The Georgetown Hoyas were crowned Big East Tournament champions at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, shellacking Creighton 73-48 to cap a four-win tear through the Big East tournament and securing an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2015. For fourth-year head coach Patrick Ewing, the moment was one of elation. It was a new peak in the illustrious career of one of the 50 greatest basketball players who ever lived.
But because this is America and because Patrick Ewing is Patrick Ewing, the story is not so simple. After the game, Ewing talked about his 15 years in the NBA coaching wilderness, interviewing again and again for the head coaching job that would never materialize despite everyone in the league now publicly insisting he deserved it all along.
“You’re going to have doors shut in your face, but it’s how you react,” Ewing recalled of his journey to this point. “I didn’t pout. I just tried to get better and try to get better at my interviewing skills, get better at the craft, learn from all those people I worked with. The Jeff Van Gundys, the Stan Van Gundys, the Steve Clifford, the guys that I played for and just try to be the best coach I can be.”
The best coach Patrick Ewing can be turns out to be pretty damn good, considering Georgetown entered the season predicted to finish last in the Big East and lost entire recruiting classes to transfers and dismissals.
“Today is a great day for Georgetown basketball,” Ewing added towards the end of his postgame interview with the Fox Sports team. And it was a great day for Georgetown basketball, but it was the end of a long week after a long year, and the basketball world continued to show us that far too little has changed since Ewing was winning Big East championships as a player.
His coaching foil on Saturday night was Greg McDermott, the longtime Creighton head coach and college basketball lifer. After a Feb. 27 loss to Xavier, McDermott told his players he needed them to “stay on the plantation. I can’t have anybody leave the plantation.” A few days later, McDermott publicly apologized for his bigoted remarks. Creighton suspended McDermott for one game. TyTy Washington, a four-star recruit out of Arizona, announced he was decommitting on Twitter. By the time the Bluejays got to the Big East Tournament championship, they were gassed and demoralized. They couldn’t hit a shot, and the game was over by the half.
A few days earlier in Tulsa, OK, the site of the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, a girls high school basketball team kneeled during the national anthem while competing for a state title. One of the game’s announcers, Matt Rowan, was caught on a hot mic cursing out the children of Norman High. He expressed his hope they would lose, and called them “fucking n******.”
“Obviously this wasn’t about respecting the national anthem, otherwise bozo wouldn’t have talked over it the entire time,” one Norman High football coach said in a video produced by faculty and staff to express their solidarity with the Lady Tigers. “Something else is bothering him, which is disgusting.”
On Friday, Rowan apologized in a statement and blamed the remarks on his diabetes. On Saturday, Norman High capped off an undefeated 19-0 season with their second straight Class 6A state championship.
You don’t have to kneel during the national anthem to be subjected to the racist abuse those children received. Patrick Ewing received similar, vicious abuse in Providence in 1983. Fans held signs that said “Ewing Can’t Read.” Or when Villanova fans raised a bed sheet emblazoned with “Ewing Is An Ape” and threw banana peels on the court as he was introduced before the game. Or in 1981, when he was still in high school and backed out of committing to North Carolina after witnessing a Ku Klux Klan rally near campus.
Forty years later, Ewing belongs to the basketball pantheon. He is the increasingly rare combination of a college basketball legend and an NBA superstar. He’s put in the work, immediately taking any assistant coaching job available in the years after he retired. Finally, he has the head coaching job, one he seemed destined for even if it’s not the NBA job of his dreams. And he’s back at Madison Square Garden, the site of two of his Big East championships as a player and his home for 15 years as the greatest New York Knick who ever played at the Mecca of Basketball. If Madison Square Garden is anyone’s house beside it’s literal owner James Dolan and maybe Billy Joel, it’s Patrick Ewing’s house.
But on Thursday, Ewing revealed arena security was having some trouble remembering that.
“I thought this was my building and I feel terrible that I’m getting stopped, accosted, asking for passes,” Ewing said, speaking to the press after his Hoyas smacked 1-seed Villanova. “I’m going to have to call Mr. Dolan and say ‘Jeez, is my number in the rafters or what?’”
Ewing laid down a simple edict: “Everybody in the building should know who the hell I am.”
Ewing and Dolan did end up speaking. While both parties seem content to keep that conversation private, it’s just the latest example of Garden security treating black Knicks legends poorly. The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov wrote it was “unfathomable” that Ewing would be stopped and ID’d at the Garden, but “such is the ethos at MSG too, where everyone must be accounted for at all times and under a watchful eye.”
Spike Lee, the center of a similar incident with Garden security last season, went on ESPN’s First Take and declared something was rotten in Mecca.
“There has to be something wrong at Madison Square Garden,” he said. “Can any of you imagine Derek Jeter being stopped entering Yankee Stadium? Magic Johnson being stopped entering the Staples Center? Michael Jordan… being stopped entering the United Center? WTF.”
WTF indeed, Spike.
The first time Patrick Ewing went to the Big East championship, he was a freshman. Georgetown was five games into a 10-game winning streak that would carry them through the Big East title game and all the way to the NCAA championship before losing to North Carolina and Michael Jordan. Ewing would win the Big East Tournament two more times, logging a tournament MVP award his junior and senior seasons.
This time, Ewing is 58 years old and standing in the place of his coach, John Thompson Jr., a giant among giants in the history of college basketball, lodging a Big East championship 49 years to the day Thompson was first hired by Georgetown. The 6’10 Thompson, who the 7-foot Ewing still looks up to today, died in August. He convinced Ewing to come to Georgetown in 1981. He convinced him to return again in 2017 to helm a program far removed from its glory days. These days, Ewing’s knees require ice after 40 minutes of pacing up and down the court, and Georgetown is no powerhouse, limping into the Big East tournament with a 7-9 conference record and the 8-seed. And yet:
“We’re on our way to the Big Dance,” Ewing said triumphantly in his post-game interview with Fox Sports. “If my knees weren’t hurting, I’d be out here doing a dance.”
What would Coach Thompson say, one host asks, if he could see his pupil today? A black coach in a sport that somehow manages to hire less of them with each passing year. A 7-footer in a league where that makes you a star until you retire and then assumes you’re all brawn and no brain, a reputation Ewing has been unfairly maligned with since racist Boston fans slandered him as an illiterate when he chose Georgetown over a local school. What would Coach Thompson think if he could see Ewing today?
“Boy, you shut them up.”