On College Basketball: A Mighty Tree Grows in Georgetown. It Belongs to Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.
WASHINGTON — Trey Mourning had one foot out the door at Georgetown when Uncle Patrick became Coach Ewing. He turned around and went to a team meeting.
Ewing-Mourning roots run deep at Georgetown. But they also intersect at a crucial moment in the N.B.A.’s evolution on the court and are thicker, even, than the figurative blood that was spilled in one of the most ferocious rivalries in league history.
That warfare involved the Knicks and the Miami Heat. Every N.B.A. playoffs from 1997 to 2000 featured — among other ultimate fighting showdowns occasionally resembling basketball — a main event involving two throwback centers: Patrick Ewing and Trey’s father, Alonzo, both of Georgetown pedigree.
A decade and a half later, after a dominant career at Ransom Everglades, a prep school in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, Trey Mourning enrolled at Georgetown in 2014, months before his father was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He did so essentially for three reasons: the university’s academic reputation, his family legacy and extended family relationships.
John Thompson III was the head coach at Georgetown, but more of an enticement, Trey Mourning said, was the presence on the staff of Ewing’s son, Patrick Jr.
“The Ewings are like family to me,” he said. “The Thompsons are family, but I use air quotes. That’s kind of how I look at it.”
Over the next three seasons, he proceeded to mostly ride Thompson’s bench, registering no more than the 5.9 minutes he logged per game as a sophomore. With his senior year approaching, he was loath to conclude his college career without much time on the court, without opportunity.
It is, however, a complex web that Georgetown weaves. Thompson was relieved after the 2016-17 season and replaced by Patrick Ewing, a hire inspired by Thompson’s father, known around campus as Big John, who coached Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown and remains a mentor to both.
Suddenly, Trey Mourning, a 6-foot-9 forward, had a more difficult decision to make regarding a potential transfer. Though Patrick Jr.’s assistant coaching position would be eliminated because of an anti-nepotism policy, the young Mourning could not dismiss the chance to play under the senior Ewing, who is actually listed in Trey’s smartphone as Uncle Patrick.
They had a private sit-down, during which Ewing told him, “Put in the work, you’ll play.”
No problem, Trey thought. If there was one thing ingrained in him by his father, it was an ethic that across 15 N.B.A. seasons of low-post warfare was best exemplified by Alonzo Mourning’s refusal to pack it in after a kidney transplant in 2003.
Trey wound up sitting out his senior year at Georgetown with a hip injury, but he had been starting as a graduate student this season. He averaged 23.5 minutes, 7.7 points and 5.4 rebounds a game in the team’s first 11 games, but was idled recently by a concussion — his status is “day-to-day.” (Georgetown is 11-3 over all as it enters an early but important Big East matchup with St. John’s, which is 13-1 over all, on Saturday afternoon in Washington.) In a game against Campbell on Nov. 24, Mourning had career highs of 27 points and 12 rebounds.
Watching was his father, who works in Miami for the Heat and sat in the stands at Washington’s Capital One Arena for the only time this season, along with Trey’s brother, Alijah.
“Sweetest night so far,” Trey said.
Trey Mourning’s game is less bullish than his father’s, reflecting the sport’s dramatic shift since those Heat-Knicks conflagrations, which often ended with neither team within squinting view of 90 points, much less 100. Compelling as the games were, unequaled at the time in raw intensity, they contributed mightily to N.B.A. rule changes in 2004 and the contemporary mix of unimpeded driving and long-distance shooting.
“The N.B.A. did what they did because they wanted to make sure fans would come,” Ewing said. “It worked — look how popular it is. But I still get people coming up to me, saying they miss those days.”
He and his buddy Alonzo can reminisce all they want about the punishment Michael Jordan absorbed against the Knicks’ and the Heat’s brutish defenses. It would be different now. “Imagine what Michael would do in today’s N.B.A.,’’ Mourning said in a telephone interview. ”He’d probably average 50.”
And what can Ewing — 56 and hoping for head-coaching longevity — do but go with the flow?
Trey Mourning, in fact, recalled working on low-post defense in high school with his father while a visiting Ewing watched from the sideline.
“Patrick would be sitting there and, knowing the rule book, being a coach in the N.B.A., he’d say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t teach him that way, that’s illegal,’” Trey said.
But in the 1990s, little seemed out of line, or beyond the realm of anarchic possibility, when Pat Riley’s Heat and Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks staged an N.B.A. production of the Hatfields and McCoys — although the rivalry was also a knockoff of “All in the Family.”
