Decades later, Hoyas complete transition from villain to hero

March 30, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

You have to be of a certain age to remember Georgetown as the team in the black hats.

Hardly any Georgetown student was born when America was rejoicing over the results of the Hoyas' last trip to the Final Four before this one, when Villanova played David to Georgetown's Goliath in 1985.

It wasn't just because the Hoyas were defending champions and ranked No. 1 all season, either. Just barely, and with a perfect game, Villanova took down the most intimidating program in recent memory, and those who had been intimidated - pretty much everybody and everybody who didn't swear allegiance to Georgetown - soaked up every bit of it.

Duke thinks it attracts a lot of animosity today. Compared to the old Hoyas, Duke is the U.S. Olympic hockey team. There may never be villains quite like those Georgetown teams from the mid-1980s to the mid-'90s, nor a more polarizing group of people, nor a more polarizing coach, one of the most imposing figures the sport had encountered, John Thompson.

And now, two decades later ... everybody loves Georgetown. Or so it seems.

There's a new John Thompson in charge, and a new Patrick Ewing lending a hand, and the T-shirts are back. The fearlessness of Jeff Green and Jonathan Wallace, taking and making season-saving shots in consecutive regional games last week, comes off as admirable to the masses. Roy Hibbert is becoming beloved as a self-made big man bringing his humble resume into battle with the great Greg Oden tomorrow night.

You see them all, and you like the way they play, the way they win, they way they rose from the ashes of a few years ago, the way they ... just are.

Yet they wear the same name on their jerseys, whose mere appearance once had created such an indelible and unmistakable (yet widely interpreted, or misinterpreted) image. Answering "Do you like Georgetown?" was a statement about who you were and what you stood for.

John Thompson III is garnering accolades and unqualified respect in ways that his father never did. Graduate of Princeton, former coach there, follower in his Hall of Fame father's footsteps and proponent of the fluid, unselfish, fundamentally sound offense that bears his alma mater's name - he's all but a charter member of the TV coaching fraternity.

His father never experienced much unqualified praise in his day, and he was rarely invited to yuk it up on the studio shows. Big John's compliments usually were accompanied by, "Yeah, but ... " and a tirade about some statement he made or stance he took, unapologetically and uncompromising.

Building a powerhouse program at an elite private school, blazing a trail for black coaches and embracing an educational mission while creating a singular identity - it all had its unrewarding moments at times.

Of course, being beloved by the world was hardly Thompson's goal, so if he pushed a lot of buttons on a lot of people who were not, at the time, used to having someone like him being that demanding, outspoken and contrary, so be it.

That was just the coach, though. There also were the players, collectively and individually.

One can only laugh at his plaintive protests of the treatment former Duke star J.J. Redick received from opposing fans. As far as anyone knows, nobody ever threw bananas at Redick; that honor was bestowed upon Patrick Ewing, if not the most abused player in college history, then one of the top two.

"Redick-ulously Gay"? That's weak compared to "Ewing Can't Read," a popular sign in Big East arenas for four years - four spectacularly dominant years, three of which ended in the national championship game.

Ewing rarely smiled on the court, and neither did his fellow Hoyas, nor did those who followed him there. To play the Georgetown way was to play hard, physical, confrontational defense, with blocked shots, steals, dunks and scowls all the way. Teams hated playing them and fans hated watching them. They redefined "in your face."

They were mean. And you took from that whatever you liked.

Even losing to them just by a little made heroes of some. Pete Carril was always a brilliant coach, but no one cared until his Princeton team nearly beat Alonzo Mourning's Hoyas in the NCAA tournament's first round in 1989. To many, that loss was more satisfying than Princeton's landmark win over UCLA seven years later.

Everybody hated Big John, Patrick, 'Zo, Reggie Williams, Michael Graham, Gene Smith, Dikembe Mutombo, Allen Iverson, academic adviser Mary Fenlon, the sports information staff. They were all Darth Vaders, with T-shirts under their armor.

And now, we love the Hoyas. Love JT III. Love Patrick Jr. Love the nostalgia, the resurrection, the passing and cutting, the hustle, the gritty shot-making, the clamp-down defense. Love 'em against Ohio State tomorrow and against Florida on Monday night.

These Hoyas inherit the legacy of the older Thompson, Ewing and Co. Because those Hoyas built what so many saw as the Evil Empire, this generation can now just be Georgetown.

Maybe Wilt Chamberlain was wrong. Given enough time, maybe everyone eventually does root for Goliath.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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