Photos: Georgetown University Athletics

Ask any fan about the greatest powerhouse college basketball schools of all time, and they’ll likely mention the Georgetown Hoyas. From 1972-1999, they were coached by John Robert Thompson Jr., who grew up in Washington, D.C., and played for the Boston Celtics. Under his leadership, the team reached legendary status on and off the court, thanks to their relentless style of play and undeniable swag.

Part of the team’s success during that era came from the synergy between the team’s center, Patrick Ewing, and Coach Thompson. During Ewing’s four years at Georgetown, they led the team to three Big East Tournament titles and three NCAA Tournament finals. In 1984, Coach Thompson became the first African American head coach to win a national title. That same year, Ewing was named Most Outstanding Player.

But let’s get back to the swag. There were classic Nikes and Air Jordans, patterned jerseys, T-shirts with bold messages and an abundance of Georgetown merch. Coach Thompson became known for the towel he kept on his shoulder during games, and Ewing popularized putting a short-sleeve shirt underneath one’s jersey.

Today, Ewing is the head coach at Georgetown. To celebrate this full circle moment following Black History Month, Jordan Brand and Georgetown honored both coaches at a game on February 20th. The team wore black jerseys, commemorative shooting shirts and the Why Not? Zer0.2 BHM. Coaches received the Air Jordan II EQUALITY.

Jordan Brand caught up with Coaches Thompson and Ewing to discuss their unique player/coach relationship and the importance of celebrating milestone moments in culture.

Coach Thompson, taking it back to the beginning at Georgetown… What changes did you make when you got there, and what was your mindset going in?

Coach Thompson: It was a lot of things. The biggest thing was making people understand that we wanted to be as good as anybody else. The athletes wanted it, so it was up to me to communicate the responsibilities that come along with it.

The mindset was this: by any means necessary to get the win. We weren’t walking around with our hats in our hands. We came out, and we were aggressive. We didn’t take shit from anybody. We went out there, and we played as hard and as in-your-face as we could. A lot of people respected what we were doing.

Our bench didn’t just play successfully on the court; most graduated from school. They totally fulfilled their responsibility. I respect them for that.

Coach Ewing, you could have gone anywhere in the country to play college basketball. What was it about Georgetown that made you want to play there?

Coach Ewing: Coach Thompson was definitely the reason why I chose Georgetown. I knew that I would have gotten a good education at other schools, but I thought that if I was playing for a person of color, who looked like me, played the positions I played and spoke the way I speak, then I could also look up to him. I just thought it would be a great fit.

Coach Ewing and Coach Thompson

In hindsight, what was it about your player/coach relationship that made your time there so successful?

Coach Ewing: It was a combination of things. Coach Thompson gave me the opportunity to take on a role at Georgetown. I came in as an 18-year-old and left as a man. He took a lot of heat for me, from interviews and things like that. Our relationship grew a lot, and as I got older, it became mentorship. I could call him and ask for advice on any topic.

Coach Thompson: A lot of our relationship blossomed because of him, and not just because of his undeniable ability as a player. His skill level was impressive; once you saw him play, you knew he was good. I give him a lot of credit for the team’s success, because of how he interacted with the other players. He never took his talents for granted.

Coach Ewing, what coaching advice have you gotten from Coach Thompson?

Coach Ewing: I’ve borrowed from all of the coaches I’ve played for or coached with. I still call people up late at night and ask them for advice. I’ll call Coach Thompson if I can’t sleep, and I know he’s still up. I’ll ask him questions about a big game or something that might have happened. He will always be a huge part of my coaching philosophy.

Coach Thompson: Patrick came here being a good coach. He paid the price to learn how to coach, but the assumption was that he didn’t know how to coach. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say that he’s doing a good job. Maybe they think they are complimenting me, but they are really complimenting him.

Coach Thompson, why do you think the style and culture that Georgetown basketball created was so influential to African American youth back then? What about your style of wearing a towel over your shoulder?

Coach Thompson: We were just doing our thing. We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were. Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear, because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.

The towel over my shoulders became a “thing” accidentally. I had always seen my mother wearing a towel around her shoulders when she was cooking, sometimes to use it as a pot holder. Eventually, I just threw a towel over my shoulder.

What did you think about the shooting shirts and jerseys the team wore on February 20th?

Coach Thompson: To tell you the truth, I was really touched by it. There are not a lot of things that make me feel the way I felt when I saw that. Those are the little things that sometimes mean more to you than the big things.

Let’s talk about this 35-year anniversary. Why is it important that we celebrate this milestone and milestones like this, not only during Black History Month, but year-round?

Coach Ewing: To me, you have to honor the people that paved the way for you — those who made it possible for you to be in the position you’re in. I always tell people that we never had the luxury of just being naturally comfortable. We always had to carry the burden of being role models or inspirations or justify why we had the job. It would have been nice to be unconcerned about the burden of responsibility that we carried on our shoulders. You had to watch what you said and how you said it, because it impacted other people. That’s a burden I had to carry. We never had the luxury of just being who we were.

Coach Thompson: Amen to that. You know, Clarence “Big House” Gaines was coaching a lot longer than I was, and he didn’t get the opportunity to coach at a big university like Georgetown. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the other civil rights leaders paved the way so that we could live the way we’re living now. We always have to honor them. If you don’t know your past, you never will; you will be lost in the future.

It is very important to honor these milestones based on what has happened historically in this country. For black coaches, and for black people everywhere, it lets them know that they are just as capable of achieving something as white people. I don’t think that we have to prove anything to anybody.

Coach Patrick Ewing