NEW YORK — Patrick Ewing used the front entrance of Madison Square Garden on Wednesday for the first time in longer than he could remember.
As a star at Georgetown, then as a New York Knicks player in the 1980s and 1990s and later as an NBA assistant coach, Ewing always had swept in and out of back doors at the Garden, the place where he cemented his NBA legacy. But on Wednesday morning for Big East basketball media day, Ewing shuffled through a metal detector and bag check along with everyone else.
He was met by a few familiar faces in the building — not his fellow Big East coaches but security guards who had worked at the Garden for decades and greeted Ewing like a member of the family.
"It's great to be back here," Ewing said during a panel with his fellow coaches. "This is one of the places I consider my home. I spent 15 years playing here, giving my blood, sweat and tears, battling against guys like [former college rival and St. John's Coach Chris Mullin], sitting over here to my right. You know, my number is in the rafters. It's great to be back. We played three Big East tournaments here. When I come back, I get goose bumps."
Even though he had to use the regular entrance, Ewing's return to the Garden was treated as an occasion Wednesday. To the New York media, the new Georgetown coach was a national celebrity whom Gotham claimed as its own: Ewing played for the Knicks for 15 years and still refers to the city as home, and two of his daughters live and work in the city.
Local reporters asked to have their picture taken during interviews with him, and they snapped cellphone shots of Ewing and Mullin chatting after Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman's opening remarks. Ewing was asked repeatedly what it was like to be back in the Garden, about his thoughts on NBA star Carmelo Anthony being traded from New York to Oklahoma City and whether he thought the Knicks would be in a good position to get a top draft pick.
"Who knows?" Ewing said in response to the last question. He said he hasn't been following the NBA closely since joining the college ranks.
The Big East celebrated Ewing's return — and with it, a potential revival of the rivalry between Georgetown and St. John's that dominated the Big East when it was a power conference — with just as much excitement.
Ewing and Mullin drew a fair amount of attention throughout media day. Photographers snapped away when they sat near each other. For the first time in years, the crowd around Georgetown's table, where junior big men Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson sat next to their new coach to answer questions, was comparable to the crowd around Villanova's.
The Wildcats were picked to finish first in the 10-team league in the preseason coaches' poll. The Hoyas were picked ninth.
Xavier Coach Chris Mack, who sat beside Ewing and Mullin in the second coaches panel of the day, put Ewing and Mullin's presence in perspective.
"Thank you for putting three of the best players in the history of college basketball in the same panel," Mack joked before answering his first question. "I was the third, for sure, in this group."
Ewing is one of four men in the Big East coaching his alma mater. In addition to Mullin at St. John's, Mack played his final two years of college eligibility at Xavier, and Butler's new coach, LaVall Jordan, played for the Bulldogs.
Those coaches help give the Big East a sense of tradition, and beyond that, they offer engaging stories, said Ackerman, who has led the conference since 2013. But few story lines link the current iteration of the Big East to its halcyon days more than Ewing and Mullin.
The foes-turned-friends — Ewing and Mullin competed ferociously during their college days and became close when they both played on the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — also provided the conference an opportunity to hype a revived rivalry between Georgetown and St. John's. The schools meet Jan. 9 in New York and Jan. 20 in Washington.
"It's part of the DNA of the conference, the Georgetown-St. John's rivalry," Ackerman said. "Some of the charter schools, they've been at it for decades. The fact that Patrick and Chris are reunited in this way couldn't be scripted.
"People see it as an exciting moment for the Big East. Their games are going to be very highly anticipated, and I think people are going to want to see how they do. Chris is in his third year, making progress; people are watching. And Patrick? It's a big test, what he can do as a coach. But for the conference, it's all good."
Ewing was among the last coaches to finish his media-day demands, having spent the better part of the afternoon filming promotions for the conference and sitting for TV interviews.
He said goodbye to a few more security guards when he was finally ready to go. Then he slung a Louis Vuitton backpack over his shoulder and walked toward an exit in the back.
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