Growing Up Hoya

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Growing Up Hoya:

A History of Georgetown Basketball Through the Eyes of a Native Son

The People’s Team

It’s impossible for me to pin-point exactly when I became a Georgetown fan. I only know that it was after I was already a Redskins fan but before I realized the Bullets were perineal losers. That didn’t dawn on me until the marketing scheme for the 1987-88 season– a season in which they finished second in the ever-abysmal Atlantic Division with a 38-44 record– was unveiled in form of a circus act starring Manute Bol and rookie Tyrone “Mugsy” Bogues, the tallest and shortest players in the league. The lowly Bullets sank to new lows with that campaign. Although the squad featured sharp-shooting but otherwise unspectacular Jeff Malone–the unacknowledged precursor to Allen Houston– and the “Dean of Sweat” himself, Moses “Miss my own lay-up so I can pad my rebounding stats” Malone, season ticket holders were sent t-shirts sporting cartoonish caricatures of Manute and Mugsy standing side-by-side. It became clear to me that season– even as I wore the t-shirt down to a thin, ketchup-stained rag– that the Bullets weren’t to be taken seriously, and that, psychologically speaking, it was in my best interests to pretend they didn’t exist lest I lose all of my self-esteem before I officially became a teenager. So, I rooted for Georgetown, in part, because it was detrimental to my health to care about the Bullets.

I also rooted for them because they were a black team with a black coach in a predominantly black city with a black mayor (Marion “The Bitch Set Me Up” Barry) and a black city council and a black professional class that, per capita, stood unparalleled in the country. It was black chauvinism 101 and we, my friends and I (even the white ones), were Chocolate City Disciples. We relished owning a pair of Georgetown Nikes; our rec league coaches called our suicide drills “Georgetowns,” and our full-court pressure the “Georgetown Press.” It came as a complete and total shock to all of us when we discovered that Georgetown University wasn’t in fact a black university, but lily white. It just didn’t make sense, and it wasn’t just because the team was all-black or because Coach Thompson, along with coach Cheney at Temple, were the only black men coaching big time college basketball. It was this: If you grew up in D.C. in the ‘80s it was genuinely possible to believe that the United States was mostly black and that white people were the minority, which made slavery and Jim Crow even more incomprehensible to my young mind. How, I wondered, had slavery lasted for hundreds of years when blacks were the clear majority? Why didn’t they just revolt? Privately, this unanswered (and unfounded) question reeked havoc on my adolescent psyche. It announced that something must’ve been seriously wrong with black folk for them to be an oppressed majority. When Mrs. Logan, my crotchety sixth grade teacher, informed us that African-Americans only accounted for 12% of the population during a social studies lesson one day I went into a state of denial that lasted for the next seven years. In my twelve year-old mind the statistic was a lie, yet another ploy by “The Man, “– whose tricks I had already been hipped to through re-runs of What’s Happening, Eddie Murphy sketches on Saturday Night Live and my older sister’s neo-nationalism– to keep us in mental chains. These influences aside, though, I honestly just didn’t see how it was possible for us to be the clear majority in the nation’s capital and not be the majority any place else. What, after all, did it mean if the nation’s capital was predominantly black and the rest of the nation was predominantly white?

Maybe I would’ve accepted the facts if I wasn’t living in a firmly middle-class neighborhood in which blacks were the clear majority but whites were still visible. Ben, Jeff, Timothy, Aaron— we had at least four white kids on our twelve player soccer team. The Touhey’s, Brendan and Sean, were on all of the neighborhood basketball teams. We routinely slept over each other’s houses and their mothers treated us like part of the family as did ours. But they were always the minority, not us. Looking back on it twenty years later I can see that our world was just incredibly small, and that the Georgetown Hoyas and John Thompson, given their omnipresence on the college basketball scene in the ‘80s, helped prolong my delusions of racial ascendence until I was prepared to deal with the world as it was.

The End of an Era

For reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, I remember the ‘85 National Championship game that the Hoyas lost far more clearly than I remember the ‘84 game that they won. I remember being stunned in much the same way I’d been stunned a year earlier when Marcus Allen ran all over the Redskins in the Superbowl XVIII. As good as the Hoyas were in ‘84 when they won it all, they were even better in ‘85 when they only lost two games prior to the national championship upset. I remember watching Villanova play a near perfect game in my buddy G.G.’s basement. I remember expecting them to go on a run at any moment, for Villanova to finally go cold. I remember going into the bathroom and balling because I knew an era had come to an end. Even though two years later Reggie Williams would carry a make-shift band of middling “Miracles” back to the Big East title and the NCAA Regional Finals before losing to Providence, the age of outright dominance was over. After four long and glorious years, three final fours, three Big East titles, four Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards, three First-team All-American selections and one National Player of the Year award, Patrick was at last leaving Georgetown. After almost five years in the city, Pat was as much a part of D.C. lore as John Riggins, whose epic touchdown against Miami in Superbowl XVII should make every all-time Superbowl highlight real from now to eternity. In today’s college game, a player like Patrick Ewing, a truly superior college player who impacts the culture of a city and over time becomes a fixture, an icon, simply can not exist. In today’s culture, Pat Ewing lasts one, two years tops in college hoops, and the game suffers because of it.

