Patrick Ewing is finally a head coach … but not in the NBA
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.
Ewing says that Georgetown is the only college he would have agreed to work for.
Walter Iooss for ESPN
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."
O’Connor is a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter:
November 1, 2017 at 10:23AM