Patrick Ewing Played for John Thompson, but the Head Coaching Job is His Own
The notion that Thompson will pull the strings on Ewing’s Hoyas is misguided.
The first true beast of the Big East has come home to the Hilltop.
Patrick Ewing, who ushered in the era of Hoya Paranoia under the tutelage of John Thompson, was named the next head coach of the Georgetown Hoyas on Tuesday. Basketball personalities that are professionally familiar with Ewing rejoiced, citing the Hall-of-Famer’s insatiable work ethic, but the praise is not unanimous.
Undoubtedly, the shadow of “Big John” looms large over the Georgetown basketball program — which he indeed built. We can say with little doubt that Thompson continues to exert influence over decision-making, but the extent of that influence is unknown. The notion that the Ewing Hoyas, however, will be run by John Thompson is plainly ridiculous.
Let’s first acknowledge that the elder Thompson’s influence has bounds. How quickly those that lament his clutches on the program forget that his own son was unceremoniously fired just weeks ago. Do we think that Thompson supported that decision? Do we think that he invoked his influence to have his son removed from the head post? No. We don’t. And yet, John Thompson III no longer coaches the Georgetown Hoyas.
Hmm. That’s weird. But but but, I thought JTII still runs the program?
Still, detractors of the Ewing hire complain that Georgetown hasn’t strayed far enough from the Thompson tree. No, a clean break is necessary, they say. Patrick was Thompson’s most renowned pupil. Certainly, he can’t escape the unrelenting grasp of his mentor on the program that he built.
Those that craved a break from the Thompson mould wanted a hungry, upstart from a mid-major. Oh, it’s hunger that you want? There are few that know hunger better than Patrick Chewing himself. Further, if the Thompson influence is the problem that this camp makes it out to be, wouldn’t you want somebody that’s conceivably well-equipped to handle it? Somebody that John Thompson respects?
To suggest that Patrick Ewing won’t exercise the power to independently steer the program that he has been entrusted to guide is to completely ignore fifteen years of tireless work.
Patrick Ewing did not need to pursue a career in coaching. In fact, for a player of his stature, indeed one of the very best to ever play the game, to engage in such a pursuit at the assistant level is relatively unique. Still, because of a sincere passion for the sport and a desire to become a better student of the game, Ewing embraced the NBA assistant grind for fifteen years.
The Van Gundys (Van Gundies? Van Gundae?), Steve Clifford, and others have all fervently vouched for their colleague. He desperately wanted to put in the work. He threw himself into film study. He embraced analytics. He drove himself to become more than just a big-man coach. The man has been tirelessly chasing a head coaching position, for no other reason than a personal desire to be great, for fifteen years.
He’s been passed over. Fair or not, teams have gone in different directions. His own New York Knicks have overlooked him on countless occasions. Not dissuaded, he kept plodding along. Always learning. Always growing. His time was going to come. The hard work had to pay off.
Well, the time has come. The hard work has paid off. No, Ewing’s opportunity hasn’t come in the National Basketball Association. It comes instead at his alma mater, where he spent the self-proclaimed four best years of his life. It comes at the university where he made a larger mark on college basketball than perhaps any player in history. It’s not the NBA, but it’s a dream job nonetheless.
Yet, there are those that believe that after fifteen years of grinding, working his way up on merit and not on name, Ewing is abandoning his NBA dreams to become what essentially amounts to a puppet for John Thompson. There are those that will say it is only because of Thompson’s influence that Ewing received the job, pointing to his lack of college coaching experience.
Both insinuations are insulting to both men.
Patrick Ewing earned this position. Remove his name and the Thompson connection from his resume for a moment. Let’s even say he played somewhere else. Any other school, with the opportunity to hire a former star player (and HOFer) who had spent the better part of two decades coaching alongside basketball minds such as Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, Tom Thibodeau and others, would likely at the very least entertain the candidacy of that man.
The fact, then, that Ewing once played under John Thompson should not nullify or diminish his own candidacy.