Besides the Ewing-Mourning connection, Riley coached the Knicks from 1991 to 1995 before moving to Miami, and Van Gundy, his assistant in New York, held the job until 2001. In Miami, Riley hired another Van Gundy — Jeff’s brother, Stan.
There was a night in May 1999 when the Heat pulled away in the fourth quarter to force a decisive fifth game of a first-round playoff series, and the Knicks’ Latrell Sprewell, out of frustration and just for the fun of it, slammed the Heat’s Terry Porter to the floor on a fast break.
A furious Stan Van Gundy bolted upright from his seat next to Riley and stormed down the Heat’s inflamed bench, yelling: “Remember all that. Remember what they do.”
“They,” of course, being the team coached by his kid brother.
“What Riley taught his players was to compete with an intent to dominate and annihilate your competition, mentally and physically,” Alonzo Mourning said. “When he coached the Knicks, he planted that seed. Then he coached the Heat and he planted that same seed. He literally built two monsters.”
“Mirror images,” Ewing said.
Yet somehow, against all odds of tribal conflict, the Ewing-Mourning friendship was never shaken, much less severed. Not even when Ewing was suspended for a crucial playoff game between the two teams in 1997 after wandering harmlessly off the bench during a brawl under the basket, costing the Knicks a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals.
And not after a slugfest broke out between Mourning and Larry Johnson, a former teammate in Charlotte, in the waning seconds of Game 4 of a first-round series between the Knicks and the Heat in 1998. That resulted in a Mourning suspension, his absence from a Knicks’ Game 5 rout in Miami and a hilarious photo of Jeff Van Gundy almost levitating while clasping Mourning’s leg.
Count Van Gundy among those who miss such pugnacity. “It’s not an us-versus-them mentality as much,” he told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski recently. “You’re hard-pressed to find a true rivalry anymore where there’s a little bit of edginess or bad blood.”
Paradoxically, Ewing and Mourning, following the lead of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, set a precedent for contemporary stars with their repudiation of Riley’s no-frenemies policy.
“Pat used to get mad when he was the Knicks’ coach and I’d go out with Alonzo and Dikembe,” Ewing said, tossing in Mutombo, another Georgetown veteran. “He’d tell me, ‘You got to stay away from those guys.’ But whenever we played, starting with the summer workouts at Georgetown, we’d try to kill each other.”
Alonzo Mourning said, “And at the end of the day, it was family,”
Trey Mourning, a toddler back then, has one notable memory of the Heat-Knicks rivalry, the aftermath of the Porter-Sprewell episode in 1999, otherwise known as the Allan Houston game.
Houston’s climactic runner in the lane bounced on the rim before going through the net, breaking Miami’s heart and propelling the Knicks from the threshold of first-round defeat all the way to the N.B.A. finals.
“We had a TV in the kitchen — my Nana was there, my two cousins,” Trey said. “I couldn’t comprehend what it all meant yet, but I do remember they showed my dad walking off the court like this.”
He put both hands on his head and feigned a look of disbelief.
“That game hurt him,” he said. “He still talks about it sometimes.”
As Georgetown does not retire jersey numbers, Trey wears his father’s and Ewing’s No. 33. He sat down for a recent interview in a National Kidney Foundation T-shirt, reflecting his father’s work to combat the rare disease — focal glomerulosclerosis — that threatened his life and required the transplant at age 32.
As a young teenager, Trey developed a passion for international soccer and asked his father if he could go to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as a high school graduation present.
“I told him I would try to make it happen, and then he went out and learned to speak Portuguese,” Alonzo said. “What 15-year-old does that?”
They never made it to Brazil, summer enrollment at Georgetown intervening, but that was the beginning of Trey Mourning’s love affair with language. He has since learned Italian, Spanish, some Greek and French, and hopes to make use of his lingual skills while playing professionally in Europe.
“Trey’s been a vocal leader for us,” said Ewing, whose Hoyas start two freshman guards. “He didn’t play much before this season, so he doesn’t have a lot of experience. But he’s grown up with the game; he always wants to learn.”
When he finished answering questions in the interview, Trey had a few of his own for a reporter he knew had covered the careers of his father, his coach and that Jordan fellow who always got the better of the Georgetown alumni.
“What made Michael so good, in your opinion?” he said, turning on his smartphone recorder.
The answer was simple. In addition to his otherworldly skills, Jordan had the same will and work ethic that defined Riley’s teams in Miami and New York.
Effort, Trey Mourning was told, can never be legislated out of the game.
He nodded. It was nothing he hadn’t heard from his father and his “uncle”-turned-coach, the root of everything they embrace, including each other.