Patrick Ewing was just 16, a sophomore in high school, when he met John Thompson Jr. for the first time. The two not only would go on to push Georgetown to the pinnacle of college basketball as a storied player-coach combination but also share a deep friendship off the court that lasted more than four decades.
Ewing was among the last members of Thompson’s extended family — Ewing often calls the former Hoyas coach a “second father” — to be able to say a final farewell before his death three days short of his 79th birthday following months of health issues.
“He and I, we would touch base from time to time while he was in the hospital,” Ewing said Friday during a Zoom call with local media. “Just what’s going on in the country, what’s going on with the university, with the pandemic, with me and all that stuff with him.
“He was then sent home over the last week or two weeks, and I was able to go over there Friday before he passed and sat and talked and just laughed and tell a few jokes, so I was able to say my goodbyes to him. Didn’t know it was going to be goodbye, because I was planning to go back and visit him.”
Thompson died late Sunday night. The next day, Ewing — the pupil turned coach of the Hoyas — began answering text messages from former teammates and others throughout college and professional basketball as news of Thompson’s death began to circulate.
In the following days, Ewing had time to reflect on his bond with Thompson and a partnership that delivered the Hoyas the national championship in 1984 with a roster comprising African American players. Thompson became the first Black coach to win an NCAA title.
That season was part of a run of three Final Four appearances in Ewing’s four years at Georgetown.
Ewing and Thompson almost by themselves elevated the profile of the Big East, according to iconic coaches such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Lou Carnesecca, formerly with St. John’s, who were part of the conference’s original incarnation.
“When the Big East started, it was his presence,” Boeheim said of Thompson. “And obviously Patrick. I mean the league was good anyway, but that took it to a whole other level.”
Ewing also remembered Thompson as a steadying influence during the instances the 7-foot center became the focus of reprehensible behavior from fans at opposing arenas. Some tossed banana peels onto the court or displayed signs with the words, “Ewing Can’t Read.”
And those were the milder incidents.
“We really never talked about it, just through his actions,” Ewing said. “Pulling us off the floor. Telling them they got to get all these signs down. I received death threats. I’m not sure if a lot of people knew that. Getting us off campus. Putting us in hotels.
“Just the way that he protected us, the way that he stood up for us, he didn’t have to say anything.”
Ewing graduated from Georgetown with no intention of getting into coaching, much less aspiring to take over the job Thompson held from 1972 through 1999, during which time he compiled 596 wins and later earned enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Still, Ewing kept in touch regularly with Thompson after the New York Knicks selected him No. 1 overall in the 1985 NBA draft. The 1986 rookie of the year played in the NBA until 2002 and was an 11-time all-star and three times made the all-defensive team.
The Knicks retired his No. 33.
Thompson’s influence in part provided Ewing the foundation to enter coaching, first serving as an assistant with the Washington Wizards in 2002-03 under then-coach Doug Collins.
Ewing frequently would seek the counsel of Thompson during that season and throughout his career as an NBA assistant.
“One of the things he told me was that you have to have the same passion for that job the way that you did for playing,” Ewing said. “And I would say that because of the passion that I showed and the work ethic I showed going to that job or the next phase or chapter of my life, that led me to the next job.”
A phone call from Thompson years later sparked Ewing’s interest in the vacant Georgetown job after the school parted ways with John Thompson III, the eldest of Thompson’s two sons.
Thompson urged Ewing to seek an interview with Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. The two spoke face-to-face at the D.C. office of Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner and commissioner of Georgetown’s board of directors from 2009 through 2015, along with athletic director Lee Reed.
Thompson was the first person Ewing called both following the interview and upon being offered the position.
“He’s like, ‘Man, welcome aboard,’ ” Ewing said. “We definitely need to have one of our family members in this job. I’m going to be a Georgetown family member for the rest of my life.”