Hoyas legacy brings Ewing home
Tasked with balancing tradition, moving Georgetown forward
Patrick Ewing held Lorry Michel’s hand as she walked slowly and the cameras pursued Georgetown’s new men’s basketball coach. Legacy, tradition, a feeling of home all brought Ewing back to the Hilltop to take over the Hoyas’ wobbling basketball program. At that moment in the hall of the still-pristine John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, Ewing could not have been more enveloped by the weighty legacy he just purposely walked into.
Michel became Georgetown’s head athletic trainer for men’s basketball in 1981, the year Ewing arrived as the most-coveted recruit in the country. She stood unsteady next to the towering Ewing on Wednesday while they both trailed Thompson, the only heavyweight influencer at the day’s introductory press conference not in formal linens. Instead, he wore a matching gray warmup suit. Conformity was never his thing.
The trio headed toward the statue of Thompson housed in the facility named for him. On a flat screen, offcolor highlights of Ewing’s playing days at Georgetown ran. A plaque that said “Georgetown athletics” had the words “Hoyas forever” under it. In that hallway, the roots and future of the school’s basketball program were merged. It’s now on Ewing to balance legacy with a relaunch, to resurrect the gruffness of the program while playing an up-tempo style new recruits will embrace. His job requires the most delicate touch from a 7-foot man forever known for menace and power, the central figure in Hoya Paranoia.
“It’s a new era now,” Ewing said.
Up the hall his son, Patrick Ewing Jr., held on as one of his kids tumbled along his legs. He’s out of a job now because of the university’s nepotism clause which does not allow a family member on the coaching staff. It’s an odd twist for the introverted program that has been under Thompson’s watch since 1972. The three coaches since he retired have been a longtime friend, Craig Esherick, his son, John Thompson III, and now Ewing, considered a son by extension.
Ewing Jr. was not surprised his father left his position as associate head coach for the Charlotte Hornets for this specific job. He would have been surprised if he chose a college other than Georgetown, the school where his sister, Corey, is a senior, a place that the Ewing name is second only to the Thompson moniker.
“I love coach Thompson III,” Ewing Jr. said. “He was the person who helped mold me into the person I am right now. I was very upset when he got let go. I was borderline depressed. But, when my dad decided he wanted to pursue the job, I couldn’t have been happier. To see him finally get a crack at being a head coach and being the head man in charge, there’s no better feeling for me.”
Happenstance brought Ewing’s former employer, the Charlotte Hornets, to Washington on Tuesday night. Ewing spent four seasons with Charlotte, which lost to the Washington Wizards in Verizon Center on Tuesday. Ewing asked Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, a man just a year older, but one who had received the coaching position that had long eluded Ewing, would he do it? Would he leave the NBA and return to college? Ewing has never coached in college. Clifford spent several years working his way up program to program as an assistant.
“I told him honestly I would go back to coach college, but I would go back to like Div. II or III,” Clifford said. “Where the recruiting is still time consuming, but, to me, doable in a way that you can actually have some sense of a life. I recruited Conference USA one year. Recruiting is 24/7, 12 months a year and if you don’t do it like that you have no shot because that’s what the top-20 coaches are doing. Those guys are great coaches, but they are great recruiters. They all recruit non-stop. He knows that. He doesn’t have his head in the sand.”
Ewing pursued the position. He called university president John DeGioia to express his interest, then had an uneasy feeling when the interviews ended. Ewing didn’t think he was going to get the job, yet another chance to be in charge lost, and called Thompson Jr. to tell him as much. When athletics director Lee Reed called the next day, Ewing found out he was in.
Current players listened to Ewing explain Wednesday how he was hired, that the program was down, and his desire to move it forward. He publicly acknowledged some may leave. Trey Mourning is rumored to be among the departures. Ewing said he will meet individually with players Thursday. He had spoken to the team Tuesday.
“Last year’s over,” he told them.
No matter who leaves, Ewing will have to wade into the cesspool that college recruiting can become. Empowered AAU coaches, manic parents, ubiquitous and usually unfounded NBA ambitions among players. Ewing contends that recruiting has not changed much since he left Boston for Georgetown. He said he plans to learn from a staff that is yet to be revealed, and will rely on that group, too. Presence and history are always influences in initial negotiations. Ewing possesses both. But, those things also dissipate with time.
“He has the traits that make [players] appreciate him,” Clifford said. “That Hall of Fame thing? That’s a week. You’re not a good coach, then you’re not going to make it anywhere. He’s way past that. That’s not going to be an issue.”
Ewing Jr. points to his four siblings as evidence that Ewing, 54, is aware of social media and the modern world. He also thinks concern about Ewing’s ability to recruit, despite never doing it before, is an instant narrative without merit.
“Everyone is new to it at some point,” Ewing Jr. said. “That portion is being blown up like... recruiting isn’t hard. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not hard. You go out there and you try to get the kids to buy into your ideas. I don’t think it’s going to be as hard as people make it seem.”
A group of middle school students shuffled into the center after the event. They all looked up at the statue of Thompson, which includes his square glasses and towel over a shoulder, as they entered. One girl cocked her head. She was unsure of who this man was in front of her, part of a generation that can’t fathom what 1984 was like, when Thompson and Ewing won the national title. What will she know when Ewing’s done?
Former Georgetown center Patrick Ewing proclaimed “it’s a new era, now” during his introductory press conference on Wednesday as the new Hoyas coach.
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson listens as his former player and NBA all-star Patrick Ewing is announced as the Hoyas’ new coach on Wednesday.