When his cellphone rang, when his 15-year dream buzzed for attention, Patrick Ewing was busy telling the Charlotte Hornets coaching staff that he doubted Georgetown would hire him. The assistant coach, despite his Hall of Fame credentials, was preparing to be a head coaching also-ran again.
“Ah, I couldn’t read ’em,” Ewing said to his co-workers about the interview at his alma mater. “I don’t think I got it.”
Spend a second career accepting letdowns, chasing jobs that refuse to look back, and you master self-protection. Better to cope than hope.
And then the phone rang Monday morning. It was Lee Reed, the Georgetown athletic director. Finally, Ewing, who had been denied very little in basketball, received the opportunity he had sought for so long.
“Don’t mess with me, man!” Ewing told Reed, laughing as he processed the news.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ewing stood composed and assertive during his introduction as the new Georgetown men’s basketball coach. As the 54-year-old version of the Hoya Destroya spoke of growing from a boy to a man since graduating from Georgetown in 1985, it also became clear that his 15 years as an NBA assistant were spent doing much more than lamenting the many pro jobs he didn’t get. Ewing shined not as a legacy hire manipulating a nostalgic university, not as a John Thompson Jr. protege, but as his own man, with his own coaching ideas and with a vision that is clear and layered.
[Ewing takes over Georgetown with shot of nostalgia and dose of reality]
His ambition isn’t to take Georgetown back to its glory days. It’s to modernize the brand, put it on the cutting edge of basketball and add to the tradition rather than survive on it. For all the reasons to doubt why this will work, Ewing put a dent into one notion on this day: His hiring didn’t feel just like more of the same.
It felt familiar, for sure. But despite all that Georgetown did to make his introduction warm and fuzzy — having him lift a pennant like he did when he committed to the Hoyas in high school, making “Home Sw33t Home” T-shirts — Ewing sold a philosophy that alluded to his development over 15 years as an assistant.
“I definitely have clarity,” Ewing said. “I know what I want. I worked for and with some very established coaches, great coaches. The game has definitely changed. The game has changed from two years ago to the way it’s playing now. It’s more up-tempo. More shooting threes. More ball movement, body movement. If you can’t get with the times, you’re going to be left behind.
“I took every opportunity to try and improve on my abilities and to learn and make sure that, if and when I got an opportunity to be a head coach, that I’m prepared. And I think that I’m very prepared to be successful here.”
Pat Riley, Ewing’s Hall of Fame coach with the New York Knicks, explained the joy that many people feel and the potential benefits of hiring Ewing.
“Of all the players that have gone from superstardom to putting in the time and paying their dues to becoming a head coach, Patrick deserves this probably more than any player ever,” said Riley, who is the Miami Heat president. “I am absolutely delighted for him, and I think he’ll do a great job at Georgetown.”
During the past 15 years, as Ewing became the Legend Who Couldn’t Get A Job, media probed for insight into whether Ewing felt slighted and speculated about why he was never more than a head coaching candidate. Was it because he often came across as surly and closed as a player? Was it because he had to testify in 2001 about receiving sexual favors during the Atlanta Gold Club trial? Was it because there’s a foolish belief that big men don’t make good coaches?
As others pondered why, Ewing kept growing as a coach, working under some of the best minds in basketball. He started with Doug Collins in Washington, then joined Jeff Van Gundy in Houston, then Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, then Steve Clifford in Charlotte. He mentored two of the best centers of the past 15 years, Yao Ming and Dwight Howard. But he also challenged himself to be more than a big man’s coach and requested to assist in other ways.
[Perspective: There is love and risk in Georgetown’s hiring of Patrick Ewing]
He can break down film and put together winning game plans. He can talk with point guards about the nuances of an offensive system. As Charlotte’s associate head coach, he was the most trusted assistant of Clifford, one of the brightest minds in the NBA and a true coach’s coach who has worked at every level of basketball. In addition, Ewing has developed an appreciation for analytics.
During Ewing’s Georgetown interview, Reed was impressed by how detailed he was when he discussed how to incorporate analytics into a college basketball program.
“He has prepared himself, and he took the hard way,” Reed said. “He understands where the game is going, how it’s evolved. It’s almost unfair sometimes because there’s a relationship that goes back a long time with Georgetown, and people don’t look at Patrick as his own person. He’s his own man. He has his own ideas. Every aspect of this job, he had already thought through. And that came through for us loud and clear.
“There’s Big Pat, and then there’s Coach Ewing. We’ve known Big Pat for a long time; he’s family. But he left no doubt that we were hiring Coach Ewing.”
Although Ewing dreamed aloud about developing a physical and feared program again, he expressed the most interest in having teams that possess the skill and versatility that the NBA currently features. He said he still believes in the center position; he joked that it would be embarrassing if he couldn’t recruit and develop quality big men. But this won’t be a reprisal of the 1980s. Ewing will emphasize to recruits that he starred at the highest level for 17 years, coached there for an additional 15 and plans to play a style that will help top-level prospects make a smoother pro transition.
“It’s a new era now,” Ewing said.
It’s a new Ewing, too.
In 1981, he arrived at Georgetown as a star among stars, the most sought-after recruit in the nation. For 21 years, he operated under that spotlight so well that he became an all-time great. That’s why his reintroduction turned into the most hyped event at Georgetown since, perhaps, the 2007 Final Four.
But it’s the past 15 years — the work Ewing has done behind the scenes without complaint and without wavering — that matter most now. Rebuilding the Hoyas is a difficult task, but lack of preparation won’t be among his hurdles.
He’s ready. Don’t mess with him, man. He’s ready.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.