From the moment Georgetown opted to fire John Thompson III, Patrick Ewing’s name came up as a potential candidate. And when it did, inevitably, his potential return to the program he turned into a national powerhouse as a player in the 1980s was lumped in with the likes of Chris Mullin returning to St. John’s and Clyde Drexler returning to Houston.
In some ways, such a link is understandable. All three are iconic figures at their respective universities, went on to have Hall of Fame careers in the NBA and were hired without ever having been collegiate head coaches.
The links end there, however. As Ewing is set to succeed Thompson III as Georgetown’s head coach, he enters the job having spent the past 15 years preparing himself for just this type of opportunity.
When Mullin went back to St. John’s two years ago, he had two just failed stints as an executive with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings on his resume. Drexler, on the other hand, became the head coach at his alma mater immediately upon retiring as an NBA player, spending two failed seasons there before resigning.
Conversely, Ewing — despite his Hall of Fame career as a player — began at the bottom of the coaching ranks and worked his way up. He spent lengthy stints as an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy with the Houston Rockets and then Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic before taking on his current role as associate head coach under Steve Clifford with the Charlotte Hornets.
The Van Gundy brothers and Clifford are three of the most respected basketball minds in NBA coaching circles, and all three have been saying for years that Ewing, when he gets his shot, will prove to be a very good coach.
All of them, of course, were talking in the context of coaching in the NBA. And that, to be fair, has been Ewing’s preference from the start. He’s been vocal about wanting his shot as an NBA coach, about getting a chance to run a team and prove he can do the job.
He has come close, too, including when he interviewed for the Kings vacancy this past summer. Each time, however, he has been passed over, and gone back to being an assistant coach again, waiting for his turn. Now he’ll get it, and will do so at the place where he made his name playing under the elder John Thompson while forging one of college basketball’s greatest careers.
For many within the Georgetown community, the hire is frustrating simply because of those ties to Thompson. Since Thompson III got the Hoyas back to the Final Four in 2007, the program stagnated, failing to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since then — including several high-profile losses to lower-seeded teams — and missing the postseason entirely three of the past four seasons.
Even with those struggles, the influence the elder Thompson has over the program — including his name being on the team’s new athletic building, which was built thanks to donations he helped bring into the school — made it seem unlikely his son would be dismissed. When he was, many within the university community pushed for a clean break from the Thompson family tree.
That’s a reasonable position, but Ewing isn’t just a figurehead, a legendary figure swooping in to take a job the hasn’t put in the time to get. This is someone who has spent the past 15 years preparing for his chance to take over a team, and put his imprint on it.
Ewing is expected to leave his job with the Hornets in short order to begin the process of putting together his staff. Since the possibility of returning to Georgetown has been on the table, he has spent time deliberating over how to proceed: from what style of play to employ to targeting potential assistants to navigate the complicated waters of AAU programs and high-level basketball factories that produce the kinds of recruits necessary to compete at the top levels of college basketball. He’ll need to get to work on immediately, given the number of defections the program has seen since the season ended.
One thing that should excite Georgetown fans yearning for change: given Ewing has spent the past several years working for a pair of coaches in Stan Van Gundy and Clifford who believe in the way the modern NBA is playing — spacing the floor with four players and running pick-and-rolls with a point guard and a big — an evolution away from the Princeton offense Thompson III has employed during his tenure seems likely.
It’s undoubtedly a big swing by Georgetown, hiring someone with no college head coaching experience to undergo a significant rebuilding process. And in hiring the final vestige of the Thompson legacy, and the greatest player in the school’s history, there’s a chance it could be messy.
But this is far from a charity hire, either. Ewing has spent 15 years waiting for this opportunity, working to prove he can be a head coach at the highest levels of this sport whenever he was given a chance to do so.
Georgetown gave him that chance Monday. Now he’ll get the chance to prove he’s ready for it.