Forget about the accolades for a minute. Forget about the Big East Championships or the Sweet 16 appearance this Friday night. Forget about the top 10 national ranking. Forget about the Big East Player of the Year that looks like a lottery pick, or the two McDonald’s All-Americans set to attend next fall. Let’s just look at Georgetown for a second. Not Georgetown the basketball program, Georgetown the University.
During the Craig Esherick Era of the early millennium, The Hilltop was virtually bereft of school spirit. Not only was support for the basketball team in rapid decline, but with a football team struggling to find its footing as the newest member of the Patriot League, there was no sports program, or any other program for that matter, that united the student body. Student spirit organizations tried in vain to rally their classmates, but with limited results.
Now, almost three years after John Thompson III took over the program, comes this scene from McDonough Gymnasium: With Sweet 16 tickets for the East Rutherford, N.J. bracket being made available Tuesday morning (okay, so I guess you can’t entirely forget about the Sweet 16 appearance), approximately 90 students crowded in to camp out by McDonough Monday night. Over the course of the evening, juniors Tyler Crawford and Jeff Green (guess you can’t completely forget about the Big East Player of the Year either) stopped by to thank the students for their support and posed with them for photos. A little while later, Crawford returned with Patrick Ewing Jr., who joined several students for a game of Horse on the courts outside the gym. Rumor has it he even resisted throwing down one of his signature reverse baseline jams, sticking to jump shots instead. Tuesday morning the students rose to the sight of John Thompson III hauling in a load of 150 McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches. Better than waking up with that creepy Burger King in your bed, if you ask me.
Georgetown players interacting with students during the basketball season? A Naismith Coach of the Year finalist turned drive-thru delivery man? So much for Hoya Paranoia.
“They’re still campus celebrities. When you see a basketball player, heads turn. But you see them eating at Leo’s [Georgetown’s main cafeteria] with non-basketball players and at parties with non-basketball players,” says Bailey Heaps, the Senior Sports Editor of The Hoya, Georgetown’s newspaper of record, who was in attendance at McDonough. “Stuff like Monday night, it really fits with the character of guys like Jeff and Tyler.”
There used to be the days when Georgetown was closed off, an intimidating and unknown program. But this team? This is a different verve entirely, and people are taking notice in D.C. and around the country — people like ESPN’s Jay Bilas for example, who applauds Green and the rest of the team in a recent piece on ESPN.com.
“To top it off, Green is a really nice, sharp and polished young man,” Bilas says in the article. “In fact, I have been incredibly impressed by the entire Georgetown team, which is made up of nothing but quality young men who are a credit to the game. In Winston-Salem, N.C., the Hoyas walked into the building in suits and ties, and every head turned toward a graceful, impressive-looking group. Once you sit down with them, the Hoyas are pleasant, bright and engaging young people. After having been around the program this season, it is clear that Georgetown is winning and is doing it the right way.”
This isn’t to say that the Pre-JTIII Hoyas was “the wrong way,” but this team is much more media and fan friendly than some of the teams of yesteryear. These aren’t your father’s Hoyas. These aren’t even your older sibling’s Hoyas. And that openness, that unity this team is creating on Georgetown’s campus, is one of the things that makes college athletics so pleasurable to saps like me.
From the minute Thompson III took the position, there was a resurrected sense of community. He rekindled the memory of the “We Are Georgetown” chant at his inaugural press conference, then led the cheer himself, as he cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden after the Big East Tournament. (Okay, so I guess you can’t entirely forget about that either.)
The latter scene played out in front of a boisterous contingent of Georgetown students and fans that traveled to New York for the tournament. There was a time not too long ago when the majority of students that fashioned themselves as basketball fans wouldn’t even make the manageable trek to then-MCI Center. Now, in analyzing the crowd factor at the East Rutherford Regional, SportsIllustrated.com states Georgetown boasts “one of the more dedicated student sections in the country, so the Hoyas should have an advantage in fan support.” To those that have followed the program over recent years, it is astounding to see those words in print.
Credit undoubtedly goes to renewed (and infinitely more effective) efforts by the university’s spirit organizations and other promotional efforts, but the main acclaim must be handed to John Thompson III.
One could argue that the rejuvenated spirit comes from on-court success. Maybe. But those gray “We Are Georgetown” t-shirts were printed long before GU ever beat Duke, qualified for the 2006 NCAA Tournament or won the Big East in 2007. When GU last made the Sweet 16 in 2001, there were no scenes even close to matching the one on campus Monday night.
So forget about the wins and the titles, as great as they are. The unifying impact that John Thompson III and his players are having on the university, both on the court and off, might be far more memorable.