30 Years Later, Mullin and Ewing Face Off Again in the Garden

Georgetown and St. John's faced off last night at Madison Square Garden, each team now coached by a legend hoping to rebuild his alma mater's legacy.

by Howard Megdal
Jan 10 2018, 5:27pm

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

They held a revival Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, and a basketball game broke out.

Truly, the latter took a while. St. John's and Georgetown, a pair of storied programs, are in the midst of rebuilds guided by the defining player at each school.

For St. John's, it is Brooklyn's own Chris Mullin, who once elevated Louis Carnesecca's program back in the mid-1980s by staying home. For Georgetown, it's Patrick Ewing, who defined the shape and scope of John Thompson Jr.'s Hoyas at the same time. Their battles all those years ago would etch the Big East Conference into the permanent memory of basketball fans.

Ewing and Mullin have gone on to do many other things, as often happens when three decades pass in anyone's life, each with a Hall of Fame playing career, professional honors, and gold medals as members of USA Basketball Dream Team in 1992. The two, once rivals, are friends now, and yet, rivals again.

“Me and him get along,” Mullin said at his postgame presser, following Georgetown's 69-66 win. “Long relationship. I have respect for him and [this is] just a surreal and unique circumstance with 30 years later... 100 percent, never in my wildest dream would I ever think I'd be here in 2018 coaching St. John's against Patrick Ewing coaching Georgetown.”

The state of both programs is, well, under construction. There is no signature star for St. John's under Mullin, in his third season as head coach, nor for Ewing, still in his first. The St. John's jersey you were likeliest to see in the crowd was Mullin's 20, while a fan under the far basket brought a sign reading “Mullin Square Garden."

The return of Ewing to a place where he won three Big East Tournaments (his collegiate reign only interrupted in 1983 by Mullin and St. John's), then played at a Hall of Fame level for 15 years with the Knicks, brought cheers from the crowd as he strode through the tunnel and onto the Garden floor before the end of warmups.

His pathway to the visiting bench was replete with fist bumps, hugs and handshakes, an accumulation of friends here to celebrate his long effort to land a head coaching job, complete at last. Mullin did much the same thing, before the two iconic figures met at midcourt, handshake melting into hug, Ewing kidding the typically-casual Mullin about wearing a tie.

“He told me he wore it in my honor. That was his sweater,” Ewing said later, referring to the time Thompson Jr. wore an ugly sweater in honor of Carnesecca, even sartorial choices elevating into storylines within this rivalry.

"Never in my wildest dream would I ever think I'd be here in 2018 coaching St. John's against Patrick Ewing coaching Georgetown.”

The game itself did not rise to the level the two programs reached at their Ewing-Mullin heights, but this is not a reasonable standard—even for the St. John's of Carnesecca and the Georgetown of Thompson, Jr., 1985 was but a single year. Each of their ledgers included plenty of 17-12s here and 12-14s there—Thompson didn't post a winning record with the Hoyas until Year 3 of his tenure, and Carnesecca reached only one Sweet 16 in the seven years after Mullin graduated.

The yellowed box scores between these two programs include plenty of defensive standoffs, and Tuesday night fits snugly in that category, both sides struggling to lift their shooting accuracy above the meager 30 percent mark.

And yet, the closeness, if not the crispness of the game sucked everyone in. The crowd rose to its feet near the under-four timeout, in the midst of a St. John's run centered around the shot blocking of Tariq Owens, who finished with eight swats while looking like an ultra-thin piece of Walter Berry sliced off by Sam Cohen, the lox sherpa of Zabar's.

The teams elevated their play, too. Georgetown center Jessie Govan, enjoying a homecoming of his own, with 40 friends and family making the trip on the LIRR from Manhasset, completed a three-point play at one end. Shamorie Ponds, the Felipe Lopez of this St. John's team, countered with a strong drive and layup finish, then deflected the ensuing inbounds pass.

And it was Govan who sank a long three in the final minute to assure the Hoyas a win, something he understood mattered to Ewing, even if he didn't celebrate when it was over.

“He looked relieved,” Govan said, chatting quietly in the tunnel leading from The Garden court to the locker rooms. “He looked real relieved. That must've been a real stressful game to coach. Glad we were on the right side of that.”

Whether Ewing and Mullin can return their programs to the sustained excellence of Thompson and Carnesecca, let alone reach their own peaks, no one knows. But on a night when Carnesecca sat, arms folded, behind the Red Storm bench, while alums both anonymous and Bill Wennington-famous watched and cheered, everyone and everything seemed to be in its rightful place, right down to the slow walk Ewing made to the tunnel after the win, giving fist bumps to fans along the way with his huge hands, one wrapped around a bottle of water.

“It's going full circle, now you're having both of us coaching against each other,” Ewing said. “So I think it's what dreams are made of. You have two guys who grew up, I'm from Jamaica, he's from Brooklyn. And we both played, played a sport that we love, battled each other, became friends. Won two gold medals together, and now we're battling each other again.”

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