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Big challenges await Patrick Ewing as he tries to jump-start alma mater

Hall of Famer and ex-Hoyas star tabbed to revive one of nation's most dominant college basketball programs

David Aldridge

David Aldridge TNT Analyst

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Apr 10, 2017 1:01 PM ET

Patrick Ewing spent more than 10 years as an NBA assistant coach.

Can Patrick Ewing make it work again at Georgetown?

It’s the stuff of an Irwin Shaw novel.

There they were, last Wednesday, well after the crowds had left and the reporters had dispersed, up on the practice court at Georgetown University: Ewing, the new coach, and his son, Patrick, Jr., who was the director of basketball operations for the former coach, John Thompson, III, who is the son of the legendary patriarch of the program, John Thompson, Jr., who was also sitting by the practice court, in the building that bears his name, and who is the father of the former coach -- whose brother, Ron, was helping Patrick Sr. go through all the calls he had to return, while Patrick, Jr., played on the court with his young son.

If you didn’t understand the history, it could be confusing. But anyone who knows it wasn’t surprised at all.

The modern history of Georgetown basketball has had Thompsons and Ewings intertwined about it for decades, and it will go on that way for a while, with Patrick, Sr., finally getting the coaching job he’d waited a decade for in the NBA that never came.

It is a tall task for the tall man, who took the Hoyas to three national championship games in four years in the early 1980s, and put the small, Catholic university on the map nationally to basketball fans, who cared not for the Nobel Prize winners and Supreme Court justices and NFL commissioners -- Ewing having broken the school’s rebounding record in 1985, previously held by a guy named Paul Tagliabue -- that had gone there.

“If it was any other university, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Ewing said at his introductory news conference last week. “But it’s my alma mater. It’s Georgetown. I’m a Hoya. I just thought it was a great opportunity to come back and try to rebuild the program.”

Ewing will have his plate full just getting up to speed on recruiting particulars. An offhand comment during a radio interview that he wanted former Hoya and Hall of Famer Allen Iverson to speak with a potential recruit would, if followed through, be an NCAA violation.

Ewing came back to the Hilltop after three-plus decades in the NBA as a player and coach. As an 11-time All-Star, Ewing was one of the best jump-shooting bigs in history, making the Knicks into a legit title contender in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s under coach Pat Riley. After his retirement as a player in 2002, Ewing immediately went to the bench, where he worked for some of the league’s best coaches over more than a decade: Doug Collins with the Washington Wizards, Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic, Jeff Van Gundy with the Houston Rockets and, most recently, with Steve Clifford on the Charlotte Hornets.

1:19

Patrick Ewing was one of the greatest ever to suit up for the New York Knicks.

As he began coaching, Ewing made it clear to anyone who’d listen: he planned to be an NBA coach someday. And, after a few years on the bench, he thought he was ready. He didn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed, as so many big men are who go into coaching, as simply a “big man” coach who worked out with centers and power forwards.

He did all the scut work that any young assistant gets. And he moved up the ladder; he was Clifford’s associate head coach in Charlotte the last three seasons. Still, the NBA call never came; Ewing only got a handful of coaching job interviews over the years, most recently last summer in Sacramento before the Kings hired ex-Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger.

“His greatest strengths will be his work ethic, his focus on what it takes to win (he won't get too up or down just focused on what needs to be done), his presence with players and he will be demanding of himself, his staff and his players,” Stan Van Gundy said in a text Saturday. “Pat is never distracted. He won't worry about what people on the outside will think of him. He will do what is best for the program at all times. It will never be about him -- it will always be about the team and the program as it always has been with him. He will engender incredible loyalty from his staff and players as he has everywhere he has been. As a result he will get great commitment.”

Ewing was not to the basketball manor born. He made himself into a Hall of Famer, setting the standard for Georgetown big men to come back to the Hilltop every summer to do grueling workouts together. He brought the same lunch pail ethic to coaching that he did to playing.

