I believe the team most responsible for the rise of the popularity of college basketball was the Georgetown Hoyas during the Patrick Ewing era. This perspective is not widely shared (though I’ve come across a like-minded soul – even reminded me of the kente-cloth uni’s they used to rock back in the day). In fact, there are substantial reasons to look elsewhere. The media likes to highlight the championship game between Magic and Bird as the tipping point for the eruption of the sport – and there may be some truth to that. The ratings for that game were the highest for years. Both players went on to tremendous professional careers and both redefined the game for at least a decade. But, they did not redefine the college game and there were no second acts to that 1979 championship – at least not until 1985.
The two seasons following the epic battle between Magic and Bird have never been accorded the respect of the year which I believe began the post-modern era of NCAA basketball. In 1979, the national championship was played in Provo, Utah. The tournament was still a backwater event with great appeal to hoop junkies and scouts. And while the popularity of the game grew in increments, who can recall that the next season featured a championship game pitting one-time John Wooden assistant, Denny Crum of the Louisville Cardinals against the UCLA Bruins? Folks may remember Dr. Dunkenstein (Louisville high flying Darrell Griffith) and they may remember Kiki Vandewheghe, but that would be about it. Who ran alongside Griffith? Hmm – Jerry Eaves. Damn skippy. What ever happened to Darren Daye? Don’t know. What about Poncho Wright? Damn, that’s just diggin’ in the Louisville crates.
1980 was not the year. It tipped off a decade-long love affair for me, though. As a young fella, I absolutely loved the Cardinals style of play. Over the years, the cast would include players like Rodney and Scooter McCray, Derek Smith, Milt Wagner, Lancaster Gordon, Billy Thompson, LaBradford Smith, Never Nervous Pervis Ellison, Jeff Hall, Wiley Brown, and many others. The Cardinals also played in what was perhaps the most electrifying game I’ve ever seen – their epic 1983 battle against the Cougars of the University of Houston…remember Alvin Franklin, Reid Gettys, Larry Micheaux, Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon, and Bennie Anders – oooooh, damn!! (If Billy Thompson hadn’t missed that dunk, Louisville would’ve won – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) As great a team as the Cardinals were (winning two national championships in the decade – ’80 and ’86), they were not a team that energized the nation and brought college basketball into millions of homes.
In 1981, the Indiana Hoosiers of Bob Knight were led by phenom Isiah Thomas. They won the national championship in a season that is rarely recalled or discussed for any of its signature moments. And, the big game still was not played under the brightest of lights. The Spectrum in Philadelphia was a step up from Provo, but it was not comparable to the locale that would host the championship game the next year.
During Louisville’s championship run and the following season, I began to catch glimpses of two dynamic scoring guards and a team which played a brand of defense I’d never seen before. This team was tougher than those fabled Indiana squads. They were quicker, stronger and just as tenacious. Those two scorers were John Duren and Eric Floyd. They attended Georgetown University. Their coach was John Thompson, Jr.
“Big John,” as the 6-10 coach was affectionately known, was the first Black coach I remember from my youth. I became an instant Hoya fan. I had begun to cultivate some affection for North Carolina because I loved the baby blue uniforms and because Sam Perkins and James Worthy were all of that and more. That freshman who would eventually cop a shoe deal was an unknown commodity at the time. Carolina was great fun to watch…Worthy’s spin moves and flashes on the baseline were a thing of unmatched beauty (and still, no one rocks the baseline like that cat did)…and Perkins’ game was smooth enough to make a grown man cry. Everything looks so easy for him.
