Sports Nut

The World’s Most Dangerous Basketball Team

How the Georgetown Hoyas changed college basketball.

Three years ago, John Thompson III began to resurrect the Georgetown basketball program his father built. When the team started winning again, students on campus began wearing T-shirts with the epigram: “RESPECT IS BACK / FEAR IS NEXT.” For Georgetown basketball, fear has always been the gold standard. This Georgetown squad, the Hoyas’ first Final Four team in 22 years, is certainly the school’s best since Allen Iverson left in 1996. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of the opposition, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Patrick Ewing Jr., and Co. will never compare to the Georgetown teams of the 1980s.

No program since John Wooden retired has left as deep an impression on basketball’s collective psyche. Not Phi Slama Jamma. Not the Fab Five. Not Rick Pitino’s Kentucky teams. Certainly no team involving Christian Laettner. And the students have it right: Fear is what made Georgetown memorable.

Part of it came from the Hoyas’ style of play. They pressed up and down the court, trying to force turnovers and low-percentage shots. Patrick Ewing, and later Dikembe Mutombo, stood in the lane swatting (and often goaltending) shots away, shooting intimidating glances across the floor. Meanwhile, John Thompson the elder, a giant man with a white towel tossed over his shoulder, patrolled the sideline with a scowl. The Hoyas won a lot, too, reaching three national finals between 1982 and 1985.

But the fear, back then, had as much to do with race as hoops. Georgetown basketball under John Thompson was always intertwined with racial politics. That was inevitable when an elite Eastern university, then as now overwhelmingly white, started fielding teams made up almost exclusively of black players. When Thompson came to Georgetown in 1972, he wasn’t plucked from some other sideline legend’s “coaching tree.” Rather, he had been plying his trade at a tiny Catholic high school in northeast Washington, D.C., at a time when the only notable black coaches were Lenny Wilkens and Bill Russell—both player/coaches for NBA teams.

Mediocre Georgetown teams composed of white parochial-school graduates soon became a relic. Thompson recruited inner-city black players, often well after they’d graduated high school. (He had to wait for one of his first recruits, Mike Riley, to finish a hitch in the Navy.) The Hoyas’ rise came shortly after the founding of the Big East Conference in 1979. Before the Big East, Georgetown was part of the sprawling Eastern College Athletic Conference, which represented more than 200 schools. As part of the Big East, Georgetown played regularly against the finest black players from New York and Philadelphia, helping to market the Hoyas to both recruits and East Coast hoops fans. By the late ‘70s, the Hoyas were starting an all-black five. Soon, African-American basketball players—Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Fred Brown, Reggie Williams—became the university’s most visible symbol. Perhaps most visible was Michael Graham, a substitute on the 1984 team, who was the spitting image of every Angry Black Man stereotype: He was the bald-headed, bruising spark plug on a championship squad before academic troubles forced him to transfer away.

Around the time Georgetown won the 1984 national championship, the university trademarked the Hoyas name and snarling-bulldog logo. This was the first college sports team to become a brand—and it was a tremendously lucrative one. By the early ‘90s, Georgetown apparel outsold even schools with powerhouse football programs. Georgetown Starter jackets sold well across the country, but the team’s image was especially resonant in black America. Not only was this an all-black team with a black coach, the Hoyas also played in a majority-black city run by a black mayor. Thompson took a well-publicized stand against Proposition 42, an NCAA rule change that he believed would threaten black athletes by imposing higher academic standards. Eventually the racial cues became more overt, most famously in the kente-cloth-trimmed uniforms  of the Iverson era.

Eventually, touchstones of black culture spread from Washington, D.C., to every corner of college hoops. As revolutionary as Thompson’s teams might have been, he always remained a traditionalist. Michigan’s Fab Five made baggy shorts iconic, and Iverson didn’t grow his famous cornrows until he left the Hoyas. It wasn’t just the culture that passed Thompson by. His defenses became less effective with the rise of the 3-point shot and swingmen who could handle the ball and take it to the hoop. When Iverson left, the dying embers of Georgetown’s place in popular culture went with him—the school’s licensing revenues have dropped out of the collegiate Top 50 in recent years, overtaken by the likes of Boise State.

With the Hoyas back in the Final Four, you might think blue-and-gray Starter jackets will come back in style. After all, there isn’t a sportswriter with a pulse who’s able to resist the Thompson-and-Ewing- all-over-again storyline. But neither son is much like his father. Thompson III has yet to utter so much as a controversial subordinate clause. (It’s worth noting that since John Thompson retired in 1999, no college coach has filled his role as an outspoken advocate for black athletes.) Ewing Jr., meanwhile, has the quickness and clutch outside shot his dad never had, if not the size or physical dominance.

To their credit, neither seems to care much about cultivating the team’s image. Save for a couple of bench warmers, the team is still all-black, but the kente cloth is gone. So is the full-court press—today’s Hoyas stick to a slow-paced half-court offense that’s engineered to slow down the game and open up high-percentage shots. It’s a type of basketball you have to respect. But, as much as Georgetown fans might wish, the fear will never be back. Maybe the students should start printing up another T-shirt: Respect is back. Who needs fear?