At Georgetown, you always had to go through John Thompson Jr. to get to Patrick Ewing, and more than three decades later nothing much has changed. You need to enter the new campus facility named after Thompson. You need to pass the bronze statue of the bespectacled coach, whose likeness stands with arms folded and a towel dangling from his shoulder while he stares through someone in the distance.
To see Ewing, you need to go four floors up in the Thompson Center, where the elevator opens wide to an outsized picture of Ewing in his No. 33 jersey and omnipresent gray T-shirt, his 8-foot wingspan stretching from wall to wall. At 55, roaming the hallways above the practice court while checking his cell messages, Ewing looks every bit the towering presence he was during those years in the 1980s when he made the Big East the Big East.
If you spend a few decades around basketball players, you know that standing beside 7-footers like Ewing as an average-size man can be an interesting experience. Some appear to be a mere 6-foot-8. Ewing? He always appeared to be 7-foot-4.
He is Georgetown's head coach now. In other words, he has Thompson's job in Thompson's building, where Thompson still keeps an office. The man who first called Ewing and told him he needed to pursue this opening? John Thompson Jr., right after his son, John Thompson III, was fired by the very school his old man put on the basketball map.
It was an awkward series of events, but it made sense, too, since Big John has always looked after Bigger Patrick. Thompson started protecting Ewing in 1981, when the center from Cambridge, Massachusetts, ended the mother of all high school recruiting wars in an announcement at a Boston restaurant owned by Thompson's former Celtics teammate Satch Sanders. The coach had made quite an impression in his visit with the Ewing family. "He spoke extremely well; he carried himself with class," Ewing recalls. "And as a young black man, he was somebody I could be like." The recruit was most struck by Thompson's way with words. "I was mesmerized."
Ewing wanted Thompson to keep doing the talking for him at Georgetown, where "Hoya paranoia" was born of the restricted access to the phenom. "A lot of times," Ewing recalls, "he took the hit, especially for me, if I didn't speak. ... I didn't like speaking to the media. Growing up in Boston, I learned from a young age that the media builds you up, and at a certain point they start chopping you down."
But all these years later, Thompson won't be able to protect Ewing from anything. Big John remains a father confessor to Ewing, and yet he will not be making halftime speeches or diagramming plays on the board. This is Ewing's program now. He has never been a head coach on any level, and he will rise or fall on his own.
Enough people out there believe he will fall and that there must be a good reason nobody in the NBA offered him a head-coaching job despite his Hall of Fame playing career and the better part of 15 years as an NBA assistant. And there are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about this monumental gamble Ewing is taking. Can he adjust to college basketball after being away from it for more than 30 years? Can he navigate the sport's overwhelmingly corrupt feeder system and outrecruit opposing coaches who have far more experience delivering the pitch? Does he have the requisite charisma to persuade some of the nation's top high school players to sign with Georgetown?
"The college basketball lifestyle is awful," says Jeff Van Gundy, one of Ewing's coaches with the New York Knicks. "The job in the NBA is 90 percent coaching, 10 percent everything else. The job in college is 30 percent basketball, 70 percent everything else."
If the doubters believe that 70 percent will ultimately doom Ewing, his backstory suggests he might just find a way to return the Hoyas to national prominence. Though it isn't a story he told in his 15 years in New York, where he guarded his inner thoughts as fiercely as he guarded the paint, the Jamaican-born Ewing defines himself as an immigrant who made good against the longest of odds. When he moved to the U.S. at age 12, the idea of Ewing someday becoming the face of one of the nation's leading academic institutions wasn't within 10 country miles of possibility.
He made it happen anyway. So Ewing believes he will weather his new career challenges the way he weathered his stormy transition to a new world, shaped by the cancer of racism, to become what he became.
"I'm what America's all about," Ewing says. He means the good and the bad.
Patrick Ewing is a problem solver. To understand where he might go with this attempted Georgetown reconstruction, you have to understand where he's been, what he's seen and what he's conquered.
Ewing had dreams of becoming the next Pele when he moved to America in the mid-1970s, just as Pele started turning the New York Cosmos into an iconic disco-era brand. Ewing had been a soccer and cricket player in Jamaica, but when he arrived in the Cambridge office of Steve Jenkins, junior high basketball coach, the dreamer was little more than a lost soul in a strange land.
