By Lenn Robbins
What’s worse? To be misunderstood as a teenager or to be disrespected as a man?
Sadly, one of the greatest college and professional basketball players of all time is also one of a few who can ponder that question, wounds and all.
When Patrick Ewing played for Georgetown, he became the on court, focal point of Hoya Paranoia. His reticence, not uncommon for a person from the Caribbean, was interpreted as arrogance, or worse, ignorance.
There was one game in The Garden when a St. John’s fan held up a sign that read, “Ewing Can’t Read This.” Another fan held up a banana.
In a home game early in his Knicks career, fans, expecting to see a Chamberlainesque performance, ripped apart a Ewing program insert, spewing the shreds around The Garden. Heck, at least they knew he was.
According to Ewing, who played multiple games in the World’s Most Famous Arena as a collegiate and 15 seasons as a Knick, he was accosted by security personal at this year’s Big East Conference Tournament, asking to see his credentials.
How’s about being one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History? Or more recently, the first Georgetown coach since the late, great John Thompson Sr., Ewing’s coach, to lead the Hoyas to the Big East Conference Tournament championship game?
Yes, the Hoyas, picked to finish last in the preseason poll and the No.8 seed in the tournament, advanced to Saturday night’s title by upsetting No. 5 seed Seton Hall, 66-58. The Hoyas will face Creighton, a 59-56 winner over UConn.
“It’s not about what other people think of you; it’s what you think of yourselves,” Ewing said. “And my guys think very highly of themselves and I think highly of them as well.”
There was a time when few college basketball programs were held in higher regard than Georgetown. Big John, a white towel draped over his shoulder, turned Georgetown into Big Man U. Ewing was followed Ralph Dalton who was followed by Dikembe Mutombo, who was followed by Alonzo Mourning, and on.
The Hoyas won six of the first 10 Big East Conference Tournaments and the NCAA Championship in 1984 behind Ewing. They’ve won seven league titles. Creighton, which joined the Big East in 2013, is going for its first.
“Hoya Saxa,” said Ewing. “That means something.”
It sure does.
The college basketball world was reminded of that when Big John passed away last August 30th. Big John was the John Lewis of black college basketball coaches, often getting into Good Trouble by shining the light on racial inequities.
That is the man who molded Ewing, who, along with the program’s academic queen, Mary Fenlon, helped Ewing cope with the death of his beloved mother. Fenlon told me she had never heard a human being keen as Ewing did.
Ewing never led the Knicks to a title although Lord knows he left more sweat on The Garden court than there is water in the East River. The Knicks never gave him a second star. Jordan had Pippen. Hakeem Olajuwon had Robert Horry, Otis Thorpe and Sam Cassell. Tim Duncan had David Robinson and Sean Elliott.
But Ewing literally worked his way into this city’s heart and soul. So one can only attempt to imagine the feeling of disrespect he experienced when security guards stopped him. Does Joe Biden have to show his president credential at White House check points?
“Everybody in this building should know who the hell I am,” Ewing said. “I was like, what the hell? Is this Madison Square Garden? I’m going to have to call [Garden CEO] Mr. [James] Dolan and say, ‘Jeez, is my number in the rafters or what?’”
Yes, Ewing’s No. 33 was raised to the rafters in 2003. Four years later Georgetown won its last Big East Tournament title under Thompson. Craig Esherick, Big John’s loyal lieutenant, never did it. Big John’s son, JT III, didn’t do it.
Ewing has a chance to do it. He has a chance to wake the Hoya Saxa echoes. He has a chance to become the first misunderstood teenager to lead his team to a Big East title and the first disrespected man to coach that same program to a championship.
“We’re making up for it today,” Ewing said. “And it’s not going to be just a one-time thing.”
If Ewing sounds like a man with hot rocks in his shorts these days, well, that’s Hoya Saxa for you.