“People don’t realize, working for the Van Gundys is a great thing and a great experience, but you’re going to do it the right way,” Clifford said last week. “It’s early in the morning and it’s late at night, and he’s there every day. It’s who he is … I go back to, it was a few stops ago, when Jeff called him in Houston, and said ‘do you want to come and coach with us?’ And Patrick’s answer was, ‘I’ll come and coach, but I want to do everything that Tom (Thibodeau) does, everything that Steve does. I don’t want to just come and work guys out. I want to be doing everything.’ ”

So, Ewing did. He coached Stan Van Gundy’s Summer League teams in Orlando, and Jeff Van Gundy’s Summer League teams in Houston. He did film breakdowns and the scouts for upcoming opponents. He coached guards as well as big men.

“I’m sure a lot of these young boys don’t know who he was. They better start doing their research. Especially as a big. If I’m a big and I’m a young kid, I want to play for Patrick Ewing.”

Hornets guard Kemba Walker, on former assistant coach Patrick Ewing

“He helped me a lot,” said Hornets All-Star guard Kemba Walker. “Moreso motivational stuff, teaching me how to play through fatigue, play through mistakes, play through not having a great game. If I’m not scoring, he’s always the guy pulling me to the side, telling me to just keep being aggressive, it’s a long game. Small things like that, which helps a lot, especially coming from one of the greatest players to play the game.”

Being from the Bronx, Walker obviously knew of Ewing’s exploits with the Knicks. But he’s 26. He saw Ewing’s best days in New York. That’s not the case for the recruits he’ll now be chasing.

“I’m sure a lot of these young boys don’t know who he was,” Walker said. “They better start doing their research. Especially as a big. If I’m a big and I’m a young kid, I want to play for Patrick Ewing.”

But that’s the $1.7 million question -- $1.7 million being what each conference received this season for every game one of its teams played in the NCAA Tournament. Georgetown had missed the NCAA Tournament two years in a row under JTIII (no disrespect meant to John Thompson, III, but it’s just easier to type), who’d taken the Hoyas to the Final Four in his third season, 2006-07, but never got past the round of 32 with his last six NCAA teams.

Why that happened depends on with whom you speak.

To be sure, part of the problem was JTIII’s use of the Princeton offense, which he learned from the Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril while playing for him there. In an era where the dribble-drive and other ballhandling systems are what young guys like to play -- and, as schools like Kentucky argue, are what get you to the NBA -- it was easy to negative recruit Georgetown.

Ewing says he wants to play a frenetic up-and-down style reminiscent of his days at Gerogetown.

While “Big John” had pipelines all over the country for talent, he also got great players from the D.C. area. His earliest good teams were full of local talent, like John Duren and Craig Shelton and Bill Martin, all from the D.C. public schools. Throughout his years there, he kept the flow going: Mark Tillmon from Gonzaga, Michael Jackson from South Lakes, Charles Smith from All Saints, and got difference-makers from nearby Dunbar of Baltimore -- including Reggie Williams and David Wingate.

But neither Craig Esherick, who succeeded Big John, or JTIII were as successful keeping D.C. talent home.

Georgetown lost to St. John's in the opening round of the 2017 Big East Tournament.

JTIII didn’t strike out completely locally. He recruited Austin Freeman from local powerhouse DeMatha in 2007, and that was a huge deal -- for almost 40 years, Georgetown had next to no relationship with DeMatha, which dominated D.C.’s Washington Catholic Athletic Conference for a generation and is still a conference power. (Full disclosure: I attended DeMatha, the most successful high school in the history of the United States -- not that I’m biased or anything.)

The cold war stemmed from a decades-long feud between Thompson, Jr., and DeMatha’s longtime former head coach, Morgan Wootten -- like Big John, also in the Naismith Hall of Fame, with the second-most victories in the history of boys’ high school basketball, 1,274. (The record for wins, 1,333, is held by Robert Hughes, who coached at Terrell and Dunbar High Schools in Fort Worth, TX, and was also elected this month to the Hall of Fame.)

DeMatha has sent 17 players to the NBA, including Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, along with longtime NBA players like Danny Ferry, Keith Bogans, Kenny Carr and Adrian Branch. Currently, three DeMatha players are in the NBA: the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Victor Oladipo and Jerami Grant, and the Chicago Bulls’ Jerian Grant. And there’s every chance that former DeMatha star Markelle Fultz, who played one year at the University of Washington, will be the first pick overall in the Draft in June.

