going out and trying to earn a living.

Georgetown is a great place, a great academic and athletic institution. So that’s what I try to sell. This is a place where I felt like I came in a boy and left a man. Was given the opportunity to grow and blossom into the person I am today. Everybody wants to get to the NBA. But unfortunately, there’s 30 teams, two rounds of drafts, and people trying to get in from China, Africa, Canada. Only 60 people are going to really have the opportunity. So you always have to have a backup plan. And a Georgetown degree will open a lot of doors. So for the ones who are here, you develop them, teach them and educate them to be the best player and person you can. If you look at the teams that win in the NCAA, the majority have guys who have been around for a while and learned how to play together as a team.

You had to deal with racial taunts at high school games growing up in Cambridge, and at college games as well. How did those experiences shape you?

You know, all the things that you go through in life shape the person you become. I think it helped me to develop thick skin. To just ignore the negative noise, I guess. You have hateful people in this world, and you can’t listen to all the hateful things or you become hateful. The way you shut them up is to defeat and dominate their team. So, I’d just block them out, and go out and play. And I think that helped so that when I was playing in New York, or wherever, and the fans were getting on me, I could just let it roll off my back.

As a Georgetown basketball legend, your return as head coach has come with expectations of reviving the program, restoring its glory. In your first head coaching job, is that level of pressure a burden?

I don’t look at it as a burden. That’s just life. You’re always going to have responsibilities, and you’re always going to have pressure. When I came to college, I was the number one player coming out of high school. When I left college, I was the number one player coming out of college. There’s a huge responsibility that goes with it. Now I’m back here, I’ve come full circle. I think that things that I’ve dealt with in my life have prepared me. I tried for a lot of years to be a head coach in the NBA. And for whatever reason, I wasn’t given that opportunity. But I’m a head coach now, and my goal is to be as good a coach as I was as a player. So I’m not worried about the noise. All I’m worried about is getting my team prepared, focused and ready to perform at a high level.

With your size [7 feet tall] you can’t be someone who blends in, right? That must work to your advantage in some ways and your disadvantage in others.

You’re right, there are times when you try to hide, but you can’t. But I love being tall. I love the fact that I can go in a room, and I tower over everybody. I can see this side of the room all the way to the other side. I think I carry my size with pride. There are a lot of people, you know, they hunch over. But I stand up straight. I stand up tall.

Is there advice anybody gave you that’s been particularly helpful?

My mother and father used to always tell me: If you're going to do something, give it 110 percent. And that's a motto that I've lived. They worked extremely hard, one, to get us to this country [from Jamaica]; and two, to put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I thank my mother and father every day, when I go back home and go to their gravesite, for bringing me to this country. I was blessed to come here. And I took full advantage of it to be able to make a great life for myself and my family.

With your sense of reserve as a player, people have said it was only once you retired from playing that they got to know you. What tends to surprise people about you?

Wow, you're nice! You're actually nicer than I thought. [Laughs.] When I was playing, I was focusing on trying to dominate whichever team I was going to face. All concentration and focus. But I think some people who didn't know me saw that scowl on my face and thought I'm some mean SOB.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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