NEW YORK — About a minute before tipoff at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, St. John’s coach Chris Mullin walked toward midcourt and gave a mock shrug of his shoulders. It was that universal look of, “How did we end up here?” And then he embraced his foe for the evening, his foe for the ages, Patrick Ewing.
It is Ewing’s first season as the coach of Georgetown, but Mullin won’t let him forget that his advice pushed Ewing toward accepting the job.
So Mullin and Ewing have long since cooled the animus that once existed between the two Big East rivals. But that did not dull the interest in Tuesday’s warm and fuzzy reunion. After they hugged, Mullin turned toward the stands and pointed to a spot five rows behind the St. John’s bench. There, former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca, 93, caught the gesture, stood and blew Ewing a kiss.
“A long friendship,” Mullin said Monday, when asked how he would describe his relationship with Ewing.
It is not complicated. On-court adversaries became respected off-court pals once they realized they had more in common than they had probably thought. That has continued as both entered middle age, although Mullin realized later than Ewing that he had a passion for coaching. But as they exchanged text messages and phone calls this spring, Mullin helped Ewing realize that a return to his alma mater could be a reinvigorating step.
“I was really transparent,” Mullin said. “I gave him my personal experience. He made his decision.”
Once the ball was tipped on Tuesday, the two men decamped to their respective benches, neither sitting for long. There was no pregame hype video commemorating the history between the two men. Most of the players probably would not recognize the footage of the two men facing off during their collegiate playing days of the 1980s, anyway.
The current squads have a long way to go before reminding anyone of 1985. But it was a spirited matchup — both teams are desperate for a win in conference play to avoid falling deeper out of contention. The score was tied at halftime, 31-31, but the Hoyas emerged with a 69-66 win after Jessie Govan hit a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left and Jonathan Mulmore hit two free throws to seal it.
Mullin, who could appear somewhat disengaged on the sideline at times during his first season coaching St. John’s, has found his voice in his third. His team is more seasoned; three starters, Justin Simon, Tariq Owens, and Marvin Clark II, transferred to the program from other high-major schools. He has had a chance to recruit players that fit his tough-nosed, quick-paced style of play.
The Red Storm is also small and prone to lapses in focus, and at times can appear allergic to making baskets. It is why the team started Big East play without a win in four contests — the second time that had happened under Mullin.
Georgetown relaxed often into a zone and happily offered the Red Storm room to shoot. The Hoyas started the season 8-0, playing a light schedule, but they have also struggled in conference play, most recently losing a game at home to Creighton by 24 points that dropped them to 1-3 in the Big East entering Tuesday.
Mullin was not about to criticize his friend’s transition from the NBA to the college ranks.
“He’s done a great job,” Mullin said of Ewing. “He’s got coaching experience. The one thing from his playing career and coaching career in the NBA, he’s a hard worker. Puts the time in. He’s got discipline, intensity, and he loves the game.”
Both coaches are often more eager to speak about the promise of their teams for the future. Fans at Tuesday’s game, meanwhile, were left wistfully trying to relive the past.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.