Nearly 36 years after a tall, lanky freshman stepped onto the court at Georgetown University and changed college basketball forever, history repeated itself when it was announced that Hoya legend, Patrick Ewing, would be returning to his alma mater as head coach of the men’s basketball team.
Coming from Kingston, Jamaica, Patrick Aloysius Ewing ended up in Massachusetts, playing high school basketball at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. While soccer and track were the traditional sports of Jamaica, Ewing’s height led to an almost natural, yet seemingly mandatory, transition to basketball where his domination in high school had colleges salivating at the chance of signing him.
In the hunt were names such as North Carolina, Boston College and Georgetown. And while the recruiting game wasn’t as complex and financially twisted and perverted as it is now, the college recruitment of Ewing was a huge story in the world of college basketball. Discussions were had, rumors spread and schools, coaches and fans anxiously awaited his decision. Would he play for Dean Smith at UNC, stay local at BC or make a cross country trip to UCLA to play for Larry Brown.
“I’ve always thought Georgetown would be in the lead,” UCLA Coach Larry Brown said a few months before the decision. “I cant really say why, except because of my feelings for John (Georgetown Coach John Thompson), Mike and Patrick….I think this (UCLA) is a great place for him. But right from the start, I thought he’d stay close to home.”
His eventual decision to play for the Hoyas revolved around a few factors, which Ewing explained to Michael Wilbon in an interview after enrolling at the University.
“I chose Georgetown because of the opportunity it will give me to get an education and play basketball,” Ewing said.
While those two reasons are extremely important, and should be the reason why student athletes select a school (in an ideal, non-money driven, alternate world of college sports, of course), there was another major factor in Ewing’s decision which is not acknowledged enough, yet which needs to be.
The Black male role model.
According to Christian Edward Gale’s 2007 theoretical study, “by providing African American male adolescents with role models who are successful members of their own black community, and who have experienced many of the same difficulties that the adolescents are presently faced with, there is a far greater chance that the addition and presence of role models in their lives will have positive results.”
Ewing was coached in high school by Mike Jarvis, a smiling yet no nonsense Black man who would go on to have a successful college coaching career at schools such as Boston University, George Washington and St. John’s. He helped control and limit the media circus surrounding Ewing in high school, especially when the taunting became personal and racist. Jarvis helped him mentally prepare for the vicious reception he would receive at gyms in both Massachusetts and across the Big East landscape.
”You know how cruel kids can be at 11, 12, 13,” said Mike Jarvis. ”I told him that one day they’d be buying tickets to watch him play.”
Ewing dominated the high school hardwood but also remained focused on his education, thanks to his parents who placed a strong emphasis on hard work and education. Although it’s a running joke about Jamaicans having multiple jobs, there is no doubting the work ethic and belief in education instilled in the children of Jamaican parents.
I should know; my Mother outworked everyone in her profession, pursued her education and made sure those same values carried over to her sons. Sports was a distant fifth behind work, school, more work and more school.
The result of that home training and hard work for Ewing was a full ride to Georgetown, a bachelor of arts degree in fine arts, and during those four years, the opportunity to play for, and learn from, John Thompson.
Coach Thompson was a star player in high school in Washington DC and continued that success as an All-American player for Providence College. In 1972, he returned to the DC area as the head coach of the Georgetown Hoyas. Over the span of 27 years, he not only became the first African-American head coach to win a National Championship, he also, most importantly, became a father figure and mentor for so many of the young Black men who succeeded and thrived under his guidance.
His success as a role model did not solely reside in his coaching prowess or physical size. Those were secondary to the fact that Thompson could associate with the players under his tutelage; he was from an urban area, he played college basketball, he experienced racism in his career and he recognized and removed negative influences surrounding his players.
Coach Thompson was an overshadowing presence who would never be intimidated. He recruited kids that many would avoid because they were misunderstood. He worked with kids that many didn’t know how to approach. He mentored kids that many ridiculed and who others would view as a commodity instead of a boy who needed molding and guidance.
He was a strong Black male role model who remained loyal to the boys who became men. He went face-to-face with DC drug lord Rayful Edmond III when he got too close to his players. He walked off the court in protest over Prop 48.
Later on, it wasn’t uncommon to see him in the seats at MSG when Ewing played for the Knicks. He was an earlier version of Richard Williams and LaVar Ball, using his size and unapologetic nature to fight for his players and for the rights of those who he felt was being exploited – a father who kept his child close so he could help him forge his own path to success.
But when it came to Patrick Ewing, John Thompson’s presence, influence and role in his life could never be denied. It’s a manifestation of the importance, and success, of Black male role models, a factor which isn’t exemplified enough in today’s society.
“Now, more than ever,” said Dr. Shauna M. Cooper, “it is time to re-frame this discussion toward a strengths based and socially embedded perspective on African-American father involvement and engagement.”
And what better way to do that than reflect on a new head coach who can attribute much of his success to the lessons taught by the Black male role models in his life.
Ewing was coached and protected by his high school coach, Mike Jarvis. He matured, learned and grew under Thompson. And now, over 35 years after he first stepped on to Georgetown’s campus as its greatest recruit, Coach Ewing has the opportunity to return the love and life lessons learned under the watchful and protective eyes of Black role models.
There are many sayings and proverbs such as “You can’t be a man unless you see a man”, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” which describe both life and manhood.
But when it comes to Black men, sometimes it’s hard to visualize future success when you don’t see people who look like you in those positions. Sometimes Black men feel that they don’t need a mentor, because they know it all or they’re too proud or embarrassed at the thought of taking life lessons from another man.
But that’s why Black male role models are so overwhelmingly crucial. They break through the egotistical wall which sometimes hinders men of color and enables them to see life through a different lens, one which has been crafted by men who have experienced the harsh realities of life and can relate to, and communicate with, those presently going through it.
If this population is going to break free from the bonds of their past experiences, more African American male role models need to be identified and incorporated into the lives of these youth. It is important to have young black males see that success is possible, despite all the adversities that they are faced with daily. It is imperative that this type of opportunity continues to grow and be implemented in schools and institutions throughout the U.S. Without the help and support of adults to encourage, empower and to show that black males can be successful, then the concept that African American male adolescents are an endangered species will come true, and this country will be responsible for failing them. – Christian Edward Gale
On Wednesday afternoon, Patrick Ewing will officially be named as the new head coach of Georgetown University, a position once held by his mentor, John Thompson, and Thompson’s son, John Thompson III. Thompson was not afraid, or hesitant, to support those who others wouldn’t, and now Ewing has the same opportunity presented to him. It’s his turn to give back what was given to him, and as a Black male role model in an influential position, he has the responsibility to do just that so that the cycle that was started in 1981 can continue.
Hopefully he remembers the words of Booker T. Washington, who said “There are two ways to demonstrate your strength. One is to push others down, the other is to pull others up.”
As the Hoyas new head coach, he can act on the latter.