The first time Patrick Ewing went back to Jamaica, he couldn’t believe how short the fence was.
How could he be looking over that fence — looking down over that fence — in back of the house where he was born? Didn’t he used to have to climb that fence just to be able to curl his fingertips over the top? And that house — didn’t that house used to be huge?
Ewing thought everything seemed small when, in 1985 as a 23-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, he returned to the country of his birth for the first time since emigrating with his parents and six siblings when he was 12. But Ewing had simply grown.
He had become taller, of course, but also more complete. He had successfully acclimated to a country that wasn’t always welcoming and earned a degree from one of its most prestigious universities, not to mention a national championship in a sport he didn’t play until he was a pre-teen.
“I felt pride, to go back,” Ewing said all these years later, on a balcony overlooking the practice court in the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. “Even though I had just started my NBA career, I had still accomplished a lot.”
Ewing has visited Jamaica many times since, but this week marks another first. This week, he returns to Jamaica for the first time as the head coach at Georgetown. The Georgetown men’s basketball team’s participation in the Jamaica Classic in Montego Bay is a homecoming all over again, and not just for Ewing in this new phase of his life.
A big part of the reason Ewing said yes to the eight-team event — in which Georgetown (3-0) will play Loyola Marymount (3-0) on Friday and South Florida (2-0) on Sunday — was that he wanted his team to see where he came from. He also thought the trip would resonate with two players in particular: sophomore guard Jahvon Blair, whose parents were born in Jamaica, and junior guard Jagan Mosely, whose father is from the island, emigrated to Brooklyn when he was a few years older than Ewing and will travel to meet the Hoyas on the trip.
“It kind of comes full circle,” Mosely said. “Coach Ewing grew up in Jamaica, went his own way; now he’s very successful and has come back to coach in Jamaica. It’s like my dad — he grew up in Jamaica, came to America, became very successful, and now he’s going back to watch his son play.”
Ewing’s father died the year before he took the job at Georgetown.
It was Carl who accompanied his celebrity son on that first trip back in 1985, a tour furnished by the Jamaican government. Between official functions, father and son had time to go back to Jones Town, the inner-city neighborhood in the capital of Kingston where Ewing’s parents still owned the family’s house. Carl was happy to be able to meet up with a few of his old friends.
When Ewing visits Jamaica nowadays, it’s less to see the distant family he still has on the island and more to enjoy Jamaica as a vacation destination.
This week’s trip will be different, not just because it’s a work trip for Ewing but because it’s an introduction for his kids, both biological and figurative. Blair hasn’t been back to Jamaica since he was a baby. Ewing’s two youngest children, 11 and 6, have never been, nor have son Patrick Jr.’s three small kids.
“My older kids have been, but my little ones have not. I’ve been talking to them about being Jamaican — I try to let them know they have two countries. They’re Jamaican American. Jamerican,” Ewing said, throwing his head back for the high-pitched laugh that’s reserved for when he’s really cracked himself up, before settling down.
“Even though where we’re staying is a lot nicer than where I grew up, they still get to see what my homeland looks like.”
Ewing is no stranger to loss — his mother died suddenly when he was attending Georgetown, and one of his sisters died as well. His father’s death signaled a particular shift in Ewing’s life.
“This time was different, because my dad wasn’t there,” Ewing said of a trip this summer to his adopted hometown, Boston, where some of his siblings still live. “Usually I go and spend time with him. … We talk about basketball. I never really talked about, ‘I want to be a head coach,’ or, ‘Well, it’s taking me a long time to get the position that I want.’ It’s funny, my dad never played basketball. All the basketball he knew was from watching me play. But when I’m coaching in the NBA, he’s trying to tell me what to do, and I’m like: ‘What? What the heck are you trying to do? You sound like all these — these Monday morning quarterbacks!’
“So this time was different. We went back to the cemetery where my mother and father and sister are buried. When my mom passed, she was the center of the family, then he became the center of the family. So now I guess it’s me. I went and I put flowers on their grave and told my mom and dad thank you, for bringing me to this country.”
'To go back is an honor’
The Hoyas’ games in Jamaica will mark Blair’s first trip to the island that he can remember, but Mosely went with his father and brother last summer, a surprise trip for the junior guard’s birthday. The trio enjoyed the island as tourists for a while, then Mosely’s father took them on a two-hour drive on rural roads to where he grew up in Brown’s Town, so his sons could see where he fed the pigs every morning before walking a few miles to school. Mosely saw poverty he was far away from back at the resort.
Mosely had thought of his Jamaican American identity as a cool differentiator when he was young, but he thinks of it differently now that he has seen his father’s homeland.
“The strength and conditioning coach told us to give him a picture of something that motivates you; guys gave him their favorite athlete or a quote," Mosely said. “I put up a picture of kids eating food off the ground, which is what I saw last summer. It’s a reminder that there’s more to life than basketball, that I’m blessed to be in a position here.”
Blair, who was raised by his Jamaican mother and grandmother in Toronto after his father died before he was born, doesn’t know if he’ll have a realization the way Mosely did. His mother is meeting the team down there and called “cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone,” to tell them to come watch Blair play.
Blair’s mother and grandmother are “everything” to him, and he’s honored to be able to play in front of their family. That’s just what Ewing wanted for Blair and Mosely when he accepted this invitation — to connect with their roots as Ewing is connected to his.
Ewing takes developing young men as seriously as he takes the basketball part of his job, and if the trip can be a little bit of a cultural experience for all the Hoyas, all the better.
“I pride myself in having two countries. I pride myself in my birth land,” Ewing said. “To go back is an honor, to bring my team. … I do feel great about going back home.”