WASHINGTON – On Wednesday morning Patrick Ewing walked into the John Thompson Center, past the huge, bronze John Thompson statue and beneath an etching of John Thompson’s eternal wish, the one that reads: “When I’m gone, if I can’t go to heaven take me back to Georgetown.” Then Ewing, the greatest of John Thompson’s players, began the delicate dance of distancing himself from John Thompson.
This is not easy to do. The two are forever intertwined. Thompson was the stern, booming Georgetown coach who helped mold a teenaged Jamaican immigrant into one of basketball’s most dominant players. Ewing, in turn, helped Thompson make Georgetown into a larger-than-life colossus that literally changed American culture in the 1980s. Neither might have reached the heights he did without the other.
Thompson was already in the room Wednesday, when Ewing walked to the lectern for his introductory news conference as Georgetown’s basketball coach, held in a Thompson Center conference room. For 45 years Thompson’s presence has loomed over the basketball team, first as a coach, then watchful mentor to his successor, Craig Esherick, and most recently as the father of John Thompson III, who was fired last month after 13 seasons. The elder Thompson sat in a chair toward the back, his 6-foot-10 inch frame still impossible to ignore at 75.
A giant here until the end.
It’s hard to argue with the Thompson legacy at Georgetown, which includes four Final Fours between father and son. But Ewing must be his own man if he is to succeed. Many former Georgetown players and administrators resent Thompson’s continued influence over the program. Several prospective candidates refused to consider the job – frightened that Thompson would sit through their practices, pushing them to do things he wanted. He is said to have pushed hard for the school to hire Ewing. Now that it has, people inside and outside of Georgetown are waiting to see if Ewing can make the program his own.
Wednesday he tried, paying cursory appreciation for the younger Thompson’s years before saying with characteristic bluntness: “It’s a new era now.”
Georgetown attempted to make Wednesday about nostalgia and welcoming Ewing home to the school they affectionately call “The Hilltop” for its vistas of the Potomac and Northern Virginia’s skyline. Someone handed Ewing a Georgetown pennant and he held the pennant over his head in a recreation of the famous announcement he made in 1981, when as a Boston high school senior, he chose the Washington school to the dismay of those who expected him to stay home at Boston College. But Ewing didn’t seem interested in talking about the good old days. He’s spent the past 15 years as an NBA assistant fighting to prove he could coach his own NBA team. He took the Georgetown job because it’s Georgetown, he said. He also made it clear he wants to coach his own way.
He said he is going to run a professional-style offensive system that will be fast-paced and will resemble those that are played in the NBA today. He pointed out that the pro game has changed dramatically “in just two years” and that “if you can’t get with the times you will be left behind.”
“That was all mine,” he later told The Vertical about his vision as he headed into an elevator at the Thompson Center. “That’s the way the NBA is and I see us trying to get those guys who have the ability to play at the next level to be NBA-ready.”
Who knows how much his ideas will clash with the elder Thompson’s? Maybe they won’t. Perhaps both men look at today’s game the same even as Ewing moved away from the younger Thompson’s way. But if Ewing is going to return Georgetown to dominance in a Big East it once made great, he can’t be dragging the past behind him.
Georgetown isn’t the cool choice the way it was in the 1980s and early ’90s. Ewing lamented that the best kids in the talent-rich D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas no longer aspire to The Hilltop. Athletic director Lee Reed told The Vertical that during an interview with the search committee, Ewing was asked if he’d consider running the Golden State Warriors’ system at Georgetown, to which Ewing replied: “That system wouldn’t work unless you have Steph Curry.”
The implication is that Georgetown doesn’t have any Steph Currys – or many good players at all. Fixing that is tricky. As Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel pointed out, the top AAU coaches have loose arrangements with agents who worry about the influence of Ewing’s agent, David Falk, who has landed many of Georgetown’s best players over the years. If Ewing is going to get those local high school stars, he’s got to have the AAU coaches. And the AAU coaches will balk at letting their best players go to Georgetown if it looks like they will fall under Falk’s influence. He will not only have to distance himself from Thompson but his longtime agent as well.
No one should doubt Ewing’s ability to make Georgetown work. He has put in years of doing the dirty work of an NBA assistant: breaking down film and designing game plans. He refused to let himself be stereotyped as a big-man coach, telling his bosses he wanted to develop the guards and small forwards as well. He has been getting closer to an NBA head-coaching job. In recent years, his coaching agent, Spencer Breecker of Kauffman Sports, had landed him several interviews with teams, and Sacramento nearly hired him last year.
Ewing has worked with enough successful coaches who have broken away from old tutors to know he can’t make his Georgetown tenure an extension of Thompson’s. He seems to know that Georgetown can’t be clutching onto the past.
Through the interview process, Ewing amazed the search committee with his ideas, Reed said. The coach knew exactly whom he wanted to hire as assistants (which won’t include his son Patrick Jr., a part of Thompson III’s staff who can’t be employed because of Georgetown’s anti-nepotism policy) to exactly what style he wanted to play. He came off as someone with his own ideas of how a program should operate.
“He didn’t spend 30 seconds talking about what happened,” Reed said. “All he talked about was what he is going to do going forward.”
Which will be hard for John Thompson’s best player ever as he settles into a new office in the John Thompson Center.
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