Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: At 100, Georgetown Looking Strong Thanks to JTIII

You only had to look out on the Georgetown University "All-Century Team," announced during halftime of the Hoyas’ game against Marquette last Saturday, to be reminded of the glory of the program’s 100 years — the three Final Four appearances in four years from 1982-85, the 1984 National Championship and a string of NBA big men that makes the school look like a kind of athletic assembly line. Those achievements and other successes in the early 1990s turned names like Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson into legends.

From my perspective, the achievements of current coach John Thompson III and his players appear equally as important as the accomplishments by the Hoya titans of the past. And I’m not simply exaggerating the Hoyas’ current eight-game winning streak.

True, to date there have been no Final Four appearances, or Big East banners or even a win over UConn, but since John Thompson III stepped on campus, things have changed for Georgetown. Attendance is up at the usually sparsely-occupied Verizon Center. Ads for the team are littered throughout Metro stops around the District and play on the airwaves of D.C. sports radio. Dick Vitale picked the Hoyas as his team of the week after GU spoiled Louisville’s dedication of Denny Crum Court and then mashed Marquette. Words like “title contender” are actually being used in conjunction with this year’s Hoya team. It seems hard to believe that just three years ago Georgetown was scraping to survive its conference schedule and make the Big East Tournament under then-Head Coach Craig Esherick.

Simply put, things weren’t too rosy after the elder Thompson left the program for personal reasons. Esherick could not rekindle the Hoya Paranoia that had struck fear into the collective heart of the Big East for so long, even with lottery picks like Mike Sweetney on the roster. Fans were apathetic at best, staying away from games in droves and seldom sporting the school’s blue and gray colors when they did attend.

During Esherick’s tenure, the team made the NCAA Tournament just once and found itself in a steady decline. At the time, reminders of the hallowed past felt like the program was tilting at windmills.

The downfall received a few cursory nods from national media types writing how the Hoyas had slipped, but eventually those gave way to silence. Even hometown columnists Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser stopped writing about the team. The Hoyas were no longer good enough to warrant coverage, and their collapse was yesterday’s news. Something had happened that would have been completely unbelievable in the 1990s — Georgetown had become irrelevant.

More discouraging to followers of the program, the University itself did not appear to care about the slow demise of a team that had long been part of the University’s identity. Then-Athletic Director Joe Lang issued a statement defending Esherick, saying that it was an unreasonable expectation that the team make the NCAA Tournament every year. The outcry from alumni and fans alike was audible. And despite Lang and Esherick’s defiance, as the 2003-04 season ended, the changes began.

The Hoyas dropped their final nine games, even losing to a St. John’s team that had suspended six scholarship players for the season after a scandal with a prostitute, and an embattled Esherick was finally fired. When the coaching search began, it was only natural that John Thompson III’s name was included among the candidates. At the time, however, he did not enjoy the almost universal approval from the Hoya fan base he does today. On the popular Hoya Talk online bulletin board at Hoyasaxa.com, posters called for Fran Dunphy, Johnny Dawkins or another Duke Assistant du Jour. Some suggested it was best to break from the past and begin a new tradition, feeling that continuing with another member of the Thompson family would mean clinging to the same, tired standard that had led the program to its current state.

The doubts lessened over the course of JTIII’s first year, as he guided Georgetown to a win at Pittsburgh in his Big East debut and later claimed a last-second win over Notre Dame (close games had been the Hoyas’ bane during the Esherick days). All of the doubts were silenced on Jan. 21, 2006 — the day Georgetown beat No. 1 Duke 87-84 in front of a sold-out Verizon Center.

The proverbial electricity displayed by fans at that game could have powered Manhattan — for a decade. The best example of that emotion came as time expired and the gray-clad fans swept onto the floor. Even Ted Leonsis, as in Washington Capitals owner / AOL mogul Ted Leonsis, sprung from his courtside seat and into the celebration, nearly mauling a wheel-chair bound Hoya fan in the process.

John Thompson III and his players had given the program something it had not seen since 1985, a victory against a No. 1-ranked team. He also gave Georgetown something else it had lacked since his father had stepped down — pride. Arguably, he resurrected that sentiment the day he first took the job.

“I grew up on this campus. I grew up in McDonough Gym,” Thompson said that day. “Growing up … [there] was a chant that was, ‘We are Georgetown’ … I love it. Because it’s ‘We are Georgetown.’ And when you say that, it’s the institution, it’s the administration, it’s the community, it’s Washington, D.C., it’s the other teams, the other members of the athletic department, it’s our program. And that’s what we have, a program, not a team. We are Georgetown. And a few people have forgotten that we’re Georgetown, and we’re going to work our tails off to remind them.”

That last line served as the launching point for the next era in Georgetown basketball. It appeared on the gray t-shirts worn by a burgeoning student section. And it (not the regrettable film “We Are Marshall”) revived the student chant “We Are Georgetown,” now screamed with as much fervor as the traditional “Hoya Saxa.” Moreover, while the since-departed Lang once stated that annual trips to the NCAA Tournament was overly ambitious, in 2005 Thompson III proclaimed that another national championship banner would hang in McDonough Gymnasium. It’s that type of confidence that has students and fans throughout the District clamoring to run beside this Hoya team.

As the Georgetown program celebrated its 100th birthday, things could have been very different. When the former greats took to the court on Saturday, fans and alumni could have looked upon the past players with a sense of aching nostalgia. Instead, when they cast their eyes on Georgetown’s players of today, they can fully expect that the program’s best days might actually lie ahead.

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