Classmates mocked his size and Jamaican patois. A friend named Richard Burton had introduced Patrick to basketball, and the older playground players laughed at his awkward attempts to execute even the most fundamental moves. Burton mentioned Ewing to Jenkins, a bearded white man raised in the predominantly black Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. The coach figured Patrick could learn the game while playing for his team at the Achievement School, an alternative program that helped young immigrants with their English.
The kid asked Jenkins nearly every day if he could stay after practice and work on passing, boxing out, turnaround jumpers, you name it. The origin of his work ethic was easy to trace. Patrick's mother, Dorothy, was the first of the Ewings to leave Kingston, Jamaica, for Massachusetts. She was what her son called a "maid-slash-nanny" who ended up doing double shifts in the kitchen at Massachusetts General Hospital. Carl Sr., a mechanic in Jamaica, followed his wife to Cambridge, where he would work as a laborer. Soon all seven Ewing children -- five girls, two boys -- left for the U.S., and the family settled in a five-room home inside a three-decker near the Charles River.
Patrick counted five Ewings in one bedroom. Visitors to the home recalled seeing a bedsheet used as a makeshift bedroom door. Dorothy used to tell people that her family was poor but never wanted for anything, and she made it clear she didn't much care about Patrick's gift for playing ball, insisting that he spend his summers focused on the Upward Bound program at Wellesley College. On Ewing's way into high school, Jenkins suggested he might want to take general math instead of algebra to ease the transition. Ewing angrily dismissed the idea and did just fine with Algebra 1.
He grew to 6-9 as a freshman, 6-11 as a sophomore, and he was a four-year varsity player at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, first for Tim Mahoney and then for Mike Jarvis, who met Ewing shortly after he arrived in the country. Jenkins made the introduction and asked the future head coach at St. John's to help refine Patrick's skills. This was during the turbulent time of forced busing in Boston to desegregate the city's schools. Rindge was a team of African-American students with an African-American head coach, traveling to play in the largely white suburbs. Many who lived in these suburbs, Jarvis says, "were folks who had left Boston. They were part of the white flight. Maybe it was too black for them in Boston, and it was very racist at the time.
"We had the No. 1 player and the No. 1 team. ... We were the hunted. Everybody wanted to beat us and nobody could."
In his early days in Cambridge, Ewing says, he needed to ask a friend what the N-word meant. He knew all too well by his high school days. Jenkins recalled hearing a fan and an opponent direct the word at Patrick -- then a freshman -- during a game in Brockton, hometown of Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, and advising Patrick not to punch back. "I think they were talking to the wrong guy," Jenkins said. "All Patrick learned to say was, 'Look at the scoreboard.'"
Rindge once had its bus tires slashed and windows broken and two players sent to the hospital to treat cuts caused by a thrown brick and shattered glass. The Warriors were never deterred by the ignorance and hate. They routinely shredded their opponents, and major college coaches from all over assembled at their games.
In a February 1981 news conference attended by some 150 reporters, Ewing, dressed in a three-piece suit, announced he was picking Georgetown. (Today he says UCLA was his runner-up.) But before he'd play for Thompson, Ewing had to play before an angry standing-room-only crowd in his final high school game, for the state title against Boston College High, which sent many of its students to Boston College. Some of the Boston College High fans verbally vented over his college choice: "Ewing can't read," they chanted.
The hostility intensified after Jarvis' letter to all schools recruiting him, outlining Ewing's need for academic support, was made public. Jarvis informed the schools that Ewing needed daily tutoring, untimed testing, permission to use a tape recorder in class and a program to develop and monitor his basic skills -- all within NCAA guidelines. During Ewing's final high school game, Jenkins recalled, "Patrick leaned over to me and told me, 'You know, Mr. Jenkins, they may think I can't read, but I sure can count the money they'll pay to see me play in the NBA.'"
Ewing had nothing left to prove at Rindge, yet he remembered that in his first high school game, as a freshman, he'd fouled out and scored one point against Boston College High. He told his mother before the rematch three years later that he wanted to score 40 points as payback. He ended up scoring 41 -- 30 on dunks -- in a victory that gave him a third straight state title and 77 victories in 78 games. Says Gerry Corcoran, the 6-6 opponent assigned to guard him: "The young kid I played against in high school was the same competitor who never changed at Georgetown or with the Knicks. Pat played one way. It was ferocious and to make a point."