What makes the Georgetown Dynasty particularly special in the modern imagination is precisely what made all great college programs special in their prime: they were professional teams minus the pay. Up until the era of the Fab Five, elite college basketball teams were predominantly upper-classmen laden squads peppered with freshman and sophomores, and Georgetown basketball epitomized that formula. These were teams you could put your money on game after game. Between the ‘83-84 campaign and the one that followed in ‘84-85 Georgetown lost a combined six games. Six. These guys didn’t lose often, and when they did, as in the case of Villanova in ‘85, the opponent played a near perfect game. Granted, John Thompson was routinely ridiculed for scheduling “cup cakes” early in the season. Be that as it may, those cup-cakes could’ve also said no. What people failed to appreciate was that besides giving his team a proper amount of tune-up games before the rough and tumble Big East (the conference allowed six personals for Christ’s Sake!) season kicked off, Thompson was giving lesser-known schools and their coaches (especially Historically Black Colleges) a much-needed hand in the race for potential recruits.

As much as Ewing became an honorary citizen of D.C. during his tenure, Georgetown basketball was, at its essence, a program built with the raw talent from the metropolitan area, which made us all proud. John Thompson was himself a product of D.C. basketball and he never seemed to doubt the capacity of the D.C., Maryland– Baltimore in particular– and Virginia areas to provide sufficient talent to win at the national level. Aside from Ewing, the entire starting five from both the 1984 and 1985 teams were essentially home-grown. Point guard Michael Jackson was from Northern Virginia. Reggie Williams and David Wingate came from Baltimore’s Dunbar High. Billy Martin and Michael Graham, arguably the best college player that never was, were from D.C. Over the years, and even now (Jeff Green is from Maryland) Georgetown perennially out-dueled Maryland in the hunt for the area’s hottest talent. Poor Maryland had to go and hire Dunbar’s coach, Bob Wade, after Lefty Driesell’s departure following Len Bias’s death in order to cull some of the local (i.e. black) talent from Georgetown’s grip. Without delving too deeply into the sordid details of the Wade era it suffices to say that he failed miserably.

Father John

Back when I was coming up the dream was for Big John to walk into your gym one night. The chances were slim to none, but he had a history of offering scholarships to guys who weren’t Parade All-Americans. In fact, what stands out in my mind after all these years was how many local players of questionable big time college basketball talent he signed to the program. It was almost as if there was a certain defiance in him, a kind of willfulness that cut against the grain of best recruitment practices. He seemed to like stubby point-guards and undersized two-guards. Guys who were too offensive minded just didn’t fit into Big John’s game plan. The running joke in the city was that Georgetown players couldn’t shoot because they were too tired from playing defense. The other one that began to surface in the later ‘80s and early ‘90s was the John Thompson could send a player’s offensive game into reverse. In the interests of honesty and forthrightness, the critics had a point. Certain players did seem to regress in their years at Georgetown. Heck, there was a point in Alonzo Mourning’s career when people were wondering if Dikembe wasn’t the best NBA prospect on the team. It certainly didn’t help matters when Big John’s Olympic team finished third, thereby prompting an end to the amateur-only Olympic basketball team format.

If there was one thing Big John was a sucker for back in the day it was length. Long arms. Long legs. Coach Thompson wanted players who could cover the court in the least amount of time, which explained why a host of super-athletic scoring swingmen came and went without ever making much of an dent in the program. Those guys got lost in a Georgetown system built around defense and big men. He preferred a guy with a little less talent and a lot more heart; a guy who, over four years ripened into a floor general a la Charles Smith over a Diaper Dandy like Milton Bell, Allen Iverson and Victor Page notwithstanding; a guy who clogged up the middle like Don Reid (whose career scoring average at Georgetown hovered around three points per game) or an undersized board-banger like Perry McDonald who at 6’4″ played power forward one season. Intimidation was central to the Hoya Mystique in the ‘80s and, in all likelihood, responsible for the Hoya Demise in the ‘90s when blue-chip players seemed to turn away from Georgetown in droves.

