Special comment by Quin Hillyer;
My alma mater, Georgetown University, made waves this week when it hired NBA Hall of Famer and Georgetown legend Patrick Ewing as its new head coach. As many others have written, this is in many ways a high-risk pick — great potential upside, but also some worrisome possibilities if things don’t work out.
As Sports Editor/Associate Sports Editor of the campus paper of record, The HOYA, during the year Ewing led the Hoyas to the national championship, I had plenty of opportunity to see the great player up close. (Not that I knew him well, but I interviewed him a number of times and he lived almost directly next door to me one year.) What people may not appreciate about Ewing — although fans certainly know this far better now than they did when he was in college — is that Ewing is a really good guy. He’s friendly, although perhaps even a little shy. He is fiercely competitive and he knows he is good, but he doesn’t have an outsized ego. He is sincere.
And he’s an incredibly hard worker.
Ewing put up with a lot when he came to Georgetown. Born a Jamaican, he didn’t grow up speaking the queen’s English. It was widely reported that he needed special tutoring to ready himself for college, and he was trashed by opposing fans for supposedly being dumb and also (because of his size and his scowling game face — unlike his wide smile off the court) brutish. And while a very good athlete with great size, he wasn’t the “natural” world-beating athlete — the ones with phenomenal speed and quickness — that some others were.
So the young man had to work. Hard. On the court and off, he was a grinder. Following Coach John Thompson’s rules, he always went to class. He got a real education. He rose above the slurs; he was a model campus citizen. And he got better and better on the court as well. He led his team to three NCAA final games, winning one championship and losing the other two in heart-breakingly close fashion.
Then, of course, he went on to an NBA career so good he was named one of the top 50 players of all time, twice just barely missing a league title while serving as an 11-time all-star.
All-time greats usually expect things to be handed to him. Not Ewing. Ewing desperately wanted to be a head coach after he retired, but he didn’t make a lot of noise about it. Instead, he slowly, painstakingly paid his dues as an assistant coach, learning his craft for a long, long, long 15 years. (He did take one year off so he could watch his son, Patrick Jr., play his senior year for Georgetown. There he was at every home game, lumbering to his seat near courtside, smiling and saying hello to anybody who caught his eye. Naturally, that was the only year after Patrick Sr. left the Hilltop that the Hoyas made the Final Four.)
Through 36 years in college and pro basketball, Ewing has made his mark. And in all that time, he seems to have made no enemies — or none that spring to mind. Everywhere he has gone, his teammates and coaches have praised his work ethic, his team spirit (no prima donna, he), and his personal decency.
And now, with his former college program having fallen on hard times, with its cupboard of talent suddenly rather bare, Ewing returns home to Georgetown. After 15 years as an assistant coach — have you ever seen an all-time great be forced to wait so long for a shot as the lead man? — he finally gets to be a head coach. And maybe the timing is right. Famous for wearing number 33, Ewing returned to his alma mater 33 years to the day after returning to the Hilltop from Seattle with the NCAA trophy in his hand. Maybe it’s a good omen.
Not just because I’m a Hoya, but because I’ve watched this good man for so long, I wish Patrick Ewing the very best of luck. So should everybody. This is a man who has earned his shot.