Patrick Ewing walked beneath the basket where he had scored a good chunk of his 24,915 career points. He folded his 7-foot frame behind a cloth-covered table and nodded at the several dozen reporters who were on hand for his first news conference as a head coach at Madison Square Garden.
“Patrick!” yelled a man holding a television camera. “What’s it like to be the head coach of Georgetown?”
Ewing paused before answering, his eyes flickering across the court at last month’s Big East Conference’s media day.
Perhaps he was thinking about another day here when he stood on the scorer’s table and roared to the heavens after making the shot that sent the Knicks to the 1994 NBA Finals. Or perhaps he was thinking about the countless times during the past 14 years when he quietly returned to the Garden as an assistant with four different NBA teams but never as the head coach. Most likely, he was thinking about it all, about how life sometimes doesn’t turn out the way you expect but still turns out OK.
“It’s great to be the head coach at Georgetown,” Ewing said. “It’s great to be a head coach, period.”
Ewing never imagined he would be sitting where he is today. He never imagined that he would be coaching a team of teenagers who cut their teeth watching him in the movie “Space Jam” but can’t remember when he actually played. He never imagined that he would return to the college game after more than 30 years in the NBA, that he would be asked and agree to take on the monumental task of trying to return Georgetown, his alma mater, to basketball relevance.
“No,” Ewing said. “This was never on my radar.”
Since his retirement in 2002, Ewing’s radar was searching for a way to become an NBA head coach. Ewing worked as an NBA assistant for Washington, Houston, Orlando and Charlotte. He watched the Knicks, a team he gave his heart and soul to for 15 years, hire guys like Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek, guys who had no affiliation with the franchise and, in the case of Fisher, no coaching experience. Ewing watched former teammates Doc Rivers, Monty Williams and Scott Brooks wind their way up the ranks and get head-coaching jobs.
There’s no doubt that there is a real bias against big men when it comes to deciding who is fit to coach in the NBA. According to stats compiled on a recent episode of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,’’ of the 258 head coaches hired in NBA history — the vast majority of whom were former NBA players — only six were taller than 6-10.
Four of those six coaches — George Mikan, Bill Russell, Willis Reed and Bill Cartwright — got their first coaching job because they were hired by the team for which they had starred during their playing careers. The Knicks, who for some reason seemed to want to distance themselves from the Ewing era after trading him at the end of his career, have hired seven coaches since Ewing retired in 2002 but never once brought him in for a job interview.
Those who worked with Ewing, such as Jeff Van Gundy, say he deserved this shot long ago and that he deserved it in the NBA. The fact that he didn’t get it might boil down to prejudice and misunderstanding, boil down to the fact that Ewing is both African-American and 7 feet tall.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say [racism played a part],” Van Gundy said in a phone interview shortly after Ewing’s hiring. “Certainly, I think there’s some size bias involved. I think back when he played, some of the things that were allowed, the signs, what was said. Even when I coached in the NBA, there were some columns written that were racially tinged in all areas. I mean, I think it’s a combination of things.”
Ewing hadn’t given up his dream of being a head coach when he first received a call last spring from John Thompson Jr., the man who had been his coach and mentor for four years at Georgetown.
In some ways, the situation was beyond awkward. Thompson Jr. was telling him to throw his hat in the ring for a job opening that had been created only after Georgetown had fired his son, John Thompson III. Yet in so many ways, it also just felt right.
Ewing loves to say that he came to Georgetown as a boy and left as a man. He has remained close to the program. He sent two of his children to the school and his son, Patrick Ewing Jr., was the Hoyas’ director of basketball operations on Thompson III’s staff.
Ewing told his former coach he would think about it, then picked up the phone and started calling his friends around the league. One of the first people he called was Chris Mullin, his longtime Big East and NBA rival. Mullin, who had worked in the front offices of the Warriors and Kings, took over as coach of his alma mater, St. John’s, two seasons ago.
“I told him it’s kind of strange to be coaching college basketball,” Mullin said. “I never thought I was going to be doing this and it’s really cool. And to have him here too, I never thought I would see that. It’s kind of weird and cool.
“Patrick put a lot of time in as an assistant coach. I wanted him as a coach at Georgetown. That’s what I told him. I know he’s going to get the players and the program will be back on top again.”
Ewing has played for and coached under some of the most respected minds in the game, and there’s no doubt he’s ready to run his own team. However, making the transition to the college game — in which your success hinges on the ability to get inside the swiveling head of a 17-year-old star recruit and convince him to play for you — is a pretty tough task.
The world of college basketball Ewing enters today is quite different from the world he entered when he signed his letter of intent to attend Georgetown in February 1981, a day The Washington Post described as both D-Day and Christmas Eve. Ewing and his talent automatically made Georgetown a power for years to come.
Today, with players being able to leave for the NBA after one season, the recruiting process is doubly intense; schools have to keep a constant flow of talent coming into their programs. Add to that the current FBI investigation into what appears to be an increasingly corrupt feeder system, and there are a lot of landmines to navigate that Ewing wouldn’t have to encounter in the NBA.
Ewing said that when he sits down with a recruit and his family, he tries to look back at how he felt when he was going through the process.
“The kids today haven’t seen me play, but their parents have,” Ewing said. “I don’t think I’m selling myself in that way. I want a family to know what I’m about and what I represent. I try to sell them on the fact that once upon a time I was in your shoes, and now look where I am. Everything you’re going through, I’ve gone through. I tell them how Georgetown helped me become the person that I am today.”
Ewing has had some success. Josh LeBlanc, a power forward from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is rated 98th in the class of 2018 by ESPN, committed to Georgetown earlier this month. He also has landed four-star forward Jamorko Pickett from Washington D.C. and point guard Mac McClung, who originally committed to Rutgers.
His current players are thrilled by the sudden buzz that is surrounding their program. Junior Jessie Govan, of Queens, said he has watched the movie “Space Jam’’ “at least 200 times” and his mom, who is a “huge” Knicks fan, went berserk when Ewing was hired.
“ ‘Space Jam’ is the first movie I saw and it’s my favorite movie to this day,” Govan said. “My mom had it on the VCR and would just put it on to keep us busy.”
So this is the world Ewing, at age 55, finds himself in. No, it’s not what he expected. But that’s OK.
Said Ewing: “I’ve got a job. I’ve been given an opportunity. I’ve been given a great opportunity at my alma mater. It’s a place that I’ve known, a place where I spent four of the best years of my life. They’ve given me an opportunity to show what I can do as a coach.”
An opportunity long deserved.