- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2021

When Patrick Ewing was a student at Georgetown, he learned all about Aristotle. His professors would share the teachings of the ancient Greek, including the philosopher’s musings on the virtues of patience.

That particular message didn’t resonate much with Ewing. Then or now. 

“I don’t really have patience,” the Georgetown coach said with a smile. 

Ewing, though, has had to do plenty of waiting. When the No.12-seeded Hoyas face the No. 5-seeded Colorado on Saturday in the NCAA tournament, it will be Ewing’s first tournament appearance as a coach in four seasons at the helm.

The first three years weren’t easy: Losses piled up, players transferred in bunches. Before this year, Ewing had just one winning season, a 19-17 record in 2018-19 that resulted in an NIT bid.

But Ewing’s patience was tested long before accepting the Georgetown job in 2017. For years, he toiled away in the NBA as an assistant, climbing from the bottom of the coaching ladder to become associate coach of the Charlotte Hornets

As he rose through the ranks, he interviewed for a number of head coaching jobs in the NBA, though he was passed over each time. 

Ewing said he tried to learn from each rejection. But the process was frustrating to Ewing and those close to him, who felt the Hall of Fame center was deserving of an opportunity.

“There’s an unfair stigma about big guys — I think we see teams when it’s ex-players, they turn to Jason Kidd and Steve Nash and guys who’ve been point guards with no coaching experience,” said New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy, who had Ewing on his staff in Orlando. “Patrick was in there working at, and working at coaching, getting better in every aspect of it. … Thankfully, Georgetown gave him an opportunity to show what he can do as a head coach.

“And if you watch them play, there’s no question the guy can really, really coach.” 

Georgetown’s unexpected run to earn a spot in the tournament is the strongest indicator that Van Gundy is right. Before winning the Big East with a blowout win over Creighton, Georgetown (13-12) smacked Marquette and upset Villanova and Seton Hall. The Hoyas also rattled off six of nine wins after a four-game pause in the middle of the season, a streak in which Georgetown improved dramatically on the defensive end. 

It was in that coronavirus outbreak pause that Ewing might have made his biggest move. With players quarantined and isolated, senior Jamorko Pickett said Ewing spoke to every player over the phone to find out what had gone wrong during their 3-8 start. 

Ewing implemented the feedback and “really got on us” when play resumed, Pickett said.

“It’s exactly what we needed,” Pickett said.

Ask Ewing if he ever imagined being a coach during his playing days, he’ll laugh. Ewing said he “never” wanted to coach, but that changed in Ewing’s final season in the NBA when friend and rival Michael Jordan — then running the Washington Wizards — convinced Ewing to join the franchise as a developmental coach for the following year. 

If he didn’t like the role, Ewing said Jordan told him he could be moved to the front office and try that. 

No change was necessary: “I fell in love with coaching,” Ewing said. 

In some ways, Georgetown is perfect for Ewing. The 58-year-old isn’t just the icon returning to the program where he won a national championship in 1984. He’s come back to a place where the late coach John Thompson Jr. was his mentor. 

When Thompson died in late August, Ewing recalled how he would turn to Thompson throughout his coaching career for advice.  Thompson told him he had to have the same passion for coaching as he did for playing.

Steve Clifford saw Ewing’s enthusiasm for the job firsthand. The two worked together in Charlotte, where Ewing served as Clifford’s lead assistant. Ewing, Clifford said, has natural leadership abilities and spent “so much time” watching film — understanding why the plays were happening and putting it into a larger context. 

“He’s so prepared that he had a very good feel for where he was at,” said Clifford, now the coach of the Orlando Magic. “People also forget: He had an interview for a couple jobs just before Georgetown opened. I don’t think it was, ‘Was he going to get an NBA job?’ It was just a question of when he was going to get one.” 

In 2016, Ewing interviewed with the Sacramento Kings, but was reportedly not considered as a final candidate for the job.  Years earlier, he also met with the Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons — turned down for both. The New York Knicks, the team Ewing shined with for 15 seasons, passed on interviewing him for vacancies in 2014 and 2016 — despite Ewing publicly expressing interest. 

Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera can relate to the cycle. Before the Carolina Panthers hired him in 2011, Rivera notably interviewed with eight teams from 2006 to 2009. Rivera said, like Ewing, he wasn’t discouraged by the rejection because he had confidence in his ability to coach. “You’ve got to believe you’re a great coach,” he said. “And I believe he does.” 

Rivera and Ewing became friends in Charlotte when Rivera and his wife Stephanie would attend Hornets’ games.  The two bonded over the details of coaching and Rivera said he got a chance to “pick his brain.” 

On Monday, Rivera said he talked with Ewing and congratulated him on his success.

“He said, ‘Hey, just want to do like you did, coach,” said Rivera, coming off a surprising playoff berth with Washington. “I said, ‘Well, the best thing Patrick is you’re in. After that, nobody knows.’” 

Ewing has taken the praise in stride. He said his journey has come “full circle” from playing for Georgetown in the tournament to coaching them. 

He just had to be patient. 

“All the negatives, all the nays have helped me be the best person that I am today,” Ewing said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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