In 1982, things changed. Up in Boston, at Rindge and Latin High had enrolled a 7-foot “yute mahn” from the isle of Jamaica. When Patrick Ewing left his preppy-environment in Boston, I was just entering one in Pennsylvania. When Ewing arrived at Georgetown amid rumors of an inferior intellect and a demonic character, my hopes for his success caused me to cast Carolina to the wind. I was done…
“The sophomore season of 7-ft. Georgetown Center Patrick Ewing has been a mean slide back to the hard times of Jackie Robinson. Signs along the way: at Providence College, EWING CAN’T READ; at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, THINK EWING! THINK!; in Philadelphia’s Palestra, EWING IS AN APE. When Ewing was introduced there someone in the crowd tossed a banana peel onto the court. T shirts and buttons have been manufactured bearing the slogan: EWING KANT READ DIS, which is also a recurring chant at the games. Not surprisingly, Patrick Ewing, 20, has had a few fights this year. Racism is not surprising. It pervade sports and life. But the overtness of ape banners and bananas on the floor is chilling. ” (Source: Time Magazine, March 14, 1983)
Patrick went to play for Big John – and for me , it was absolutely on! G’town was my squad, Sun. I wasn’t the only one who was excited. The entire nation was in an uproar. Black folk were absolutely feeling the Hoyas. Some were slow to part with their previous favorites. In the city, folks still had to rep St. Johns and Syracuse…shiiiit Pearl was at the ‘Cuse and straight doin’ ’em. St. John’s would eventually bring in Walter Berry – but the legacy of great players like Chris Mullin and so many others was deeply embedded. This wasn’t just a local thing, either. Plenty of New Yorkers were down with UNLV (more on that later, too). Jerry Tarkanian had brought many NYC ballers to the desert like Richie Adams and Moses Scurry and many others. Louisville had the McCray brothers. North Carolina had The Pipeline. Sam Perkins was from New York…Kenny Smith was from New York…it went on and on for decades. Jimmy V, formerly of New York’s Iona College (think Steve Burtt and Jeff Ruland and Gary Springer) was at NC State. Bobby Cremins was reaching into the city for ballers like Bruce Dalrymple, John Salley, Kenny Anderson and later Stephon Marbury. So, wherever you looked in the city, some kid was repping some program because he had a connection with a player (family member, friend, neighbor), the uniform (Carolina still on my mind), the style of play (Louisville, Houston, Syracuse) or some other reason.
I decided I was rolling with John and the Hoyas. The American public was also fascinated with the Hoyas – but in a different way. For much of the year, the talent level in the Big East was so great that its epic battles were nightly features on a young ESPN and an older, more established CNN with Nick Charles, Fred Hickman and later Van Earl Wright. For the first time in my young memory, Georgetown made highlights with defense. Ewing’s prowess as a shot blocker hadn’t been seen in the Northeast in years – not since Russell…and that is the player with whom he was most often compared. Ewing became the defensive leader of a team whose offensive leader, “Sleepy” Floyd, was as talented as any other scorer in the nation. Floyd would go on to have an excellent NBA career, highlighted by his singular torching of the Los Angeles Lakers for 29 points in a single quarter. (Word is Michael Cooper still gets night sweats whenever someone says the word “Sleepy” after 9 p.m.)
The 1982 version of the Hoyas were magnificent. Floyd played at the two. The starting point guard was Freddie Brown (still my man). The backup point guard, Gene Smith, was a defensive wizard (arguably as solid on the perimeter as Ewing was on the baseline). Smith’s nemesis, though, was Brooklyn’s Pearl Washington. Gene must have done something to Pearl in a previous life because it seems like all of Pearl’s greatest highlights are against Georgetown. At the 3/4 was Eric Smith…a smooth, versatile forward with a nice floor game. At the 4 was Patrick’s partner in crime, Ed Spriggs. Later Spriggs would be supplanted at the 4 by Ralph Dalton. Ralph was proto-Oakley, Charles Oakley. If you watched the Knicks during the 1980’s – you could always see Ralph at the game behind the Knicks bench in suit and tie after a hard days work of plowing cash on Wall Street. There was baseline jump shooting ace Billy Martin…there was backup Mike Hancock…and there was eventual UNLV transfer A.J., Anthony Jones.
Along the path to the national championship, played in the New Orleans SuperDome, this team was demonized. The Hoyas were physical, but not deemed gritty like Knight’s Hoosiers. They sought to intimidate opponents, but were not considered smart as later Duke teams would be. The Hoyas were a lot of things to a lot of people…they were more than a basketball team…they were a walking, talking, running, passing, dunking, blocking, rebounding, intimidating discussion on race.
If you were “white” and didn’t go to Georgetown (which very few people did or even desired to do before Patrick Ewing matriculated there), you were likely to fear this team. If you attended a Big East school, you couldn’t believe that your beloved Eagles or Orange or Redmen were being trounced and punked off the court in their own building – and you couldn’t believe you were just as scared as the players. You’d never seen anything like it. Your parents had never seen anything like it. Your grandparents had never seen anything like it.
