Patrick Ewing was upset last week when unconscious security personnel at Madison Square Garden asked him for identification in the corridors of a building he had been calling for 15 years. They were apparently unaware that the former star of the Knicks, whose no. 33 honored in the famous arena, was the same man who coached the Georgetown men’s basketball team at the Big East tournament there.
As a Hall of Fame player, Ewing was always easy to identify: he was the man in the middle, a force on both sides of the court who carved out one of the best careers – if not the best – of any Knick. .
But Ewing’s coach was often overlooked.
It took Ewing almost 20 years, and most of the time he worked on the edge of the game, to get even a little appreciation as a coach – at least from the outside world.
Some of the awards finally dropped last week when Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas completed their stunning ascent from the bottom of the Big East leaderboard to his conference champion. For the first time since 2015, the program returns to the NCAA men’s tournament, where it will take place in Colorado on Saturday.
“Intention? Not yet, ”Ewing said. “We still have a lot of work to do. But I closed a lot of people. ‘
When Ewing triumphantly enters the Georgetown locker room after the final victory in the Garden last week, he shouts, ‘Start from the bottom, now we’re here,’ the lyrics of a Drake song that Ewing has a theme for the team’s moving drive to a title. But the words may also reflect Ewing’s 15-year odyssey as assistant coach in the NBA, a long prediction that Georgetown finally gave him the chance to prove his ability as head coach in 2017.
When he was hired, some fans of the program complained. After all, he had no experience of head coaching and no experience on a university bench.
He has watched more than 1,200 NBA games and recorded almost every game imaginable, maladaptation and defensive scheme. And yet no one gave him the chance to be a head coach in the NBA, something that stings Ewing but never stops him.
“His dedication to being an assistant coach for 15 years, such a great player as he was, never got the honor it deserved,” said Jeff Van Gundy, Ewing’s coach and boss at the Knicks and Houston Rockets. ‘No great player has ever done that, and he not only did it, but also embraced it. Can anyone imagine Hakeem Olajuwon doing this, or David Robinson? ‘
Van Gundy agrees that Ewing suffered what many, including Ewing and John Thompson, Ewing’s coach and mentor at Georgetown, described as a size bias that favored guards over large men for coaching work. Historically, black candidates have also been very under-represented in the coaching ranks. But Ewing and his supporters were more likely to discuss the height issue in public, a prejudice that applies especially to centers, and the position that Ewing played so expertly.
“It’s almost comical when you look back at one of the best players who has ever played the game, who has been studying his trade all along, and he would not be hired,” said John Thompson’s Ronny Thompson, and the self-described said. chief of staff for the Georgetown coaches. “My father always said, ‘People in this world differ not only in color but also in size. ”
That may explain why former guards like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher, Mark Jackson, Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr – to name just a few – got head coach positions without any previous experience. They could not even show up one day as an assistant to break down opposing teams on videotape and formulate game plans and meeting with fellow staff members, as Ewing had done for a decade and a half.
He joined the Washington Wizards as an assistant coach to Doug Collins immediately after coaching. Ewing said he fell in love with the job and then served as Van Gundy on the Rockets. Jeff’s brother, Stan Van Gundy, with the Orlando Magic and eventually as Steve Clifford’s assistant and a co-head coach at the Charlotte Hornets.
Clifford recalls a meeting where staff spent 45 minutes on how one of their players had a bad attitude. When the meeting ends and Clifford leaves, Ewing goes to the other coaches and insists that they meet again immediately, even without Clifford.
Ewing told the group that they had wasted the mockery of the meeting and that they had not properly prepared for the day’s practice. He said their job was to help Clifford make every player and team better, and they need to get back to work now.
“He never told me he did,” Clifford said. “The other guys told me about it, and they still talk about it to this day.”
Van Gundy watched Ewing thrive in the three years he was in Houston, and said it was clear that Ewing was ready to become a head coach. But the offer never came, not even from the Knicks, who had a turnaround by coaches during the time Ewing was an assistant.
“You’ll have doors in your face,” Ewing said after the Big East Championship. “I did not speak. I was just trying to get better, get better with my maintenance skills, get better at the trade, learn from all the people I worked with and to be the best coach I could be. ‘
Coaching in the NBA was the dream, but Ewing made an exception for Georgetown because of his history there, and because John Thompson, who passed away in August, encouraged him to do so.
Ewing, 58, used the opportunity to coach in Thompson’s tradition. Sometimes he points to a chair in court with a towel over it – the same chair where Thompson sits for exercises with his towel over his shoulder – and says to his players, ‘Do you think I’m hard on you? The man sitting in that chair was twice as difficult for me. But it was because he believed in us, and I also believe in you. ‘
Ewing admits his job is more than just winning tournaments. It’s also about serving as a mentor and guiding light, and talking – like last week in Madison Square Garden – when he experiences an injustice. It is the lasting legacy that the outspoken Thompson left behind for him.
Ewing was quickly using his megaphone during the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, and Georgetown is one of the schools whose uniform carries words of protest.
Of course, winning helps increase the volume on the megaphone, and Thompson had an advantage that Ewing did not have – a player like Ewing. The Hoyas have entered this season predicting that they would finish in last place in the Big East after losing three players. They had to rely on a team with eight new faces, including five freshmen. After a 3-8 start, they shut down in January due to coronavirus problems and went three weeks without playing a game.
When they returned, Ewing restored the lineup and went along with bigger players to speed up and restore the defense. The Hoyas finished by winning 10 of their last 14 games. Van Gundy, who says he records all of Georgetown’s games and only watches them after knowing the score (he’s too nervous to watch live, he said), calls Ewing’s adaptation one of the more “sharp” tactical decisions. what he saw that season. , critical to the team’s recent success.
Colorado (22-8) presents a challenge, but whatever happens in the NCAA Tournament, Georgetown has an interesting future. Ewing has amassed an elite class of incoming freshmen, including Aminu Mohammed, an American McDonald’s forward, and Ryan Mutombo, the son of former Georgetown and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo.
In a year in which much doubt as to whether Georgetown has the talent to compete, Ewing pushed his team from the bottom up, and along the way, his recognition as a coach skyrocketed, even in Madison Square Garden.
“It enables people to see what those of us who worked with him already knew,” Van Gundy said, “that the man can coach basketball.”