Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, at Madison Square Garden was mostly unremarkable, save for the 7-foot-1 Patrick Ewing (COL ’85) on the sidelines. Donning his plaid suit, the Garden’s titan had returned home. Unlike during his 15 years playing in the Big Apple, the Hall-of- Fame center was doing everything he could to defeat his former team.
He sat on the bench advising the Charlotte Hornets, whispering game observations to Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a host of other players.
His gaze spanned the court, looking up and down for imperfections 82 games a season, searching for head coaching positions in the offseason.
Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, was remarkable for all the wrong reasons. The Georgetown men’s basketball team dropped an on-campus game at home to small conference opponent Arkansas State, 78-72. Falling to a 1-2 record at the game’s end, this loss — the second in a row for the team — was the beginning of a downward spiral.
The spiral was steep, a curvature of disappointment and underachievement, all under the furrowed brow and discontented gaze of a fan base far too maligned.
Head Coach John Thompson III was under the microscope.
Ewing, though, was in no such spiral. He followed a simple routine. Waking up for the team’s shootarounds and walkthroughs as early as 8 a.m., the former Hoya advised the Hornets’ trek toward the playoffs.
He imparted his knowledge of post play and tips to centers Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky, consulted with Head Coach Steve Clifford and bided his time — waiting for a head coaching vacancy.
Just months earlier, Ewing wanted to go home to New York. The Knicks were in need of a head coach after firing Derek Fisher and employing the services of interim coach Kurt Rambis. The fit was too good for Ewing to pass up.
“I still live in the area. If I get an opportunity for an interview, I’d be happy,” Ewing said in an interview with the New York Daily News in April 2016. “I’ve been doing this, what, 13 years now? I see people who don’t have the same amount on their resume as I do and still have gotten opportunities.”
The coaching journey had been a marathon for Ewing. He began his assistant coaching career with the Washington Wizards in 2002 and Houston Rockets in 2003, mentoring the likes of Yao Ming and Dwight Howard, before getting a chance as an associate head coach with the Hornets.
Candidates with far less experience than Ewing have been awarded NBA head coaching positions; David Fizdale had 12 years as an assistant — zero as an NBA player — before taking over the Memphis Grizzlies and leading them to a 43-39 record in his first year. The aforementioned Fisher had zero years of head coaching experience. Jason Kidd, head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, had an equally storied career as Ewing but possessed no formal coaching background. Luke Walton, head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, spent five years as an assistant after 10 seasons as a serviceable rotation player.
None matched Ewing’s storied NBA career, experience on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team and 13-year tenure as an assistant with two Hall-of-Fame centers on his mentee list.
Ewing was passed over for the Knicks job and again in the summer for the Sacramento Kings’ and Memphis Grizzlies’ vacancies. At least he came close in Sacramento, where he would have been hired if not for Dave Joerger’s availability, according to a March 23 tweet by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.
California’s capital was as close as Ewing would get.
As committed as the big man was to coaching in the NBA, the Georgetown fan base was equally dedicated to a changing of the guard.
The Hoyas finished the season 14-18 with a 5-13 record in the Big East, the Blue and Gray’s second straight losing season. The team lost six games in a row to close the 2016-17 campaign and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
That brisk November night gave way to a spiteful McDonough Gymnasium, with “Fire Thompson” chants erupting from a disgruntled crowd dressed in Hawaiian garb, complete with leis and patterned shirts.
The chants surfaced several more times this season, but at the Verizon Center, salsa music was blasted several decibels louder to drain out the displeased fans.
Articles in The Hoya, as well as several discussions on ESPN and CBS, pushed the narrative of Thompson’s fading future at Georgetown.
On a Thursday months after the Arkansas state game, junior forward Akoy Agau took a call during an English class. He stepped out of the room in a hurry. The buzzing of phones in the room could have saved him the scene.
Thompson’s time at Georgetown was done.
“It is with profound regret and deep appreciation that I informed John Thompson III this morning that the University will no longer be retaining his services as our head men’s basketball coach,” University President John J. DeGioia said in a statement to the media on March 23, 2017. “We will work immediately to begin a national search for a new head men’s basketball coach.”
In an interview with The Hoya on April 11, DeGioia illuminated end-of-season conversations he had with Thompson, the decision he faced and the direction the spiral would end.
“He and I began conversations at the end of the season to try to determine whether the conditions were in place, where he would be able to take the program and ensure the level of competitiveness that he and we would all expect,” DeGioia said. “It was ultimately my judgment. I determined the conditions weren’t in place here, given what had unfolded. It was with great appreciation and profound regret that we needed to make the change, but we made the change.”
Just hours after the change, Wojnarowski reported that Ewing was likely set on working toward an NBA coaching job.
“In past, Charlotte associate HC Patrick Ewing held no interest in NCAA jobs. Perhaps G’town gives him pause, but he’s been committed to NBA,” Wojnarowksi tweeted.
The pause that came was greater than even Wojnarowski, the NBA’s leading reporter, expected.
It was Wednesday, April 5, 2017, and Patrick Ewing stood at a podium in Nolan Hall at the front of the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center’s long rectangular meeting room.
The crowd was seated shoulder-to-shoulder, gray shirts emblazoned with “HOME SW33T HOME” resting on their laps. Ewing smiled as his gaze spanned the room.
“Thirty-three years after winning the NCAA National Championship, No. 33 is coming home,” DeGioia opened the press conference.
There were no banners hanging in rafters of the room, no one to post up, no mentee to whom to whisper observations. There was only a line of cameras and a crowded room of reporters and students on the edge of their seats for the first time in recent memory, staring at a man whose plaid suit was ready to stand on the sideline.
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