On Saturday, the District of Columbia welcomes the Orange faithful to continue one of the greatest rivalries in college basketball.
From that fateful February night in 1980 when John Thompson Jr. declared Manley Field House closed, this rivalry has taken many dramatic twists and turns.
However, when you examine the two schools, you see one staying constant and another in flux.
On the Syracuse side, we have primarily stayed the constant through the years. We still have Boehiem and the 2-3 zone. Salt City is still Salt City, with Orange-clad fans still buried in snow. The Carrier Dome is still the greatest arena to watch a college basketball game.
Georgetown is a fundamentally different basketball program in an unrecognizable D.C. Interestingly, the development of Georgetown basketball and the District of Columbia have run on parallel tracks. You can look at the history of one and find the history of the other.
The rise of Georgetown and DC
Washington, D.C. has had a tumultuous history.
In the opening part of the 20th century, D.C. was a segregated city. Following the second World War, a period of white flight began.
The affluent, mostly white, District residents abandoned the city for the suburbs, leaving a poor and predominantly black city.
This new city was decimated in 1968, as race riots consumed the economic centers of traditionally black D.C. These areas would not be developed for decades.
What sprang up instead of new business was ineffective local leadership, poverty, violence and a crack epidemic.
Washington D.C. in the 1980s lived with two identities.
It was the home of American political power, while being the Murder Capitol of the United States.
In the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan presided over the shining city on a hill. In Washington, Marion Barry ran a crony state. Instead of ending the crack epidemic, he joined it.
Reagan famously told Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.” Mayor Barry told the American people “the bitch set me up” after he was caught smoking crack in a sleazy D.C. hotel.
It was in this city that Georgetown basketball came to national power. It made perfect sense.
For the city of dueling identities, an upper-class, top-tier and predominately white Jesuit University housing the most out-spoken black coach leading an aggressive basketball team know as “Black America’s team” or “12 Angry Black Men” only made sense.
John Thompson Jr. was the man to lead this team because Thompson is D.C. He was born and played high school basketball in the District. He came back after a brief career as Bill Russell’s backup on the Celtics to coach high school at St. Anthony’s in the District.
When Georgetown came looking for a coach in 1970 to turn around a flailing program, it got more than a coach. It got a man who was the representation of the city. He wore the grit of the city on his sleeve and had Go-Go coursing through his veins.
Uniting the city
Intentionally or not, Thompson would join the two parts of the city.
That said, Thompson never shied away from controversy and never backed down on racial issues related to his team. He used it and even instigated it.
Negative comments from the media about his team’s style of play, the players he brought in and racism that was thrown toward his teams were the hammer and nails in his toolbox he used to build the “us-against-the-world” mentality that was the feature motivating tools of his team.
One national title, three Final Fours and seven Big East titles shows just how successful his motivation could be.
D.C. was a tough city in the 1980s, and there was no man more intimidating than Coach Thompson.
In the 1980s, the crack epidemic was the scourge of D.C. It decimated an already dying community and led to an unfathomable period of crime and violence.
In the crack game, there was no larger player than Rayful Edmunds III. It was his drug empire that dominated the city. No political, law enforcement or religious leader could step up to stop him.
But then again, none of them were anything like John Thompson Jr.
In 1989, Thompson found out his star player, Alonzo Mourning, was associating with Edmunds. He called the drug lord into his office to put an end to this.
Edmunds respected what Thompson created at Georgetown. He had courtside tickets to most games at the Capitol Center.
But this love extended to his criminal empire. When Edmund’s underlings were killed in gang warfare, they were buried in Georgetown jerseys.
I don’t think this meeting was what Edmunds expected. Thompson berated the drug dealer to keep away from his players.
The legend is that even after Edmunds told the coach his players were not involved in illegal activity, Thompson threatened to have Edmunds killed if he did not stay away from his players.
Such open defiance to a known killer could have been met with serious and deadly repercussions.
In the end, Edmunds stayed away, was eventually arrested, turned informant and is now living his life in the witness protection program. John Thompson Jr. went on to coach many more successful teams.
That is power.
But power doesn’t last forever.
As the years went on, Mourning led to Iverson. After Iverson however, Georgetown began to decline.
