Thirty-six years ago, Patrick Ewing was a shy, 18-year-old giant so nervous about speaking at a packed restaurant that he had to be calmed before he could make a happy announcement.
“After considering all the facts, I have decided to attend Georgetown University,” Ewing said on Feb. 2, 1981, a day that transformed a solid men’s basketball program into a revolutionary force.
Ewing, already 7 feet tall, wore a pinstriped, three-piece suit and held up a Georgetown pennant that looked comically inferior to his massive wingspan. Maybe it was a sign. He was about to stretch Georgetown as far as it could go. Four years later, he left school with a degree in fine arts, the 1984 national title, three appearances in the NCAA championship game and a lasting impact.
Now grown and confident, 54 years old and with three adult children, Ewing intends to elevate Georgetown once more, this time as its head coach. The pennant seems small again, and Ewing is as imposing a figure as ever, only there is no longer a guarantee he can make the program special. In fact, for those who wanted a clean break from the Thompson family legacy, Ewing stands as a polarizing relic. He always will be revered for what he accomplished as an athlete, but as a first-time head coach, he could fail and mar his sterling legacy in Washington.
It’s a risk that Ewing will take because he loves Georgetown that much. And to be frank, Georgetown couldn’t do any better despite reaching out to some of the sport’s most high-profile coaches. After firing John Thompson III, Georgetown realized it needed Ewing, its greatest player. And after spending 15 years as an NBA assistant coach and not receiving an offer to be a head coach, Ewing realized he needed Georgetown to fulfill another dream.
There is an importance, if not desperation, to this hire that suppresses some of the cool or cute aspects of a homecoming. Fading in relevance, Georgetown just turned to someone who has never coached in college, never toiled in recruiting and never been charged with the dual responsibility of overseeing a team’s academic and athletic development. If this job had been given to just about any other Hall of Famer with similar credentials, the reaction would be much nastier.
But this is Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. And even though this begins as a feel-good story, there’s a substance about Ewing that provides ample hope it will be more than a fleeting public-relations gambit, a John Thompson Jr.-pacifying hire that ends badly.
A quick story about Ewing from his 17th and final NBA season in 2001-02, which I covered as a 23-year-old NBA beat writer.
Sixteen years ago, in late December of his forgettable last season, Ewing started coaching. Back then, he didn’t dream of a second career. He was 39, asking a lot of his aching body and riding the bench for the Orlando Magic. The next step? He only wanted for it not to hurt too much.
In the fourth quarter of his penultimate game at Madison Square Garden, where Ewing had starred for 15 seasons with the New York Knicks, he observed a young player struggling. After Orlando Coach Doc Rivers pulled that player, Mike Miller, from the game, Ewing made teammate Horace Grant give up his seat and requested for Miller to sit by him. Ewing, an all-time all-star and 2008 Hall of Fame inductee, spent the next five minutes in an intense conversation with Miller, then a second-year forward who went on to play 17 NBA seasons.
Ewing encouraged Miller to stay confident despite his shooting struggles. He challenged Miller to offer more than just offense. He pointed out a play in which Miller turned down an open jump shot, drove the lane and committed a turnover. “Don’t forget what made you,” Ewing told him. “Play your game.”
Later, Miller hit a key three-pointer in a huge Magic rally against the Knicks. For the rest of the season, Miller raved about Ewing’s leadership and knowledge of the game.
“Here was one of the top 50 players, back in New York, in a game that means so much to him, and he’s teaching me something about the game,” Miller said. “It says a lot about him.”
I remember Ewing at the end, when he was too slow to stay in front of a young Kevin Garnett, when he averaged just six points and 13.9 minutes per game. It wasn’t painful to watch because the images of Ewing’s greatness far exceeded this one-year glimpse of a diminished star. It was a joy, actually, because Ewing was a joy. Because he wasn’t a great player anymore, he opened himself up more. The proud and surly superstar became intelligent, funny and selfless. Finally, it was easier to see the man behind that big, toothy smile.
When that season ended, Ewing immediately went into coaching. For the past 15 years, he has been an NBA assistant, going from Washington to Houston to Orlando to Charlotte. Despite being one of the best centers ever, Ewing hasn’t approached coaching as a spoiled former star. He has taken the craft seriously, learned from some of the game’s greatest minds and gained a reputation as a valuable assistant. He has been passed over for numerous NBA head coaching jobs, but he hasn’t pouted. He keeps working.
That’s why so many people were happy for Ewing when Georgetown made his hiring official Monday. He has paid dues that would’ve made most legends scoff. He keeps contributing to the game. It’s wonderful to see him rewarded.
The past 15 years are also an indicator of how Ewing will approach this new challenge at Georgetown. He’ll be humble. He’ll be honest with himself, honest about his strengths and weaknesses, and build a staff accordingly. And he’ll do it not for the adoration, but because he wants to see Georgetown win again.
If Ewing doesn’t win, the final weeks of JTIII’s tenure showed how bad things can get when losing seeps into a legacy. But if Ewing does win, what a triumph it would be for a powerhouse program struggling to maintain its reputation.
And what a triumph it would be for Ewing, who used to endure insults about his intelligence and his looks from petty and racist fans when Georgetown went on the road.
Thirty-six years later, Ewing isn’t just a Georgetown graduate who made millions and went to the Hall of Fame. That basketball program he nervously committed to — the one whose pennant he hoisted — he runs it now.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.