Patrick Ewing has done this before, thrown a towel over his shoulder just like “Big John” had done when he paced the sideline as Georgetown’s coach. Ewing had one draped over his suit while his team defeated Illinois during his second season as coach. He did it again in November 2020, this time paying homage to his mentor as an organized tribute among several Black head coaches.
On Saturday afternoon, during an 85-74 loss to No. 11 Villanova, when the white towel emblazoned with Gatorade logos found its way onto Ewing’s shoulder, he wasn’t thinking about his former coach and longtime friend who’s no longer here. He was facing something so unimaginable in front of a Capital One Arena crowd of 11,872 that his body temperature was rising.
His team, the program he helped build into a D.C. institution and a national powerhouse, was losing its lead and its grip on a winnable game in the second half. And if the jumpers kept misfiring and the defense kept crumbling, it meant Georgetown would open Big East conference play with its fifth consecutive loss.
So, Ewing needed the towel to keep cool. That didn’t seem to work, nor did it help summon the past as the present Hoyas made the worst kind of program history.
Georgetown (6-10) had never started 0-5 in the Big East. Things have never been this dire — not even in 1979, when John Thompson Jr. led the Hoyas as one of the original seven teams in the inaugural season of the conference.
Not in early 1999, when the morning after a loss at Seton Hall that had dropped the Hoyas to 7-6 overall and 0-4 in the league, Thompson felt compelled to drive to his assistant’s home and tell him to take over.
And not in 2017, when John Thompson III lost his first four conference games and the fall of this great empire had fueled a revolt among former players who needed anonymous quotes to express their frustration.
This time, however, there’s been little uproar. Outside of Ewing unleashing his disappointment and anger following a Jan. 7 blowout to Marquette — “Big John is rolling over in his grave for the performance we showed tonight,” he said then — the losses have not inspired much of an outcry among the Georgetown faithful.
Instead, it’s something we may have never seen before in these parts: an irrelevant Georgetown hoops program.
The students still filled their special sections and cheered wildly for the buckets and Jack the bulldog — the little guy has his own motorized Jeep. But many of them headed for the exits in the closing minutes, and there were no audible boos heard. Only a chorus of “Let’s go, ’Nova!” raining down from the upper deck.
Patience over panic should always be appreciated, but since Georgetown has not been what it was for several years now, there’s been a hole in the region’s fabric of basketball. It’s why Howard Coach Kenneth Blakeney told me this week that he can envision his team and his gym becoming the focus of D.C. hoops. He said it very carefully because he didn’t want to offend other schools, but he pointed out the obvious: Georgetown (and Maryland, too) no longer resembles the program he remembers when he was growing up in D.C., when all that mattered was Big John’s Hoyas.
This should have been the season that stopped the years of regression. Georgetown won the Big East tournament last season, becoming the first eighth seed to ever do so. Then Ewing reeled in one of the top 20 recruiting classes in college basketball. And there have been flashes of individual talent: freshman Aminu Mohammed leads the conference in double-doubles, and D.C. native Dante Harris ranks among the top assist men in the nation.
Yet it hasn’t fully come together. In late December, four coronavirus postponements snapped a run that saw the Hoyas win three out of four games, interrupting any momentum the team had. Since returning to action Jan. 7, the Hoyas have lost these five straight conference matchups.
Georgetown appeared ready to break the streak in the second half Saturday, poised to upset its ranked opponent. There were moments when the Hoyas played defense that belied their dismal Big East rankings, such as when Mohammed picked off a pass, raced downcourt and bounced an assist to Harris. Georgetown went up by seven, its largest lead.
Around that time, Ewing found his towel.
The towel means so much on the Georgetown sideline. As Thompson wrote in his autography, “I Came As A Shadow,” he draped the towel over his shoulder as a way to show love to his mother because he had remembered her walking around the house with one to wipe her hands or dry a dish. Ewing looked a little Thompson-esque Saturday — but he was not paying tribute to his mentor nor Thompson’s mother.
“I was hot,” Ewing said later.
For a while, the towel must have given some relief. But Georgetown suddenly went cold. The jumpers were falling short, sometimes missing the rim entirely, and the towel disappeared. When Villanova ran a patient set that led to Jermaine Samuels Jr. scoring inside while getting fouled, the towel now thrown on the back of a chair, Georgetown had all but collapsed.
“I believe this was a game we had opportunities to win. We just did not play smart enough going down the stretch,” Ewing said, summing up the second half.
Ewing said this while leaning toward a microphone, his shoulders resting on the table in front of him. It was a familiar posture of defeat and disappointment. Unimaginable a generation ago, his look of resignation has now become routine.