Patrick Ewing paid his dues. He also paid attention.
His hiring as the head coach at Georgetown, announced on Monday, is a testament to a career of professionalism and perseverance, but also to his understanding of industry patronage. Never one to reveal much of himself to the masses, Ewing wisely learned how to work the more private levers of connection and control, in no small part due to his association with his once-upon-a-time super agent, David Falk.
Falk’s power base was in Washington, where he enjoyed practically unfettered access to the Georgetown program of John Thompson. Ewing signed with Falk upon exiting the college game in 1985, or one year after Falk landed Michael Jordan out of North Carolina, the player who certified him as the NBA’s leading powerbroker outside the league’s Manhattan headquarters.
It could be argued that being part of the Falk-Jordan cabal served Ewing far better than his 15-year marriage to the Knicks in New York, where he is widely remembered as the franchise’s greatest individual talent, though one forever lacking in that crucial second star, supporting (Scottie Pippen to Jordan) or co- (Stephen Curry with Kevin Durant).
Ewing had his foibles, a few tactical or competitive flops, but ultimately stands seven feet tall as a respected titan of NBA history, a classic case in making the argument that career validation isn’t always about the ring.
He was a Dream Teamer in 1992, voted one of the league’s Top 50 players in 1996 and to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. Being on the Jordan-Falk squad landed him a role in “Space Jam,” the popular 1996 part-animated vehicle that cashed in on Jordan’s burgeoning celebrity. A year later, it helped Ewing to the presidency of the players’ union that he, aligned with Falk, had earlier tried to decertify.
The relationship with Jordan also provided him with his first post-playing job, a brief run as an assistant coach with the Wizards when Jordan was running that operation, as well as his most recent position, as associate head coach of the Jordan-owned Hornets.
And finally, that enduring inner core – How many times were Falk, Thompson and Mary Fenlon, Georgetown’s longtime academic coordinator, waiting faithfully outside Knicks playoff locker rooms across Ewing’s long career? – has brought him full circle. In the wake of Chris Mullin’s return to St. John’s two years ago, he was, for Georgetown, a logical choice, a no-brainer, even.
“From a coaching standpoint, you can say that Patrick was more prepared for coaching than Chris, who had front-office experience but hadn’t coached,” P.J. Carlesimo, a friend to both going back to his Big East days at Seton Hall, told The Vertical.
It didn’t hurt that Ewing and Falk – still tethered after all these years – donated $3.3 million to the university in 2014 in numerical tribute to Ewing’s No. 33 to assist in the construction of an athletics center bearing the old coach’s name. Yes, Thompson’s son, JT III, will be vacating the coach’s office, but clearly there was some influence exerted to keep it all in the family.
So why, many wonder, did it take Ewing, 54, this long to get any head-coaching position when he’s put in his time as an assistant in four NBA cities for 15 years? It’s complicated, difficult to cite a single reason, clinical or social.
His good friend Jordan had an opportunity to hire him for the big job in Charlotte, but didn’t. He interviewed for other vacancies and came up short. The Knicks change coaches the way Madison Square Garden electricians switch light bulbs and they never gave Ewing a sniff.
Maybe it’s best to just say that perceptions born of some truth tend to die hard.
“I never really got the sense in the time I spent with Patrick that he was interested in coaching,” Stu Jackson told The Vertical. Jackson, now the associate commissioner of the Big East Conference, worked with Ewing as an assistant and head coach for the Knicks for three-plus seasons.
“At the same time, it didn’t surprise me when he did get into it because he always had a good sense of what was going on spatially on the floor, what everyone was supposed to be doing,” Jackson said. “I can tell you that you only had to tell him something once.”
If this was Ewing’s NBA grapevine reputation, he wasn’t interested in sharing with the world. His post-game analyses were concise and clichéd. His dealings with media up until he reached the late career stage as the brave, wounded warrior were comically terse. He rebuffed most approaches, even one in an airport when a reporter casually asked how he was doing after a minor injury and was told, “No interviews.”
But, of course, Ewing was the product of Thompson’s extremist cocoon policies, the infamous Hoya Paranoia. The real Ewing, at least to those he befriended and trusted, was antithetical to Public Patrick.
“I had the experience of being with him and seeing him with the guys in ’92 in Barcelona,” Carlesimo, an assistant to Chuck Daly on the Olympic team, told The Vertical. “He was one of the more talkative guys on the team. He and Larry [Bird] were hilarious together. Harry and Larry, we called them.”
No doubt Ewing has long been one of the guys, much like Carmelo Anthony, his Knicks superstar successor under New York siege, though one without Ewing’s blue-collar credibility and postseason credentials. Unlike Anthony, Ewing was also a leader, if only by example, with a ferocious work ethic and a body dripped in sweat.
He was never that vocal on the court but times change. People grow. They evolve. Now the private man who was shielded by the Georgetown program has to be its personification, its chief salesman and sweet talker. Hard work alone in a recruiting arena even more cutthroat than life in the NBA paint won’t convince the one-and-done prodigies, who may not care about Ewing’s connections to Thompson, Falk and even Jordan.
Jackson, who coached at Wisconsin after the Knicks, said, “The biggest challenges for me in becoming a head coach in college were figuring out what my vision for the program should be – a style of play, developing players – and to recognize the recruiting landscape, not only identifying players but identifying the paths to players and what I’d call the stakeholders, the people around them.”
The promising news for Ewing: He’s always been able to recognize and befriend the right people. That’s kept him on the coaching trail, all the way home.
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