But the Hoya style of play wasn’t the only reason the program fell into disrepute, at least as compared to its Golden Age. Big John didn’t believe in coddling high school phenoms with their super-sized egos. While some coaches did whatever they had to do in order to sign a player, the word on the street when we were growing up was that Big John didn’t play that. For example, the year Charles Smith graduated Kenny Anderson was coming out of high school. At the time Alonzo Mourning was going into his sophomore year. Anderson was purportedly interested in Georgetown and would’ve seriously considered going there but Big John didn’t seem to want him. Instead the Hoyas signed and started David Edwards, a stumpy point guard from New York City who played with a ton of city swagger but was by no means Kenny Anderson.

A Mirror of the City

The signing of Alonzo Mourning in 1988 was supposed to bring Georgetown back to the top of the Big East food chain. At the time the team was only one year removed from its last Big East Championship and Elite Eight appearance, but for fans who had been spoiled with three Final Four appearances in a decade (Washington was indeed fortunate in the ‘80s: The Redskins won two Superbowls) the bar was set uncompromisingly high. We were hungry for another Final Four appearance. The ‘88 class was one of the best ever (Shawn Kemp. Chris Mills. Chris Jackson. Billy Owens. Christian Laettner. Stanley Roberts) and Alonzo was the most dominant player among them. He was Patrick Ewing reincarnated, so imagine my surprise, my utter disbelief, when I opened my front door one afternoon and he was standing there alongside my sister’s friend Matt. Matt was this boisterous Italian dude of indeterminate age who mysteriously appeared on the D.C. scene in the late eighties. Somehow he knew every ball player in the metropolitan area, and even players outside the area. He drove a red Pathfinder in the back window of which sat a pair of Len Bias’s sneakers, which Matt claimed he’d gotten from Len’s younger brother Jay, who was fatally shot in 1990. I never knew what Matt did for a living and I was too young to really care, but given the climate in D.C. in the late ‘80s I couldn’t help but draw my own conclusions. In any event, Matt had promised to introduce me to ‘Zo several weeks earlier and there he was. We shook hands, Matt told him I was a ball-player and then they left. After they were long gone I was still standing in my doorway wondering what had just happened.

The following spring I watched a feisty Princeton team spread the court and backdoor Georgetown to death in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. It was easily the most frustrating Georgetown game I had ever watched. Georgetown was one of the most dominant forces in college basketball that season. Charles Smith, the one time defensive specialist turned scoring machine was a man on a mission the entire season. Alonzo Mourning was anchoring the paint like a young Patrick had seven years earlier when the Hoyas made their first Final Four run. Princeton was led by a freshman point guard named George Leftwich Jr. who was the son of Big John’s high school teammate and D.C. playground legend George Leftwich Sr., who would be my high school coach three years later. (Incidentally, John Thompson III was an assistant for Princeton that year.) The Hoyas managed to prevail after a final heart-palpitating Princeton possession, but when Big John walked off the court with his faithful towel draped across his shoulders I knew something was wrong. The following weekend Duke, led by a wiry Phil Henderson, ended the Hoyas run. As one writer put it, watching that game was like watching two ships passing in the night. While Georgetown was headed for three consecutive second round losses in the tournament during Mourning’s era, Duke went on to three consecutive appearances in the National title game, two of which they won.

Controversy hit the Hoyas in the fall of 1989 when Alonzo Mourning and burly forward John Turner were cited for being involved with reputed drug-lord Rayful Edmond. The intricacies of the relationship between the players and the drug dealer were never fully revealed, but the scandal nevertheless prompted a Nightline program dedicated to the matter, a bevy of newspaper articles, and the eventual revocation of Turner’s scholarship. Alonzo, meanwhile, was told to stay away from Edmond– indeed Big John reportedly made a call to the kingpin– and had to testify as to the nature of his relationship at Edmond’s trial that November. The whole situation left a cloud over the season and, for the first time, called into question Big John’s seemingly unassailable character. How, people in the city wondered, could he throw Turner out like a bad head of lettuce and barely slap Mourning on the wrist? The obvious answer was that Alonzo was his prize pupil, his star center, his Bill Russell. Turner, like Michael Graham and Ralph Dalton and Ronny Highsmith and Jerome Williams, was the garbage man, the banger. Valuable, but replaceable. The not so obvious answer was that what was happening to the school that had come to define D.C., was exactly what was happening in D.C. The city, like so many cities, was being infected by drug culture, and Georgetown, the epitome of urban basketball, was falling prey to the turbulent times. Turner’s departure cleared the way for Dikembe’s emergence as a star over the next two years, but it didn’t stop the hemorrhaging that had begun with the narrow Princeton win. The ‘89-‘90 campaign would end with an upset loss to Xavier in the second round of the tournament.