And most of the elite D.C. players have gone elsewhere.

Sources with knowledge of the D.C. basketball scene say that Ewing’s challenge in this area is twofold. First, Georgetown has not cultivated relationships with the local AAU powerbrokers that hold immense sway over the top players. Today, the top program in D.C. is Team Takeover, which counts among its NBA alumni Oladipo, the Grant Brothers and the Kings’ 2016 first-round pick, Georgios Papagiannis.

“You’ve got to appear a little more approachable and accessible,” said a source with no dog in the fight, but who knows all the parties involved. “The AAU guys have to at least feel welcome. You’ve got to leave ticket for them for the games.”

To be fair, JTIII’s last team had two Team Takeover alums: forward Marcus Derrickson, from Paul VI, which has become one of the top basketball programs in the WCAC, and guard guard Tre Campbell, who also played in the WCAC at St. John’s. So things may have been changing. But consider what Team Takeover founder and coach Keith Stevens told the New York Times’ columnist Juliet Macur after Ewing’s press conference: “I’m not going to call (Ewing). But I think he’ll call me.”

Second, there’s what another source calls “the elephant in the room” -- the connection of longtime agent David Falk to the Georgetown program.

Falk, one of the biggest power brokers in the agent business, was Big John’s longtime agent and attorney. And Falk has subsequently represented just about every Georgetown player that has come out of the school to the NBA: Ewing, Reggie Williams, David Wingate, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Allen Iverson, Jeff Green, Greg Monroe, Roy Hibbert and, most recently, Otto Porter -- who’s in line for a big payday this summer, likely from his current team, the Wizards, after a breakthrough season entering restricted free agency. Other agents have chafed for years at the closed-door policy. So do the AAU guys -- who then tend to persuade their players to go elsewhere. It is instructive that Porter, Green and Hibbert were not much involved with the local AAU scene, either in Haywood City, Mo. (where Porter is from) or D.C. (Green and Hibbert).

“There’s been a big wedge there,” the second source said. “You’ve got to get rid of that notion that you’re going to be a rubber stamp.”

It’s hard to see that happening. After all, Ewing and Falk teamed up a couple of years ago to donate $3.3 million toward construction of the new Georgetown practice facility -- formally called the John R. Thompson, Jr., Intercollegiate Athletics Center. To think Big John will have no sway or influence over Ewing, whom he considers another son in practice if not reality, is naïve. Really: do you think Dean Smith just packed up his memories and left North Carolina after he retired?

Whatever Falk’s future role with the school, Ewing will first have to hire a first-rate staff. Most everyone thinks that should, first and foremost, include an eminence grise former college head coach who can counsel Ewing on and off the bench as he learns the ropes. And Ewing will also need a major-league recruiter who knows the D.C. scene. But the best will be almost impossible to dislodge from their current jobs -- like Kenny Johnson, the former Takeover coach who is now the associate head coach for Rick Pitino at Louisville.

Ewing knows he has work to do with everyone -- most importantly, with the teenage recruits he has to start wooing who probably never saw him play live. “Maybe they know me from Space Jam,” he joked Wednesday, referring to the Michael Jordan movie of the mid-90s featuring Bill Murray, Charles Barkley and other NBA stars whose “powers” were temporarily taken away by villainous cartoon characters.

But the support system is in place. All Ewing ever wanted was a shot. Now he has it. And Ewing’s supporters have no doubt he will succeed.

“I don't think anything about being a head coach will surprise him,” Stan Van Gundy said in the text. “He is certainly used to the pressure and he is totally ready as a coach. The adjustment will be recruiting. That's the challenge that will determine his success. He will do a great job coaching!”

Your Questions (And DA's Answers)

Does a pair beat one of a kind? From Roger Urbina:

 If the Kings’ 2 picks land in the 6-10 range, would it be a good idea to package them to the Celtics (if they get the 1st pick) to draft a MarkelleFultz or Lonzo Ball? Or should they keep them and just collect assets. They have them getting De'Aaron Fox and Jonathan Issac in mock drafts right now. Fox destroyed UCLA, but UCLA was never a defensive team and Fox can't shoot.