The 2017 fall semester is about to start at Georgetown, and Ewing was rewinding his memories of the coach who once kept the Hoyas off the court, in Providence, until one of the many racist signs they'd see in Big East gyms was taken down. Together they advanced to three national title games, winning one, while Ewing changed the sport defensively the way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) changed it offensively at UCLA in the 1960s. But as much as anything, Ewing's Hoyas were symbols of pride for millions of African-Americans, who wore their jerseys, jackets and caps from coast to coast.
"A lot of people in Cambridge thought this was a predominantly black school," Ewing says. "But it's a predominantly white school. ... I knew we had a huge African-American following, especially with older folks. But the media hated us. Everything that was written about us back then was so negative. ... They didn't accept us, the way that we played, the way that we carried ourselves. We didn't open ourselves up to the media. 'You didn't smile. You were different.' ... But we gave a lot of hope to black people, and that made me feel good."
Ewing graduated from Georgetown but never really left. He stayed in constant touch with Thompson. He returned for summertime workouts on campus with the centers who followed him, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. He sent two of his children to Georgetown, and with his agent, David Falk, he donated $3.3 million to the building of the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. So when John Thompson III was fired in March after 13 seasons, after the program slowly faded from national contention following his one Final Four run in 2007, Ewing felt like he'd been fired. Patrick's son, Patrick Jr., was on Thompson's staff. Big John reached out to Ewing and told him to go for the job anyway. "It should be one of us," the patriarch told the protégé.
Ewing needed time to think. He talked to Van Gundy and his boss with the Charlotte Hornets, Steve Clifford. He called his old rival, Chris Mullin, who took a similar plunge at St. John's, and former NBA star Dan Majerle, now coaching at Grand Canyon University. Ultimately he called the Georgetown president, John DeGioia, and informed him he wanted to come home, even if the school's nepotism policy wouldn't allow Patrick Jr. to stay on staff.
He met with DeGioia at the D.C. law office of Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner and a former Georgetown center who is now the vice chair of Georgetown's board of directors. Ewing thought he did well in the interview yet didn't feel a positive vibe from the university president. Ewing told Thompson, "I don't think I'm going to get it." He was telling Clifford the same thing as the Hornets boarded a bus for practice when his phone rang. Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed was on the line to make Ewing an offer.
"Don't mess with me," the candidate told the AD.
"No," Reed said, "you got the job." When Ewing met again with DeGioia, he told the president, "Damn, Jack, you've got a hell of a poker face."
Ewing says Georgetown is the only college he would've agreed to work for, and those close to him still find it hard to believe such an accomplished athlete willing to spend more than 13 seasons breaking down film and writing scouting reports never got an NBA shot. "Patrick had worked harder and longer than any top-50-all-time NBA player ever worked at that position," Van Gundy says, with more than a trace of bitterness, "and it's not even close."
The Knicks could've at least interviewed arguably their all-time greatest player, but a bygone dinner date Ewing had with their owner, James Dolan, never resulted in a coaching offer from Dolan's basketball executives. Ewing also knew that the most recent of those executives, Phil Jackson, would never hire him after he told a New York columnist in 1996 that he wanted Van Gundy to remain his coach. "I was the one who squashed the Knicks hiring Phil," he says.
Sacramento came close to hiring Ewing last year before the Kings went with Dave Joerger, who had the head-coaching experience (three playoff appearances and a 147-99 record with the Memphis Grizzlies) that Ewing did not. Asked why he believes the NBA never called his number, Ewing says, "I don't know. Pigeonholed. Big man can't coach. Big man can't think." (Executives from the Knicks and Kings declined requests for comment.)
Van Gundy calls it "size bias." Even though Ewing spent much of his career directing traffic from the center position and thinking like a point guard, he couldn't break through. Too many basketball executives seem to believe a small man can coach a big easier than a big man can coach a small.
I don't know. Pigeonholed. Big man can't coach. Big man can't think. - Ewing, when asked why an NBA team never made him a coaching offer
Perceived personality was another apparent issue. Ewing's friends wonder whether his game-night demeanor painted a one-dimensional portrait of him that ultimately hurt his cause. People are often surprised at how charming Ewing can be. Larry Bird wasn't a fan from a distance, but after playing with Ewing on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team he told columnist Jackie MacMullan that Patrick was "probably the nicest guy I've ever met." Mullin says he doesn't think he exchanged one word with Ewing during their four years in the Big East but that the two became close friends after spending time together in Barcelona. "Patrick's funny, smart, just a great guy," Mullin says.