Tragedy and controversy continued to bombard the program from all angles over the next few years. Between 1990 and 1993 nine players transferred out of Georgetown. In 1991 Charles Smith, just two years removed from his spectacular season, struck and killed two Boston University students. Though judged a tragic accident, the prosecution sought a jail term in part because Smith left the scene. Smith wound up being sentenced to two and a half years in state prison, effectively ending his career. The 1992 conviction not only rocked Georgetown, but it sent tremors through the city. Smith was a D.C. native and the pride of city hoops. By 1993, a mere year after Alonzo’s departure, the program found itself in the NIT for the first time in fifteen years.

Father John Part II: Shifting Tides and A.I.s

Big John’s deal with Governor Douglass Wilder to get Allen Iverson out of prison and into a Georgetown uniform in 1994 didn’t come as a surprise. Although I didn’t remember the North Carolina game, I’d seen the footage of John Thompson hugging Freddy Brown (AKA Fuck-up Freddy) after his errant pass in 1982. It was one of the most touching moments in sports history, as was their embrace two years later after the Hoyas won their first and only title. I remembered troubled players like Michael Graham who Big John had tried to help and the causes he had stood against, chief among them Proposition 42. Like thousands of people across the country, I was watching the game against Boston College to see what he was going to do in protest of the then new NCAA code forbidding universities to offer scholarships to athletes who failed to meet the minimum Board requirements. His slow stroll across the court just as the game was set to begin drew an ovation from the crowd and signified the compassion and loyalty of a coach who was so much more than that for his players and for distant fans like myself.

For a brief moment Iverson brought the old spirit back to Georgetown hoops. He brought excitement and attitude and fearlessness, all vintage Georgetown trademarks that had arguably been on the wane in the years before his arrival. At times I wondered what Big John was thinking by giving a freshman the green light. At others I thought the two years Iverson was a Hoya were two of Thompson’s best coaching jobs. Rather than force Iverson to adjust to his coaching style, he adjusted to Iverson’s playing style, which was something he’d only done for one player in recent memory: Charles Smith. But then again, no player in recent memory had been as exceptionally gifted as Iverson. So he let him fly rather than try to contain him and the team flourished as a result.

I also think Big John knew he was reaching the end of his line and that in all likelihood Iverson was the last great player he was going to coach. I also think he understood that the game itself had changed. In the mid-90s the Big East was being dominated by guards like Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles who could and would score in ways that guys like Reggie Williams could only dream about. In order to compete with the new style, the Hoyas couldn’t just play defense; they had to score.

After Iverson bolted for the NBA my interest in the team waned markedly. I vaguely followed the career of another enormously talented hazard who’d arrived on Georgetown’s campus a year after Allen Iverson named Victor Page. I knew Vic from way back. We’d come up together; played on the same AAU team, the Kalorama Saints. When we were fifteen we’d traveled to the AAU Nationals in Kingsport, Tennessee. Vic was our leading scorer and was eventually named an All-American at the end of the tournament. Our team finished seventh out of more than sixty teams from around the country. We called him “Leg” because his left leg was so powerful. Even at fifteen and a shade over 6’1″, he could take off from anywhere inside the foul line and finish above the rim. I’ll never forget our first game in Tennessee when he dunked on a player trying to take a charge. The poor kid had to be carried off the court. The next day he was wearing a mammoth knee brace and was on crutches. Vic had rare talent and even rarer courage but he couldn’t escape his past. He went undrafted in 1997 despite his incredible talent. Spent several years tears in the CBA. Then he got shot and wound up losing an eye. The last I’d heard of him (and Charles Smith) was from a friend who still lived in D.C. He’d seen both of them standing on street corners looking bad, real bad.

Just hearing these stories broke my heart, I could only imagine what they, and all the equally pitiful ones I don’t even know, did to Big John. It’s little wonder that he relented mid-season in 1999. He’d reached his limit. Couldn’t take it anymore. Not just the losing, but the loss. The marijuana conviction of one player; the car wreck of another, the disappearance, transfer and arrest for assault with a samurai of a third player; and, perhaps the most disturbing of them all, a former player’s arrest for stalking Thompson. After a while you wonder what you’re doing. After a while the levy just bursts.