Can’t see Boston being interested, Roger. Now that Brooklyn’s locked up the worst record this season, the Celtics have the best chance possible to get one of those top three picks. And from everyone I’ve spoken with, Danny Ainge badly wants that opportunity to take a generational, foundational kind of player. And all the signs point to, as you hinted in your trade scenario, that that guy will either be Fultz or Ball. As for your guys, with two potential top 10 picks, it will be franchise malpractice if the Kings don’t come out of this Draft with an elite point guard prospect, one way or the other. Whether that’s De’Aaron Fox or one of the other top guys, Sacramento must -- must -- get one of them.

If he stays in the NBA Draft, De'Aaron Fox may be a player on the Kings' radar.

First time, long time. From Dave Miritello:

As a Knick fan accepting failure is one thing but I'm now at a point where I expect failure in all aspects of the business. Retrospectively I view the Kristaps Porizingis pick as a lucky snag.... because if that Jahlil Okafor falls my gut says Phil wouldn't have made the same decision. With that being said who is the gem that may fall to the #6 pick that I should be hoping for REALISTICALLY?

Any number of quality guys could be there, Dave. Malik Monk, maybe, to take over at the two or at least be the heir apparent to Courtney Lee. Maybe Fox (see above) or Dennis Smith to play point guard, create havoc and get the ball to the Unicorn or Carmelo (if he’s still on the roster on opening night). I’d be surprised if Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum were still there at six, but you never know -- things happen on Draft night every year that surprise. I do believe the Knicks will add a quality player if they stay at six.

The most beloved German tradition since Oktoberfest. From Matt Buscher:

…We recently witnessed Dirk joining the 30k points club, one of the most exclusive in the game of Basketball. Since Dirk is not really the typical star player, meaning he's not getting (and is not interested in) as much TV/media coverage as his peers, not doing many endorsements etc., how respected is he among NBA players and fellow superstars? I've been following the NBA for 20 years now and I get the feeling he's more seen as some kind of freak of nature or "accidental superstar" since TV or media coverage contributes so much to stardom these days compared to pure work ethic or achievements on the court and he's just keeping it very low with the whole "building a brand" thing. What's your opinion?
Au contraire, Matt. Dirk is one of the most respected, realest guys in the Association. Guys respect game. And Dirk was one of the most feared offensive weapons in the game for more than a decade. Everyone knew exactly where he’d be, and exactly how Dallas would get him the ball. But, like Paul Pierce, it didn’t matter. "The Diggler's" footwork and release were so pure, you couldn’t stop it, anyway. And the fact that Dirk never was a “look at me” guy earned him plaudits from his peers.

3:37

The Starters take a look back at some of Dirk Nowitzki's funniest moments.

Let’s be honest -- the NBA doesn’t have a lot of white superstars. Dirk could have very easily parlayed his status into a lot of endorsements and commercials that would have been available to him. He never went that route. In fact, he went out of his way not to emphasize skin color. (He’s always talked about how important Michael Finley was to his career as well as Steve Nash, for example.) Plus, like all the greats, he didn’t take shortcuts; to your point, he earned it every season by what he did training in Germany in the offseason, and he tried to improve as a rebounder and defensive player throughout his career. Dirk has everyone’s legit admiration for how he’s gone about things.

 Send your questions, comments and other wildly creative Lego uses todaldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)

1) Russell Westbrook (32.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 10.3 apg, .436 FG, .912 FT): Finishing up strong, wouldn’t you say?

2) James Harden (33 ppg, 9 rpg, 12.3 apg, .409 FG, .829 FT): The wrist injury has impacted "The Beard’s" shooting of late, but he insists on playing through it.

3) LeBron James (28.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.5 apg, .611 FG, .759 FT): Forty-seven minutes in the OT loss in Atlanta Sunday. Forty-one minutes last Friday. Thirty-eight minutes last Wednesday. I just don’t know how he can keep this up.

4) Kawhi Leonard (23.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4 apg, .490 FG, .833 FT): Update: almost three years after joining Twitter, Leonard has sent out exactly three Tweets, and re-Tweeted something else.

