Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing Credit: Georgetown University Athletics Communications

A heavy load of school work prevented Lola Ogunsuyi from regularly watching the Georgetown men’s basketball team on TV for several years. She would occasionally check scores online, but didn’t go out of her way to make time for games. Plus, Ogunsuyi reasoned, the Hoyas had perpetually underachieved and appeared to be trending downward under coach John Thompson III

In 2013, the second-seeded Georgetown lost to 15th seed Florida Gulf Coast in the round of 64 at the NCAA tournament. Early-round NCAA tournament exits and bids to the second-tier National Invitation Tournament became the norm. Even the most die-hard Georgetown fans began to sour.

But recent headlines suggest that things may be turning around. NBA and Georgetown legend Patrick Ewing, who replaced Thompson in 2017, has brought in a number of heralded players and is visibly more at ease in his second season in charge. After an 88-80 early-season victory over Illinois in which three freshmen combined for 45 points, fans wrote effusively about the team on Twitter.

Casual Hoya, an SB Nation website devoted to Georgetown faithfuls, tweeted: “Ladies and Gentleman, Georgetown Hoyas basketball is fun again.”

“They’re actually really good,” says Ogunsuyi, a 27-year-old Georgetown graduate student studying systems medicine. “I was surprised.”

At the start of the second half against Maryland Eastern Shore on Nov. 6, Georgetown freshman Mac McClung stole a pass and raced down the court before throwing down a two-handed double-pump reverse dunk. The announced crowd of 4,189 roared with approval. Ever since the Gate City, Virginia, native broke Allen Iverson’s Virginia high school scoring record, fans have salivated at the chance to see the high-flying dunker in a Georgetown jersey. 

He receives some of the loudest cheers inside Capital One Arena and his Georgetown game highlights routinely draw hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. McClung fever has officially arrived on The Hilltop.

YouTube video

“There were a lot of eyeballs on him even as a high school kid,” says Ankit Reddy, a Georgetown sophomore from Dallas. “People knew about him, like OK, there’s this explosive white kid, which you don’t really see, you know? The fact that he’s at Georgetown, that’s attracted a bigger audience to the team.”

While Georgetown freshmen are prohibited from talking to the media until their second semester, players like McClung, James Akinjo, and Josh LeBlanc, have let their games, teammates, and even NBA champions speak for their impact. Akinjo is the second leading scorer on the team with 13.5 points per game for the Hoyas heading into the Nov. 28 contest against Richmond, which Georgetown won, 90-82, to improve to 6-1. The guard from Oakland, California, was named Big East Freshman of the Week earlier this month.

“Their guard play is amazing,” says 2006 NBA champion Alonzo Mourning, who was in town over Thanksgiving break to watch his son, Trey, finish with a career-best 27 points and 12 rebounds against Campbell University. “Both of those guys [McClung and Akinjo] are going to be fun to watch for years to come.”

During a lull in play against Campbell, Ewing’s deep, booming voice can be heard all across the cavernous arena. 

“Move here!” he instructs his players, jabbing his index finger in the air. When he speaks, people listen. At 7 feet tall, the 56-year-old Ewing still commands a certain respect that he earned over more than a decade in the NBA. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

“He just knows what he’s talking about,” says Trey Mourning, a fifth-year senior forward. “He’s one of the greatest players of all time. And if he doesn’t have the answer, he can call my father. He can call anyone. I’m sure his contact list in his phone is pretty star-studded and he can get answers from them. He knows what he’s talking about and people want to play for him. He gets the best out of his players.”

Last season, Ewing led the Hoyas to a 10-1 start, but they struggled against Big East competition and finished 15-15 overall and third to last in the conference. Even as the team moves forward, the Thompson family—for better or for worse—still has a sizable influence in the program. John Thompson Jr. can be seen in the building on game days and he was one of the forces in recruiting Ewing for the job, according to Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. Another of Big John’s sons, Ronny Thompson, is a full-time staff member on the men’s basketball team.

Early in Ewing’s tenure, questions arose about whether he or the legendary former coach would be in control of the program, a notion that Ewing has dismissed as insulting. In an interview with The Post last year, Ewing asserted that there is nothing wrong with Thompson’s outsized presence at Georgetown.

“I’ve been working at this craft [of coaching] for a lot of years. It’s not like I just stopped playing [in the NBA] … I’m my own person. It’s my program,” Ewing said. But, as Boswell noted, he doesn’t mind reaching out to Thompson if he needs to. “I’ll never let anyone come between [us].”

Fans like Ogunsuyi understand that the team is still rebuilding. The Hoyas have missed the NCAA tournament the past three seasons and they will soon face stiffer competition during conference play in the Big East. But for her, it’s clear that Georgetown is pushing years of disappointment and heartaches further into the past with each electrifying McClung dunk or infectious laugh from Ewing.

A Toronto-area native, she had never been to D.C. before Georgetown accepted her into the school’s systems medicine master’s program. But for as long as she can remember, she’s been a fan of its men’s basketball team. 

Her Nigeria-born dad first introduced her to the John Thompson Jr.-led Georgetown team in the 1990s, and she learned all about the storied history of the program, which includes the 1984 NCAA title. She has followed the team through its highs and lows—from the NCAA Final Four team in 2007 to the NIT bids to the hiring of Ewing, her favorite Georgetown basketball player, as coach last season to replace Thompson Jr.’s son, John Thompson III. 

And now, as a season ticket holder and student, she gets to watch her favorite basketball team live in person.

Late in the game against Campbell, the Georgetown men’s basketball team huddled across the court during a timeout, while Jack the Bulldog, the dancing, costumed Hoyas mascot, stared up at the dozens of fans gathered in the student section at Capital One Arena. Jack skipped back and forth behind the backboard for several seconds and pondered which lucky few that braved the freezing rain on the Saturday after Thanksgiving would be worthy of a free T-shirt.

“Ooh, I want a shirt! I want a shirt!” Ogunsuyi shouted from the front row. “Right here! Right here!”

Jack pretended to not see her. The mascot faked throwing a shirt deep into the crowd as music drowned out some of Ogunsuyi’s pleas. But she eventually wore Jack down, and the person behind the costume handed her one of the giveaways.

“Thank you!” a relieved Ogunsuyi screamed.

On the final possession against Campbell, LeBlanc, a freshman forward averaging 10.2 points per game, collected his fourth rebound to seal Georgetown’s 93-85 victory. Ogunsuyi thrusted both arms in the air, clapped her hands, and yelled, “Yes!” at the top of her lungs, her free T-shirt tucked away in her pocket.