When the hyper-opinionated Curry Kirkpatrick was writing on basketball for Sports Illustrated, he held a particular loathing for John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas because Thompson was stand-offish (to say the least) with the media. Despite a few nice cover photos of that era’s Hoyas in SI (including a wonderful posed shot of Thompson, Patrick Ewing, and then-President Reagan), Kirkpatrick’s bias seemed always to color the magazine’s coverage, thus helping hype the image of those Hoyas as bad guys. (In fact, other than super-aggressive freshman Michael Graham in 1983-84 — who, by the way, later turned into a model citizen with help from Thompson well into Graham’s 20s, long after Thompson had kicked him off the team for academic reasons — those teams should in many ways have served as role models. The players went to class, did their work, graduated on time in record percentages — well above a 90 percent graduation rate — and avoided off-court trouble. As for Ewing, somehow he was always portrayed as the bad guy, even though he almost always was the one trying to play peacemaker, and he was the victim, not the perpetrator, in the only real fight the Hoyas ever had, when Syracuse’s Dwayne “Pearl” Washington sucker-punched Ewing — as replays clearly showed — quite deliberately, in the gut, for no apparent reason.)
Apparently, the bias continues. SI is out with its list of the ten best all-time players in the NCAA tournament. Now, obviously, any such list is going to engender debate and controversy from the moment it comes out. It’s all subjective. But sometimes an omission is so glaring that it must be noted. I’ll admit my own bias here: I was sports editor of the Georgetown HOYA (college paper) at the start of the season where GU won the national championship. Bias aside, though, it boggles the mind that Patrick Ewing somehow did not make SI’s list of top 10.
How could Ewing not make it? He led his team to three NCAA finals in four years, winning one and losing the other two in classic games by one and two points, respectively. Sure, he didn’t score a ton of points in his title games — but Ewing was never really about offense, anyway. His defense, intensity, and sheer presence were what made him the dominant player of his era (Michael Jordan included: His Tar Heels made only one Final Four in his three seasons). That’s why Ewing was the Final Four MVP the year his team won the national championship. In all of John Thompson, Jr.’s years of coaching success, none of his teams ever made the Final Four except those three featuring Ewing. As a college player and team leader who made the entire team around him better, very few people ever matched Ewing’s accomplishments. Was he the best NCAA tourney player ever? Of course not. But Top 10? Definitely. Indeed, there were games where the whole rest of his team all but feel apart, but Ewing held them together — especially in a first-round game against a tough SMU team, where only a Ewing tip-in with 8 seconds remaining allowed the Hoyas to escape with a 37-36 win, en route to the national title.
So, one asks, who would be left off SI’s list to make room for Ewing? (The list: Jerry West, Christian Laettner, Magic Johnson, Bill Bradley, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor.) Two spring to mind: Bradley and Bird. Bird played in only one tournament, and didn’t win the championship, falling by 11 points in the finals. Bradley’s Princeton team made only one Final Four, and they lost in the semis. Sure, neither team would have made it anywhere near as far without being carried on Bird’s and Bradley’s respective backs. But one Final Four appearance each, with no championship, vs. three title appearances, with one championship and two last-second losses? Come on. There’s no comparison. Again, this isn’t about who had the best college or pro careers: It’s supposed to be the list of the ten best NCAA tourney players. Ewing easily belongs among the top five or six.
Curry Kirkpatrick accuse GU of having “Hoya Paranoia.” It’s not paranoia if it’s based on truth — and the truth was, Ewing’s Hoyas had much to be paranoid about, because the national media wouldn’t give them an even break then, and still won’t do so today.
Okay, how’ that for a quick break from politics? 🙂