Georgetown coach John Thompson points to you and indicates that you are to follow him. You, of course, obey. He leads you down a long corridor in the Hoyas' antiquated McDonough Arena and finally stops at an unmarked door. Without explanation he tells you to look inside. You open the door tentatively, uncertain what Thompson has in store. There, silhouetted in the pale blue glow of a television screen, are the three talented former Georgetown centers, 7-foot Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks, 6'10" Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets and 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets, all gyrating to the beat of a Jane Fonda workout video.
Thompson has a slight smile when you come back out, as if he has allowed you to view a secret treasure. As striking as it is to see three of the NBA's best centers side by side this way, it is a common sight at Georgetown in the off-season. The triple towers meet on campus regularly during the summer, gathering as often as six times a week to sharpen both their games and their verbal claws against each other. "It's our own personal minicamp," says Mourning. "This is where we help each other and bust on each other at the same time, and we don't hold back in either area. We might help Dikembe work on his hook shot, but we'll also tell him he travels halfway back to Africa when he sets up for it."
In the process Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo serve as role models for the current Hoyas. "They show my young kids things about the value of hard work that no amount of talking from a coach could ever get across," Thompson says. "Patrick, Alonzo and Dikembe have made it, but they're still back here every summer running wind sprints and playing pickup games like they were trying to make the team."
Of course, their influence is greatest on the big men now enrolled at Georgetown. It's not by chance that the Hoyas have developed a tradition of standout centers. First Thompson, a former pivotman at Providence and Bill Russell's backup on the Boston Celtics, taught Ewing, then Ewing came back after the Knicks made him the No. 1 pick of the 1985 draft to help tutor Mourning and Mutombo. Now they are all advisers for the next in the line, 6'10" sophomore Othella Harrington. Each center benefited from the teaching of his predecessors, and each considers the performance of his successors a reflection of his tutoring. "It's about tradition and peer influence and role models," Thompson says. "We make all these silly [NCAA] rules about who can contact whom and when, and we wind up with a situation in which the people who can have a positive influence on kids have less access to them than the drug dealers do. Just by their presence, these three guys have a tremendous positive influence on a dozen other young men."
October 10, 1993
But lest he give them too much praise, Thompson points out a glaring weakness they all share. "Look at 'em," he says. "Can't none of 'em hang with Jane."
The afternoon pickup games are in their third hour when Mutombo calls a foul on Ewing, but play continues as if no one has heard him, as is usually the case. The 27-year-old Mutombo is the Darell Garretson of pickup ball, calling violations so often he should have a striped shirt and a whistle. The others pay attention to about every fourth call, which infuriates him, but Mutombo is one of those sweet-natured people in whom rage is so incongruous it is amusing. "Nobody respects my call!" he bellows, a bit of his homeland of Zaire in his accent as the action moves downcourt without him. "I don't know why I play with you guys. I play with kids, and even the kids don't respect my calls."
Mourning is laughing on the sideline at Mutombo's displeasure. "Hey, Dikembe, you've been playing basketball for what, six, seven years? How come you get out here and act like you wrote the rule book?" he says.
Ewing is more succinct. "We don't call him the cheatin' African for nothin'," he says.
Mutombo isn't, the only one with a nickname. Mourning is the Black Hole. "I don't want to say Zo's a gunner in these games," says former Hoya Mark Tillmon, who often plays in pickup games with the big three, "but if you give him the ball, don't expect to see it again. You've thrown it into the Black Hole."
Ewing is Hack Man. As the oldest of the group, at 31, he obviously considers himself entitled to certain, well, liberties. He is, after all, a Knick. "There are no easy baskets against Patrick," Mutombo says. "Not even in the summertime."
But no one comes in for more teasing than Mutombo. "That is their jealousy speaking," he says. "They know that when they face me, they cannot stop me. They are driven by jealousy."
They are probably motivated more by pride than jealousy, but the big three are every bit as competitive in their summer workouts as in games that count. "Watch them go against each other in pickup games," says Thompson, "and you'll swear they're going to fight." Indeed, Ewing and Mourning exchange deadly glares whenever one calls a foul on the other, and every few minutes one of the big men disgustedly slams the ball down so hard it bounces nearly to the rafters. But there has never been more than a heated argument between them, probably because they know just how far they can push each other before they come to blows.