In later NBA job interviews, Ewing grew tired of executives telling him he was more personable than they'd expected. "Don't look at my facial expression on the court," he says, "as the same person off the court." The people at Georgetown knew better.
The Hoyas are coming off back-to-back losing seasons and have been competing at an entirely different level from the Kentuckys and Dukes. "I don't think it's a rebuild," Ewing maintains. "I do want to get it back to the level that it was. ... It's my goal to try to be consistent, get to the NCAA and hopefully one day win a couple of titles. I want to be relevant, and it starts with recruiting."
Ewing landed four-star forwards Josh LeBlanc from Louisiana and Jamorko Pickett from Washington D.C. -- the one market, above all, he needs to establish as a consistent talent pipeline. He also won over a high-flying point guard from Virginia named Mac McClung, who originally committed to Rutgers before reopening his recruitment and rejecting a flood of new offers in favor of Georgetown.
McClung said in a statement that Ewing showed him videos of how he wants him to play at an NBA pace -- McClung's father, Marcus, said the videos were of Charlotte's Kemba Walker -- and that during his campus visit, John Thompson Jr. told him "how excited he was when my recruitment reopened and how I played like a Hoya." Marcus McClung says he was starstruck to meet Thompson and that his son was impressed with Ewing's vision for developing him into a potential pro. No promises were made, Marcus McClung says. "But if anybody knows what it takes to get to the next level, it's Patrick Ewing."
Teenagers might not be the best audience for an NBA great who retired right after they were born, but Ewing's advocates believe he has the assets to bridge the gap.
"He's one of my closest friends," Clifford says. "And I think he has a personality that's absolutely made for recruiting. He gets along with anybody, and he's witty. If you combine that with his knowledge, and if you're a serious young player who wants to have a good chance to learn what playing at the next level is about, he has to be a great option as your head coach."
Clifford cited not only the work Ewing did with fellow bigs Yao Ming, Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson, but with Tracy McGrady and Walker too. Clifford said Charlotte once had a younger player who showed his frustration every time he was benched. Ewing sat with the player, in the head coach's presence, and reminded him that his teammates had never showed their frustration to the crowd and the cameras whenever he screwed up. "But every time Steve takes you out of the game," Ewing told the player, "you look like you should still be in there and you shouldn't."
"That was the end of the meeting," Clifford says.
On one midseason night in a wintry city, playing the second half of a back-to-back, Van Gundy once had trouble in a timeout persuading McGrady, one of his favorites, to play as hard as he always did in the playoffs. Van Gundy tried every motivational sell in the coaching manual, and then the huddle broke. "And Patrick walked up to Tracy and just said, 'I don't know about all that, but you've got to start f---ing playing,'" Van Gundy recalls. "Patrick has a way of cutting out all the excuses."
Ewing's own college story was a compelling one. His mother died of a massive heart attack in the middle of his Georgetown career, and he was so devastated he thought about leaving school for keeps. He stayed because he'd promised her he'd complete his education. Once demeaned over his academic shortcomings in his second country, Ewing earned a degree in fine arts from the same elite university that just gave him a rare six-year contract to restore its basketball glory.
Now he promises an up-tempo style of offense and the same work ethic as a coach that left him, in his words, "encased in ice" after nearly every NBA game he played. Ewing says he'll represent a "big gumbo" of all those who taught him the game, from Steve Jenkins to Steve Clifford.
Ewing also told some of his mentors that he wants to develop into a good, strong branch on their coaching trees. "Dude," Van Gundy has told him, "you're the tree and we're the branches."
The most accomplished coach Ewing ever played for, Pat Riley, says his former franchise player will command the attention and respect of teenage blue-chippers by "telling a story that's truthful." The Miami Heat president loved Ewing's grinder mentality when they were together in New York and now envisions Patrick imposing his competitive will on the Hoyas.
"Patrick," Riley says, "is as much of a man as everyone is going to meet. ... I know if I was a high school player and I was really good, I'd want to go with somebody who was not going to kiss my ass, who coached the hell out of me and made me better. I guarantee I'd want to play for Patrick Ewing."