They were titans – the Achilles and Hector of a new basketball league that would grow into one of the most influential in college basketball.
It can be fairly argued that Patrick Ewing, who was a three-time consensus all-American at Georgetown, and Chris Mullin, a consensus all-American at St. John’s, are the most important players in the history of the Big East.
Their entwined collegiate Hall of Fame careers at a time when the Big East was a fledgling conference trying to gain the respect of standard bearers like the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Pac-10 drastically altered the dynamics of college basketball.
The careers of Ewing and Mullin gave the “made-for-television” Big East the exposure it needed and made it cool for top-level recruits to play college basketball in the Northeast.
Between the 1981-82 and 1984-85 seasons, the Big East placed five teams in the Final Four. In 1985 it became the first team to place three teams in a Final Four – Georgetown, St. John’s and eventual NCAA champion Villanova.
Including the Big East and NCAA tournaments, Mullin and Ewing squared off 12 times in college and many more times during their Hall of Fame careers in the NBA.
They won Olympic gold medals as teammates in 1984 and 1992.
Still, on Tuesday the meeting of Ewing and Mullin at MSG was unique. With Ewing in his first season as head coach of Georgetown and Mullin in his third at St. John’s, this was their first matchup as coaches.
“I think it’s what dreams are made of,” said Ewing, who paid 15 years of dues as an NBA assistant coach. “You have two guys – I’m from Jamaica and he’s from Brooklyn – and we both play a sport that we love. We battled each other, became friends and won two gold medals together. Now, we’re battling each other again.”
The game played like some of the ones from three decades ago when John Thompson, Jr. patrolled courtside for Georgetown and Lou Carnesecca guided St. John’s.
It was an ugly affair that ended up with the Hoyas winning, 69-66 – first coin to Ewing.
Despite the sloppiness, there was a vibe back in the Garden that gave some hope that if Mullin and Ewing can become successful, MSG will sell out again for this historical rivalry instead of being just half full.
Nostalgia will only carry things so far, however.
The 94-year-old Carnesecca can be in the stands and FS1 can have Bill Raftery – the voice that helped introduce the Big East to America – doing color commentary on a national broadcast, but both Ewing and Mullin know that it is now about what they can accomplish as coaches for their schools not what they did as players.
“That was 30 years ago,” said Ewing, who was twice the co-Big East player of the year with Mullin. “I told my team from the beginning that this is not Patrick Ewing the player coming in here to help things out. That ship has sailed.”
The reality is that St. John’s, which plays Villanova at the Garden on Saturday, is now off to an 0-5 start in the Big East for the third consecutive year. Georgetown has 12 wins but that is deceptive because of a non-league schedule that was ranked as one of the weakest in the nation.
“One of the things I’ve tried to tell people is that this is not going to happen overnight — it’s a step-by-step process,” Ewing said. “It’s not Patrick Ewing the player walking through the door. But you can say my goal here is to ultimately be as successful as Coach Thompson.”
Mullin echoes the sentiment, just substituting Carnesecca for Thompson.
“The objective is to build and grow more each day until we get there,” Mullin said.
Ironically, Villanova, just as it did in 1985 when it upset Georgetown in the NCAA title game, looms heavily over these attempted rebirths.
The Wildcats have been the dominant program in realigned Big East and the mid-western newcomers – Xavier, Creighton and Butler – have held their own in the league.
The problem is that while three decades ago might still be in the minds of the parents of the kids they are recruiting, those glory days barely register with the players.
Mullin and Ewing have to change the current perceptions of St. John’s and Georgetown. They can no longer do that as players. It has to be done as head coaches.
“That’s the challenge and the drive,” said Mullin, who Ewing contacted when he was considering the Georgetown job. “That’s why we came back. I look at it as a driving force that motivates us to do it. St. John’s and Georgetown are special for us.