After a season in which Georgetown struggled to a first-round loss in the NIT, Georgetown started the 1998-1999 season 7-6. On Jan. 8, 1999, Thompson resigned due to marital issues.
The legend was now gone.
As the legend that was Big John was winding down, something began to happen in D.C. The city, in the midst of turmoil, began to change.
D.C. politics in the age of Georgetown dominance was a one-person show. D.C. was Marion Barry.
Elected mayor for fours terms, from 1979-1990 and 1994-1998, the “mayor for life’s” four-year hiatus came only due to his arrest and incarceration related to his arrest for crack possession. But like Coach Thompson, his star too would fade.
Barry’s mayoral downfall came in 1997. For all of Barry’s eccentricities, what truly did him in was his handling of the city budget.
D.C. was in such a fiscal nightmare that Congress temporarily revoked Barry’s ability to hire new employees and forced an administrator named Anthony Williams on his to clean up the D.C. budget.
It became clear there was only one way home rule would come back. Barry had to go. And thus, Marion Barry chose not to seek reelection in 1998.
It was Anthony Williams who would become mayor and lead to the transformation of much of D.C.
Anthony Williams and the man who would replace him, Adrian Fenty, brought forward a pro-business investment plan that revitalized the city. These two were able to put the city budget into the black.
Once-rundown areas in Chinatown, Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights were overhauled and revitalized.
Areas destroyed by the riots in 1968 are now filled with new business and nightlife. These improvements led to a period of gentrification, as people who had traditionally left for the suburbs have stayed in D.C. to move into these newly revitalized neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods that were formerly working class now contain Ivy League educated professionals, many from financially strong and well-connected families.
Sound like someone we know?
Georgetown basketball followed a similar path to the city. In the aftermath of John Thompson’s resignation, Craig Esherick, a top Thompson assistant replaced Thompson after he stepped down in 1998.
He attempted to keep the old intimidator’s legacy alive. Same aggressive style of play. Same soft out of conference schedule.
Only thing different was results. Esherick was not the coach John Thompson was.
So, in 2004 when Georgetown decided to move in a different direction, it went to the son of the man who brought them to glory, John Thompson III.
Not my father
For those who thought they were getting a return of Hoya Paranoia were in for a rude awaking. With the son, the bombast and aggression of old is gone. It turns out the Georgetown can win without it.
John Thompson III is a good basketball coach.
As fun as it to throw out the nepotism claims, he has a solid basketball pedigree coming from the Pete Carril school of Princeton basketball. He had a few successful years as the head man at this Ivy power before taking over at Georgetown.
He is a coach in his own right. That said, he is not his father. The grit of Georgetown is gone.
The “12 Angry Black Men” teams who could not be dominated no longer live atop the Exorcist steps. They have been replaced by a fundamentally sound basketball team that thrives on backdoor cuts, sharp passing and deadly outside shooting.
Ironically, a key problem for this new Georgetown is its big men do get dominated by other Big East big men.
Players like Dejaun Blair and Arinze Onuaku were able to use brute strength to dominate Greg Monroe and Roy Hibbert. While Hibbert and Monroe could pass from the top of the key, they weren’t throwing elbows Michael Graham style.
This new Georgetown team represents the new D.C.
Georgetown basketball cannot be compared to the street-ball you would see at Barry Farms, D.C.’s equivalent of Rucker Park in New York. It has evolved into something completely different. Just as the city has evolved.
Saturday’s game at Georgetown will take place at the university’s home court: the Verizon Center in the Chinatown neighborhood of D.C. This area has developed over the past 10 years from a virtual bombed-out ghost town to one key hubs of nightlife in the city. With the bright lights and chain stores, it is more Manhattan than D.C. It is a far cry from the Capitol Center out in Prince Georges County — D.C’s mostly black suburb.
The move is fitting.
On Saturday at noon, Washington, D.C. will become the center of the college basketball world. But, as you watch the game on CBS, remember that the team you hate today is not the same team that you hated in the 1980s.
Though, I’m sure Syracuse fans can find many detestable things about this team. While Georgetown has changed over the years, one thing has not.
Syracuse fans hate them, and always will.
Mark Porter currently resides in Washington, D.C.
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