Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 11, 2018

On Familiar Ground, An Old Rivalry Is Renewed

Madison Square Garden was about half full Tuesday evening, a respectable turnout for a college basketball game between two middling teams early in the conference season. Both Georgetown and St. John’s came into the contest with overall winning records, but those marks were inflated by non-conference games against soft opponents in November and December. At tipoff the Hoyas were 1-3 and the Red Storm 0-4 in Big East play. But whatever happens this year, fans of both schools have placed their hopes for a brighter future in the two familiar faces who strode the sidelines of an arena that has been home to both. As the tight game unfolded, many in the crowd were surely thinking back three decades, to a time of glory for both Georgetown with center Patrick Ewing, and St. John’s with shooting guard Chris Mullin.

Born in Jamaica, Ewing and his family moved to Massachusetts while he was in grade school. There he became a standout high school player at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Heavily recruited, Ewing was ready to commit to Dean Smith’s program at UNC until he witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally while visiting the campus in Chapel Hill. The incident steered the young 7-footer away from the south, and he eventually chose to attend Georgetown, where coach John Thompson Jr. was building a strong program in the fledgling Big East Conference.

With Ewing at center the Hoyas quickly became a national power. Georgetown went to the national championship game in Ewing’s freshman season, and again in his junior and senior years. The school’s only title came in the second of those three appearances, when the Hoyas topped Houston 84-75 at the Kingdome in Seattle in 1984. Ewing was named the Most Outstanding Player of that year’s Final Four. He was also a three-time All-American, twice the Big East Player of the Year, and won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award as a senior.

Mullin was raised in Brooklyn and attended the elite basketball high schools Power Memorial Academy and Xaverian High. As a teenager he also attended a basketball camp run by Lou Carnesecca, and the longtime St. John’s coach came calling when it was time for Mullin to choose a college. More than three decades after graduating, Mullin still holds the record as St. John’s leading scorer. While Ewing was winning the Naismith Award in 1985, Mullin took home the rival John Wooden Award as the country’s best player.

There was considerable animus between the two when they were on the court together in those days, a natural result of the leaders of two of the top teams in the same conference meeting twice during the regular season and often again during the conference tournament. When both were seniors Georgetown and St. John’s took turns atop the national rankings, with the Johnnies topping the Hoyas 66-65 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland in January 1985, then Ewing and Georgetown returning the favor to Mullin and St. John’s before a full house at Madison Square Garden in late February. That decisive 85-69 win by Georgetown ended a 19-game winning streak by St. John’s.

A month later the two teams met again. This time the scene was Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, site of that year’s Final Four. The Big East reached its zenith that season, sending three teams to the final weekend of March Madness. In a national semifinal Ewing and Georgetown had the final word over Mullin and the Johnnies, winning 77-59. But in the end, it was eighth-seeded Villanova, the third Big East team in Lexington that shocked the Hoyas and basketball fans everywhere by claiming the national title two nights later.

Both players went on to Hall of Fame careers as professionals. After playing most of his collegiate home games at Madison Square Garden, Mullin headed west, where he spent most of his playing career with the Golden State Warriors. In place of his old rival, it was Ewing who moved into MSG, taken with the first overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. For all of Mullin’s heroics on the Madison Square Garden hardcourt for St. John’s, it is Ewing’s number 33 Knicks jersey that now hangs in the rafters of the World’s Most Famous Arena.

Mullin is starting his third season as the coach at St. John’s. It’s his first foray on the sidelines, after spending time in the front offices of the Warriors and Sacramento Kings as well as a broadcasting stint after retiring as a player. Ewing was named the Georgetown coach last April, after working as an assistant coach for four different NBA franchises over the past fifteen years. While on paper he comes to the job better prepared, in truth as first-time head coaches both are in uncharted waters.

Whether either will succeed is unknown, but given their history and the reverence in which they are held by alumni of the two schools, both will likely be given time to try. That’s important, as so much of the college game is about good recruiting, and building a reputation as a top program and thus becoming attractive to potential stars takes time. Mullin’s squad now includes three players who transferred from other colleges. Ewing’s team is very young, but he is already developing relationships with local AAU coaches, who often serve as feeders to successful college programs.

Tuesday night, on the floor of the arena both can rightly call home, Ewing’s Hoyas bested Mullin’s Red Storm 69-66, with a late three-pointer by Georgetown’s Jessie Govan dealing the decisive blow. If both squads play as expected, it’s unlikely either will be called to this year’s Big Dance come Selection Sunday. But in Washington and Gotham fans of the Hoyas and the Johnnies are taking a longer view. The faithful of both Georgetown and St. John’s are hoping that the architects of each school’s basketball glory can turn back the decades and restore their team to greatness. Why play the games at all, if fans are not allowed to dream?

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