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St. John's stars and Patrick Ewing go from Big East rivals to friends for life

St. John's Bill Wennington holds the ball while

St. John's Bill Wennington holds the ball while Georgetown's Reggie Williams, right, and Patrick Ewing defend during the final game of the Big East Tournament on March 9, 1985 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Ray Stubblebine

It has been 35 years since St. John’s reached the 1985 Final Four along with fellow Big East members Georgetown and Villanova plus Memphis State. That remains the only Final Four in NCAA history that featured three teams from the same conference.

It was the golden age of the Big East Conference primarily because Hoyas coach John Thompson and center Patrick Ewing were a dominant force with three Final Four appearances in a four-year span. The respect they had for each other laid the foundation for long-term friendships that St. John’s stars Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington and Mark Jackson all enjoy with Ewing, who has coached the Hoyas the past three seasons.

Jackson undoubtedly is the closest because he was the Knicks’ 1987 first-round draft choice, he became the NBA rookie of the year and played with Ewing for the first five seasons of a 17-year NBA career.

“He’s a brother,” Jackson said of Ewing in a recent Newsday interview. “He truly is a family member to me. I don’t play 17 years in the NBA if I had not met Chris Mullin in college, if I had not been coached by Rick Pitino and if I had not had a superstar and a true professional like Patrick Ewing playing alongside of me and nurturing me and teaching me as a rookie.

“He’s a friend for life, and I’m extremely proud of the job he’s doing at Georgetown.”

Jackson admitted he and Ewing often joked with each other about their college rivalry, especially the 1984-85 season when St. John’s won in January at Georgetown to ascend to No. 1 in the nation and end the Hoyas’ 29-game winning streak before losing the next three to Ewing, including the Big East Tournament title and the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

“We always trash-talked,” said Jackson, who was a sixth man on that St. John’s team. “The one thing I always said was that, if I had started, it would have been a different story. We just had a lot of fun with it.”

According to Mullin, Jackson “is one of the best of all-time” trash talkers, so imagine the byplay. But Mullin, who is a Hall of Famer along with Ewing, had a more complicated relationship with him. As high schoolers, they played in the Boston Shootout and the McDonald’s All-American games and then the 1981 National Sports Festival at Syracuse, where Thompson was coach, before their freshman year.

“Zero communication,” Mullin said.

Even when Mullin was teammates with Ewing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal at the Los Angeles Games, their relationship remained icy. “In the back of our minds, we knew we were going to play each other again,” Mullin said. “It wasn’t until 1992, when we played again on the Olympic team [Dream Team with pros] and had a lot of free time in Spain, we started going to the gym and getting in a lot of practice together. That’s where we got close.”

During their NBA years, Mullin recalled, “When we would play the Knicks, Mark and I would talk, but Patrick would walk over, and we would stop talking.”

Wennington was drafted in the first round by the Bulls in 1985 and won three NBA titles on teams led by Michael Jordan that perpetually frustrated Ewing and the Knicks in the playoffs.

“Even in the NBA, we respected each other’s games,” said Wennington, who is a radio commentator for the Bulls. “We always got along well when we were playing. I’m going to hit you, but I’m not going to say anything. That’s something Patrick understood. After we stopped playing, there was mutual respect, and ours went way back.”

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