But way, way back…in 1866, there was something a great deal like the emergence of the Hoyas – it was Reconstruction. Lawd, have mercy…Reconstruction. And while that’s a topic for another day, John did what many of today’s athletes need to do. He ordered the media to back up – to get away from the children he was charged with protecting from vile and contemptible insults based on bio-illogical imaginings. He protected his charges by scripting and limiting the access of the media. That brilliant action was called Hoya Paranoia.
Time Magazine on Media Relations – March 14, 1983.
“Neither does he answer questions very often. In the manner of U.C.L.A. Coach John Wooden (my emphasis), whose players frequently needed postgraduate work in smiling, Thompson has sheltered his star from the public and press. “I’m not going to make Patrick talk to someone if he doesn’t want to,” Thompson says, “and usually he doesn’t want to.” Though just a few words from Ewing might lower the banners, Thompson wonders, “Should it be up to him? We’ve received letters from people trying to rationalize the abuse, to justify it. ‘He should get used to it,’ they say. ‘It comes with the territory.’ Do we want a young kid to get used to this?”
Given all that has occurred in the intervening years between athletes and an overzealous media, Thompson’s move was a master stroke. Georgetown players were subjected to a great many racial taunts and threats during their playing days. The same degree of animus was never part of the 1980’s experience at Louisville or Mississippi or Florida or even Indiana (great bastion of white supremacy that it is). Hardly. The greatest venom was reserved for those Blacks with a Black leader who put the national media and college referees in their place. John advocated for the success of his players on the court and off – and for that he was reviled for more than two decades.
It was precisely that ethos of tough love, which the media could recognize and adore in a vicious Bobby Knight, that they could not tolerate in Big John. At a time when Ronald Reagan mis-led the nation (October Surprise and all), Americans spoke clearly that they were fed up with the excesses of 1 decade of attempting statutory equality…they demanded a swift return to the previous 37 decades of legal white supremacy. Reagan did his best to oblige. Indeed, the emergence of the Georgetown Hoyas under John Thompson and Patrick Ewing was the Birth of a Nation – and it was just as ugly as when D.W. Griffith went to work a century ago. The Hoyas emergence on the national stage punctuated the contradictions before the American public in the arenas of leadership, excellence, integrity, and character. While the leaders in the White House were busy negotiating lives for guns and paving the foundation for major narco-trafficking between Colombia and the American West, these young Black men were attending a prestigious academic institution (putting it on the map for many – applications increased dramatically between 1982 and 1985), winning on the court, graduating, and largely going on to productive lives which were not contingent on NBA success. And for those who did aspire to play professionally, they’ve been some of the greatest players in the history of the game: Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning. Mutombo and Mourning have distinguished themselves in other ways.
America and the media were wrong about the Hoyas and John Thompson. It’s too bad folks didn’t listen to the parents of young men who desperately wanted their children to be able to learn under Coach Thompson. They wanted what he learned and who he became (as a friend and understudy to Bill Russell; as an architect of successful programs; as a teacher; as a man with the capacity to captivate a crowd with his words as well as his patience) to rub off on their children…and to shape them as responsible men in the world. Thompson’s teams won the championship in 1984 over the Houston Cougars, but lost what were arguably the two most memorable games of the past 30 years – the 1982 final to North Carolina and the 1985 final to Villanova. The fact of the matter is that life is not about winning – it’s about preparing to win (and all that follows from winning), competing and being the best that you can be. The Hoyas always gave their best…they always competed…and they were always prepared to win.
And they reshaped the game in small and large ways. Georgetown’s tenacious pressing defense, while not the first iteration, may have been the best (UCLA in front of Jabbar and Walton share the top rung; kudos to Crum’s pressing big guards Gordon and Wagner; Vegas’ Amoeba ala Augmon and Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell). It provided a blueprint for Big East-bred competitors like Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan. Thompson’s teams created the free throw huddle to discuss strategy during “down time.” It must still be inconceivable to so many people that these “obviously ignorant Africans” could develop a tactical approach to this game that is still used today. It’s done in the NBA…it’s done in the NCAA…it’s done at AAU. In fact, it’s down right peculiar to see a team eschew the huddle after a defensive foul. It makes you wonder about their team chemistry. Patrick Ewing was the first player to don the T-shirt under this jersey. Players are still doing it. Last year’s third overall pick in the draft does it. The Hoyas style of play resulted in Big East officials adding a sixth foul to games. And there have been other contributions of more or less import, but the fact remains – the Hoyas were right on time.
I made the right decision in 1982.