It also helps that each has an area where he is unchallenged. "The strongest? That's got to be Zo," says Mutombo. "He works the hardest at the weights because he's the one who likes to look at his muscles the most."
"Dikembe's got the best stamina," says Mourning. "You get him out on the track, and he runs forever."
So where is Ewing's advantage? "Age," he says. "They might have younger legs, but I've got more tricks. I've already taught them most of them, but there are a few I'm keeping to myself until I retire."
No one is immune from being the target of trash talk, but there are several reasons why Ewing seems to command the greatest respect from the other centers and from the younger Hoyas who fill out the games. With eight seasons in the NBA, he has moved into the role of an elder and is accorded the appropriate deference. He also has the trump card in all trash-talking battles, having won three of the four regular-season meetings he has had with Mutombo and three of four with Mourning, plus having won the only playoff matchup of these Hoya alumni, when New York beat Charlotte in five games in the last Eastern Conference semis.
Finally, Ewing is the root of the Hoyas' family tree of centers. "This wouldn't have happened without Patrick," Thompson says. "He's the one who would call when he was on the road with the Knicks and ask, 'Coach, how's Zo doing? You want me to give him a call?' One of the things that is sometimes missed about Patrick is his enthusiasm for others' performances." Asked to assess Mourning's and Mutombo's NBA progress, Ewing sounds like a mentor. "They've made me proud," he says.
"You don't usually think of centers this way, but Patrick is really a gym rat," Mourning says. "He's the one that sets the tone for the rest of us, because he's always playing, always working on his game. You know that turnaround jumper he has that's so automatic now? Well, I remember when it wasn't. That shot is the result of who knows how many hours of hard work that Patrick put in after he turned pro, after he had the big contract. That's the kind of thing that makes people around here respect him so much."
Mourning and Mutombo both arrived in the NBA with surprisingly polished offensive games, thanks in part to their summer workouts during their student years against Ewing and against each other. Says Thompson, "I remember Patrick saying to me the summer before Alonzo's rookie season, 'Coach, people are going to be surprised at Zo.' I said, 'Shhh.' " Sure enough, Mourning averaged 21 points in his first pro season. Though he lost to Shaquille O'Neal in Rookie of the Year voting, some felt he was the best newcomer by season's end.
"By the time I got to the NBA, I already felt like a veteran in some ways," says Mourning. "I had already put in a lot of time against two of the biggest, strongest centers in the world. There aren't many 7'2" centers as agile as Dikembe or many 7-foot centers as strong and skilled as Patrick. I'd already been in awe the first time I played against Patrick. I wasn't about to be awed anymore."
Now it is Harrington's turn to be a pupil. He soaks up as much as he can in the pickup games, from a safe distance. To preserve his confidence, he rarely goes head-to-head with Ewing, Mourning or Mutombo, but he picks up pointers constantly, on the way to the water fountain between games or during a lull after a foul call (usually Mutombo's). When there are no games, there are drills, with the four big men working on footwork, rebounding, post-up moves. "It's like having three older brothers," Harrington says. "They help you, but they don't baby you. Before you know it, you're picking up some of their habits. Patrick showed me how to dip my shoulder into my man a little when I pump-fake to knock him off balance just enough that he won't be able to jump with me. It's like summer school for centers."
And when he graduates from this summer school, Harrington will be expected to come back and teach. "He'll have no choice," Mourning says. "We'll all be in his face, on the phone, telling him to drag himself in here. The next man in the line should always start out a little bit ahead of where the man before him began, because he has had one more hand to guide him."
Toward the end of the day Mourning wins a scramble for a loose ball against Ewing. He takes a shot, which Ewing blocks, regains the ball and then powers past Ewing, only to meet Harrington, who body-slams him as he goes to the hoop. Mourning picks himself up and glares over his shoulder at Harrington, who is staring right back. Mourning looks angry, yet somehow satisfied. The tradition will continue.