In regard to who will call the shots, I find it hard to believe that Ewing worked as hard as he did for a head job so that he can continue answering to someone else. I believe that he will treat his former coach with a great deal of respect — because I believe that he respects him as a coach and as a man. Likewise, I believe that Patrick Ewing commands similar respect from John Thompson. Patrick Ewing will not allow John Thompson to meddle excessively in the operation of what is now his program. Fortunately, Patrick Ewing won’t be forced to prohibit his former coach from excessively meddling with his program, because I don’t believe that John Thompson is going to excessively meddle.
The idea that Thompson exerts influence beyond what would be considered acceptable is difficult to verify. Yes, he was seemingly omnipresent during JT3’s tenure on the Hilltop, but JT3 is also his son. That was a fairly unique circumstance, and even then, it can’t be said with certainty that the elder Thompson abused or otherwise wielded his stature in ways that undermined the program, his son’s coaching, or the broader university.
He will probably remain present. He will be seen on campus. He will sit in a folding chair at practices. Why? To ensure things are being run to his liking? Maybe. Because he loves the university and the basketball program? Much more likely.
This is a man that famously said, “when I’m gone, if I can’t go to heaven, take me back to Georgetown.”
To continue to suggest that he’s manipulating circumstances in ways that are not in the best interest of the university is, to a degree, both unfounded and unfair.
The only real damage that we might suggest his influence caused is based in perception only. It was noted by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman during the coaching search that agents were gauging Thompson’s level of involvement. Still, the only two candidates who reportedly declined to entertain the role, Shaka Smart and Mike Brey, are in desirable jobs with little reason to leave, so we can’t say with certainty that the Thompson shadow played a part in their hesitancy. Still, the only candidate with the ability to know whether or not Thompson’s influence would actually be a problem abandoned his NBA dreams to take the job. That should say something.
John Thompson still plays a role at Georgetown. Frankly, that’s the way it should be. The propensity of certain parties to seek immediate and permanent distance from the Thompson legacy is misguided. That legacy is the fiber of Georgetown basketball. Much of that legacy is something of which Georgetown should be immensely proud. Still, acknowledging the importance of the past does not mean that the program must cater to it at every turn.
The hiring of Patrick Ewing, though, is not some thinly veiled bow to the past. It appeases John Thompson, yes. That doesn’t mean that Ewing isn’t a good hire. Appeasing John Thompson and making a solid, rational coaching appointment are not mutually exclusive. Where the idea of mutual exclusivity began is unclear, particularly because, despite the appearance of nepotism, the JT3 hiring ticked both boxes.
That era did not end well. It ran its course, but overall, considering the depths to which the program had sunk before he took the reins, the selection was an unquestioned success.
Maybe Big John’s influence helped his son stay in place for an additional season beyond what would’ve otherwise been considered acceptable. There’s frankly no way to ascertain whether or not this is true. The disagreement from many respected basketball personalities with JT3’s removal after this season, though, suggests that, from an outsider’s perspective, it was far from unreasonable to keep him in his seat.
Yet, people fear that with John Thompson still around and Ewing at the helm, Georgetown will be facing more of the Thompson same. This notion ignores the fact that JT3’s coaching style in no way resembled his father’s, just as Ewing’s likely won’t remotely resemble JT3's.
Still, they say that the Thompson influence is problematic, though evidence of it being an actual problem is difficult to pinpoint.
Well, with the appearance of “problematic influence” in tow, Georgetown is about to have its cake and eat it too…again.
Georgetown can afford to do so because Patrick Ewing worked his butt off for fifteen years to become the best-fitting candidate. It can afford to do so because John Thompson built a program that someone like Ewing wants to come home to. It can afford to do so because with a Thompson and a Ewing on the Hilltop, Hoya Paranoia, remains salvageable, and I’m not talking about the pervasive paranoia that Thompson is exerting undue influence. I’m talking about the mystique of excellence.
Georgetown can afford to simultaneously embrace the past while welcoming an exciting new future — the future that Ewing has spent his post-playing days working towards.
They have forgotten about Hoya Paranoia. Ewing will remind them, but on his terms, the terms that he earned.