For those who think the Fab Five -- with no conference or national championships, what victories they did have nullified by an NCAA scandal, and no rings as NBA players – had no lasting impact, I say it depends how you view things. I see the Orlando Magic and I see two brackets to the Fab Five: assistant coach Patrick Ewing, whose 1980s Georgetown teams were the original counterculture heroes, and guard J.J. Redick, who paid the price for the lengthy anti-Duke backlash that followed the Blue Devils’ victory over Michigan in the 1992 NCAA championship.
Ewing asked the same question a lot of you have: “When is there going to be a Georgetown Hoyas movie?”
There was that HBO documentary on Georgetown-Villanova (“Perfect Upset: The 1985 Villanova vs. Georgetown NCAA Championship”).
“That was Georgetown-Villanova,” Ewing said. “I’m talking about Georgetown.”
Ewing has a point. While that 2005 HBO show examined everything from the Georgetown mystique to the political climate of the Ronald Reagan era to put that memorable title game in proper context, there ought to be a deeper look at the impact of Georgetown basketball in the 1980s.
“Heck yeah,” Ewing said. “From East Coast to West Coast, everybody loved the Hoyas.”
A lot of people loved to hate them, too.
“Well, yeah,” Ewing said. “But most of the black people loved the Hoyas.
“Everywhere you went you knew it. Older folks would come up to you and tell you how much they loved you and they appreciated what you represent. The younger kids…they’d have the Georgetown paraphernalia, the Georgetown jacket, the Georgetown t-shirt.”
They were unquestionably Black America’s team. The ubiquitous Georgetown Starter jackets were the 80s precursor to the Africa medallions of the 1990s. The Hoyas weren’t just playing on behalf of a small Jesuit school in Washington, D.C. There was a social significance to what the Hoya did, almost an extension of the Civil Rights era
“Georgetown was a movement,” said Mark Jackson, whose St. John’s teams went through Big East conference battles against the Hoyas.
The Hoyas played with a stereotype-defying style, winning with defense, not flashy offense. In 1984 the Hoyas made John Thompson the first African-American coach to win the NCAA tournament. Thompson wore his yearning for equal rights just as prominently as he wore that white towel across his shoulder. He voiced his opinion with words and actions, going so far as to walk off the court in protest of an NCAA proposal to remove scholarships for academically ineligible athletes. There was always a sense the Hoyas were fighting for something beyond themselves. White fans accused Thompson of racism and wondered why he didn’t have more white players on his teams. Thompson thought the question should be why the university, in a city largely populated by African Americans, didn’t have more black students.
The primary difference between the Hoyas and the Fab Five was that the Georgetown image derived from Thompson, not the players. While Michigan players were speaking in front of cameras and microphones the moment they stepped on campus, Thompson kept his freshman from doing interviews during their first semester at Georgetown, restricted access to all of his players and sequestered his team at out-of-the-way hotels during the NCAA tournament.
There was a similar decibel difference on the court, where the Hoyas played with none of the woofing, finger-pointing and stare-downs that defined the Fab Five.
“We didn’t come with the swagger,” Ewing said. “That was their play. We were very intimidating, but we’d come out with our game face on, our toughness, our trapping defense. They brought the swagger, the talk…we were just out there trying to get it done.”
In his professional career Ewing grew increasingly outspoken (most notably his “See you Sunday” playoff guarantee that still resonates in New York) but he isn’t remembered for anything words while at Georgetown.
“Some of that was, I didn’t want it,” Ewing said. “So [Thompson] took the heat for me.”
Ewing’s primary statement at Georgetown was a fashion statement: wearing a t-shirt under his jersey, a look that look that spread across the country and became an official part of the Georgetown uniform for a while.
“It was cold in those arenas,” said Ewing, a native of Jamaica. “Now I’ve been in America a long time, so my body’s used to the cold. Back then I was still young, I’d only been over here about 5-6 years. I was still cold. These big arenas, it was always cold, so I wore a t-shirt under my jersey.”
In 1985, not long after the original Air Jordans hit the scene, Georgetown broke out the blue-and-grey Nike Terminators, and the revolution had reached their feet. Some people mistakenly called them “Air Hoyas”, but the shoes didn’t have air-cushioned soles and were as comfortable as a bed of rocks.
“They were rough on your feet,” Ewing said. “They were hard. But everybody wanted them. It was hot.”
