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Hoyas fuse the present and past

Thompson and Ewing are linked by prominent family ties to the glory seasons of the men's basketball program at Georgetown.

March 29, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The big man showed up a few minutes late, stepping quietly into a cavernous room beneath the stands at Continental Airlines Arena, into a postgame news conference.

Several reporters turned to look as John Thompson Jr. took a seat in the back row. This was, after all, the legendary former coach who put Georgetown on the college basketball map.

Now he sat watching the current coach -- his son, John Thompson III -- answer questions about defeating North Carolina and guiding the Hoyas to the Final Four for the first time in two decades.

The younger Thompson was asked about following in Dad's footsteps. He deferred, saying: "The big-picture significance of that, I'll let you guys out there draw that up and paint that picture."

In the back, "Big John" -- his nickname around the program -- leaned across and grumbled: "He's never been in my shadow. He's been my son all his life."

Legacy is a big deal with Georgetown, which faces Ohio State in an NCAA tournament semifinal Saturday. It's not only the coach and his father. There is also forward Patrick Ewing Jr., son of the former center who led the Hoyas to a national championship in 1984.

The elder Ewing also attended the North Carolina game on Sunday, television cameras showing him in the crowd, nervous, shifting foot to foot.

Surrounded by reminders of olden times, you might think the current Hoyas -- who can't even escape their own names -- would get bogged down in the past.

Think again.


"Big John" coached at Georgetown for nearly three decades and led the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament 20 times. He not only brought a 1984 title to the Washington, D.C., program, he gave it an identity.

His teams were scrappy, merciless on defense and, in their best seasons, anchored by imposing centers such as Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

But when the Hoyas hired his son in 2004, they got something different.

While the younger Thompson had taken much from his dad, he also played and coached under Pete Carril at Princeton, learning a methodical brand of offense that demands lots of passing and backdoor cuts.

"People say the Princeton offense, and what pops into their heads are slow white guys who are going to hold the ball for, you know, 35, 40 seconds and then take a three-pointer or get a layup," he said.

Thompson, 41, applied this philosophy to a higher genus of athlete, blue-chip recruits who could run and shoot with any team in the nation.

The results were immediate, the team winning even as Thompson helped his wife successfully battle cancer, attending her doctor's appointments and treatments.

This season, the Hoyas feature savvy guard play to complement an imposing front line of 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert and 6-9 forward Jeff Green. The team has shown a knack for remaining disciplined in close games.

"They pass the ball, they dribble the ball well and they are extremely versatile and athletic and quick," said Vanderbilt guard Dan Cage, whose team lost to Georgetown in a regional semifinal. "So they present some unique matchup problems."

In some ways, bringing a new style to the Hoyas has helped Thompson deal with history.

"I don't go through the day thinking, 'Pops used to have this job. He did that, he did this. I need to do that,' " he said.

After the Hoyas prevailed in overtime Sunday, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said, " 'Young John' is not his dad, and I think that's something that's really strong for him. 'Young John' coaches the way that he feels is best for him."


Maybe the pressure was worse for Patrick Ewing Jr. He took to basketball at a young age, which elicited the inevitable comparisons.

"Everyone thought I would be a seven-footer," he said. "I always worked on my post moves."

Early in high school, Ewing stopped growing as rapidly and it became clear the center position was not in his future. His father suggested he start working on his perimeter skills.

"He told me that I don't have to try to be him," Ewing recalled. "That helped me out a lot."

When it came time for college, the 6-8 forward chose Indiana but found no distance could separate him from expectations. After two seasons, he left the Hoosiers, unhappy with his lack of playing time and the team's style of play.

That's when Thompson called.

"He told me that I don't have to prove myself to anybody," Ewing said. "I just have to do what's good for the team, help the team win. I don't have to worry about that shadow."

Georgetown -- which might have seemed like jumping into the fire -- turned out to be a comfortable fit.

The Hoyas rely on Ewing to provide a spark off the bench with defense and rebounding. His coaches have hounded him to shoot the ball more.

Just as important, Thompson has helped Ewing acclimate to having a famous dad.

"It doesn't bother me anymore," Ewing said. "If anything, it makes me focus, it makes me better."


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