5) Kevin Durant (16 ppg, 10 rpg, 6 apg, .400 FG, 1.000 FT): Looked a little rusty, as you’d expect, in his first game back Saturday after missing nearly six weeks with a knee injury.

BY THE NUMBERS

447 -- Consecutive games played by the Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson before missing last Wednesday’s game in Boston with a thumb injury, ending the league’s longest current consecutive games played streak.

$4,000,000 -- Settlement amount received by the Hawks’ Thabo Sefolosha from the city of New York to end his federal lawsuit against five NYC police officers accused of false arrest and excessive force during a 2015 incident outside a nightclub in which Sefolosha’s leg was broken. As part of the settlement, neither the police officers nor the city admitted any wrongdoing. Sefolosha was arrested and had his right fibula broken after encountering several officers outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police maintain he was threatening and beligerant; Sefolosha said he was accosted for no reason after trying to help a man he thought was homeless who was nearby. A jury acquitted Sefolosha of all charges following an October, 2015 trial; he filed suit against the city and police in April of last year.

9 -- Occasions in Trail Blazers history when a player has scored 50 or more points in a regular season game, per nbahoopsonline.com. Damian Lillard’s franchise-record 59 points in Portland’s victory Saturday over Utah marked the ninth time it’s happened. Six players have done it for the Blazers: Lillard (now twice in his career), Geoff Petrie (twice), Damon Stoudemire (who held the previous franchise record of 54 points in a game), Clyde Drexler, Brandon Roy, and ... you probably have forgotten, because it was so random and unexpected: The Professor! Andre Miller! Yes, he scored 52 points for Portland in an overtime win against Dallas in 2010.

I’M FEELIN' ...

1) I’m not trying to cause trouble. But, given how dominant the Warriors have looked the last two weeks despite Kevin Durant being sidelined, should Steve Kerr at least give some thought to bringing KD off the bench in the playoffs? I mean, can you imagine a unit of KD, Andre Iguodala, Shawn Livingston and David West coming off behind the Splash Brothers? Of course it’s crazy; Durant was back in the starting lineup Saturday upon his return, to no one’s surprise. Just a thought. Thank me later -- at the parade.

2) Of course it would benefit the Lakers more in the long run if they lost as many games as possible this season, to better their chances of a top three pick in the Draft via the Lottery. But good for them for continuing to win games even if it harms their future plans. I can never kill someone for trying to win. Ever.

3) Respect to Allen Iverson for having a sense of humor and rolling with the punches, though few have bothered over the years to find out what caused AI’s original “practice” rant.

4) Not a huge golf fan. But it was cool to watch Sergio Garcia win his first major in a playoff Sunday at the Masters, after so many years of coming up short.

NOT FEELIN’…

1) Jerry West, you’re The Logo. There isn’t a more iconic one in all of sports -- or, for my money, in all of corporate America. And that’s all I have to say about that.

2) Adios, Palace of Auburn Hills. You were one fine NBA venue for a very, very long time.

4:03

Isiah Thomas reflects on what made The Palace of Auburn Hills such a great venue.

3) Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan had a very difficult task coming in, and he’s significantly improved the team’s young talent level. But Orlando’s (again) disappointing season is going to fall on someone’s shoulders, and the rumblings about the Magic’s desire to shake up the front office have been persistent for weeks. If -- if -- that happens, ownership should think long and hard about a candidate who’s already in house and has deserved a shot at running his own shop for years -- assistant GM Scott Perry, who helped build the Pistons’ teams in Detroit with Joe Dumars that won a ring in 2004 and made six straight Eastern Conference finals. By way of comparison, after the Cavaliers fired Chris Grant as their GM in 2014, a lot of people around the league expected the Cavs to look for a “name.” They instead gave the gig to David Griffin, their assistant GM at the time. The record would show Griffin has done pretty well for himself and the franchise. (It no doubt helped Griffin significantly that a certain Akron-born talent came available that summer in free agency and was looking to come home.) Again, no one with any compassion roots for anyone to lose their job. But if change is coming, the Magic has a guy who can do the job in its building right now.

4) I started to read this, but fell asleep at noon with half a pecan pie in my mouth.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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