Don’t discount the role Georgetown had in the rise of Nike basketball shoes. Their impact at the collegiate level was almost as big as Jordan’s in the NBA. As strong as Converse was in the pros at the time, with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dr. J among its endorsers, it was an even more dominant shoe in the college ranks, where it was worn by almost every major program. Thompson was one of the first to break from the Converse cartel and join Nike because he saw that’s where the money was. (It was a prescient move, and in 1991 he was rewarded with a spot on the Nike board of directors.)
So from attitude to apparel the Hoyas set the stage for the Fab Five, clad in Nikes, of course.
“We laid the groundwork,” Ewing said. “They took it to the next level.”
We’ve talked plenty about the influence of the Fab Five, but haven’t discussed their role in the national perception of Duke.
From the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s Duke was a team that regularly made the Final Four but could never win it all. Then in the 1991 national semifinals the Blue Devils upset UNLV, the previously undefeated squad that was basically an NBA team with remaining college eligibility. Duke was the underdog, a team from a smart school that in some minds restored NCAA basketball to what it should be. The next year Duke was the established team that put Michigan and its brash freshmen starters in its place in the championship game. With that, Duke was no longer a blip. The Blue Devils became the first team since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty in the 1960s to win back-to-back championships. Duke was a new basketball blue blood. If the Fab Five had won that game, maybe Duke wouldn’t quite be…Duke.
Redick was an 7-year-old back then, watching his first NCAA tournament, hoping that Duke would win.
“At the time, they were the team to root for,” Redick said. “They were liked.”
With two championships though, the Duke fan base became entitled. The Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd turned from enthusiastic to smug. And since fans can define a team as much if not more than the players, the Blue Devils went from the basketball equivalent of the Buffalo Bills and became the New York Yankees.
Suddenly college basketball had a new set of bad guys. And suddenly the bad guys had a new skin tone.
“If you look at the history of the last 20 years of Duke basketball, it usually is a white guy that people dislike,” Redick said.
The list of villains includes Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins. (Perhaps Shane Battier caught some resentment, but that was more about the way announcers fawned over him than about Battier himself. Battier was a black Tim Tebow). No one got it as bad as Redick. Redick caught insults that wouldn’t be fair to hurl at a deposed dictator. Fans crossed every imaginable line, even bringing Redick’s family members into play. That only brought out the competitor in Redick.
“At different times all of us probably antagonized that villain role a little bit and brought that on us,” Redick said. “I will admit that in my case, yeah, I did.”
So Redick consciously escalated the verbal warfare starting his sophomore year. If it was coming at him he created a bad-guy persona…which really served as armor more than armament.
But I believe the majority of the hatred toward Redick had nothing to do with how he acted. It had to do with the color of his skin. My theory is that, for whatever reason, fans have a need to belittle opponents in order to feel better about themselves. And for crowds that are predominately white, spewing venom at another white person allows them to unload all of that hatred without the fear of being labeled racist. How would it be received if white fans taunted black players the way they went at Redick? You know how. So did the fans. Those college kids were mean, but they weren’t dumb.
Redick paused and chose his words carefully as we descended into this touchy topic.
“I don’t know, it’s a slippery slope,” he said.
I reminded him that fans didn’t hate Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand (both of whom are black). Redick nodded in agreement.
“I do think that race certainly played into that,” he said. “For instance Wake Forest, private school, predominately white, we matched up us as far as social demographics. That was always the place that I got it pretty bad. Maryland and wake were the two places I got it the worst.”
And how did black people treat Redick?
“Very well,” he said. “That’s always kind of been the case.”
Black people really had no reason to hate Redick. Black people view the basketball court as the ultimate meritocracy, a place where equal opportunity is practiced and not merely legislated. If you can play, you can stay. It’s that simple. By carving out a nice NBA career, at the sport’s highest level, Redick has proven his worth.
And now that he’s an Orlando Magic and not a Duke Blue Devil, Redick encounters very little hostility in road arenas, except in the cities closest to his old ACC rivals.
“D.C and Charlotte are the worst,” Redick said. “Philly, a little bit…Philly boos everybody, though.”
Elsewhere he’s just another opponent. That’s a lot different than being a white player at Duke. That’s where the process took college basketball. In the 1980s fans would came with signs mocking Ewing’s intelligence, and called him an ape, one person going as far as throwing a banana on the court. Two decades later black players were no longer subjected to such racist taunts, but Redick had to endure inappropriate remarks about his sister.
Progress? Not necessarily. Change, though. That’s the theme of the week, right? Change.