A Painful Plummet and a Return to the Summit

Looking back on the years I stayed away from Georgetown I’d have to say I did it for my own peace of mind. On one hand the team was foreign to me. Between the white uniforms, the white coach, the new arena, and the slew of mediocre talent stinking up the court whenever I happened to catch a glimpse of them on television, I just couldn’t deal with how much things had changed. I didn’t recognize the team I had grown up on. It was like watching a de-clawed cat try to survive in the wild. On the other hand, the basketball program was still little more than a reflection of the city, which in the late ’90s and early ‘00s was in a stage of transition from a fiscal nightmare to a 21st playground for the young and affluent thanks to the technocratic Mayor Anthony Williams. On the low, my hometown was being clandestinely erased and the people who populated it pushed to the margins. The streets I used to know, the blocks I used to run— they were all being infested with coffee shops and chi-chi lounges. Despite the obvious financial advantages of gentrification, the changes saddened me so much that I ultimately chose total D.C. Denial. Rather than watch another U.S. city get a vanilla facelift at the expense of the people who’d struggled through the hard and fearful years brought to us by Reagan and Bush, I decided to stay away. Similarly, instead of watching the team slip into the bottom half of the Big East alongside perineal washouts like Rutgers (my alma mater), I opted to ignore their existence. When by chance I turned on the television and saw them engaged in an NIT game or a nail-biter with the likes of Seton Hall at a nearly empty Meadowlands, I shuddered in horror and quickly pressed the Off button.

Then #1 ranked Duke came to town last January. I just happened to be in D.C. visiting my mother that weekend and decided to spend the Saturday doing what I did growing up: lying on the couch watching basketball games. When I stumbled onto the game it was already nearing the end of the first half. Mind you, I hadn’t watched a complete Georgetown game in almost a decade. I wasn’t even aware that John Thompson III had taken over the reins or that Patrick Ewing Jr. had transferred to his dad’s alma mater. As shocking as all of this was to me, I still didn’t see how unranked Georgetown stood a chance in hell against a 17-0 Duke team that had already shellacked #2 Texas several weeks earlier, and ground out tough wins against Virginia Tech, Memphis, Indiana, Maryland and Wake Forest. Then I started to watch Georgetown play. They spread the court and they backdoored Duke to death. They outrebounded them. They outhustled them. They made better decisions down the stretch. They didn’t crumble under J.J. Reddick’s relentless barrage of NBA range threes. In a truly cosmic, utterly synchronistic turn of events, Georgetown, whose decline could be traced to the ‘89 NCAA tournament in which they very nearly became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 (Princeton) and eventually did lose to an ascending Duke team, beat #1 Duke utilizing a Princeton offense that had been instituted by Pete Carril’s successor and Big John’s own son. Seeing Big John in the shadows beneath the bent brim of his baseball cap nearly choked me up. I mean, talk about making a dramatic re-entry into the sphere of relevance! If a win like that couldn’t bring a former die-hard fan back to the fold, then nothing could.

It’s scary how happy college basketball is to have Georgetown back in the mix. After stumbling out of the gates this season, the team slowly built itself back into the top 25 before taking the Big East regular season and tournament titles in remarkably vintage fashion. Just two weeks ago analysts and commentators were still reluctant to place Georgetown in the truly elite mix of Final Four contenders. Since the Big East Tournament, you be hard pressed to find a conversation in which Georgetown isn’t mentioned as a serious, serious contender for the title. It’s as if the sports world has been waiting for this; as if the return of Georgetown (and UCLA) signals the return of the old-guard, the restoration of an order that, despite our championing of the George Masons of the world, we secretly relish at the end of the day. When it comes down to it, we want to see the Big Dogs duke it out on the center stage come April. The cinderella stories are nice, quaint, but we don’t watch the Final Four for heart-warming stories. We watch because we want to bear witness to history and because we’re obsessed with strength and power, the defining features of the American odyssey.

I admittedly have a tendency to see things as epic and momentous. I’m a romantic when it comes to explicating the significance of our collective longings, our communal mythologies— the means by which we rely on a shared conception of the past to connect us all. In the face of an increasingly uncertain future such as ours, though, it’s no great secret that we tend to look for security in sports. They, sports I mean, are not merely a diversion from doubt. With so many avenues of expression and involvement controlled by the rich and powerful, they are a way for everyday people to be intimately involved in the important events of the day— events we make important. It’s no great cognitive leap, then, to read the return of a grey and blue clad squad directed by a man named John, starring a dominant big man in the middle, a quiet assassin in the mold of Reggie Williams on the wing, and a gang of selfless, suffocating soldiers, as an island of sanity in the vast sea of incertitude. On this, the eve of the 68th installment of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, Georgetown is back and no matter what they do or don’t do over the next three weeks, the world, my world, is a better place because of it.