SLAM 142: What makes Georgetown basketball special?
Under John Thompson, the Georgetown Hoyas became a basketball powerhouse and a national name on the hoops scene. With his son now at the helm, the Hoyas are still as special today as they were then. Check out this look at the Georgetown program in the latest issue of SLAM and pick up SLAM 142 today. –Ed.
by Cole Wiley
With the seventh pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons select…Greg Monroe from Georgetown University.”
In this moment, I know that at some small DC sports bar, there are Hoya fans screaming “Hoya! Saxa! Hoya! Saxa!” at the TV.
Then something hits me. I shamefully realize, even as a lifetime Hoya fan, that I don’t know what Hoya Saxa means. I fire up my laptop, search Google and anticipate one of the most fulfilling moments of casual research of my entire adulthood. Instead, all I got was a complete letdown.
Hoya Saxa, the official college cheer of Georgetown University, a confounding combination of Latin and Greek terms, has an English translation of: What rocks?
For whatever reason, I assumed that I would find a definition with a little more substance, a deeper meaning. Will of a champion. Heart of a lion. Power of the virtuous.
Not quite. Hoya Saxa is not so refined. That’s not to say the phrase has no meaning. A long time ago, when the game of basketball was just a twinkle in Dr. James Naismith’s shooting hand, the Georgetown Hoyas were known as the Georgetown Stonewalls. Soon after, a few students decided to use the term “Hoya Saxa” to refer to their teams. So, in essence, What rocks! is an overly witty, yet undeniably creative method of referring to the strength and fortitude of Georgetown athletes.
Notwithstanding my disappointing historical investigation, I am a Hoya. I call myself such, and yet I’ve never clocked a minute of game time for the squad, nor am I an alumnus of the university. I am a Hoya because it is something more than collegiate pride. Or so I thought. Maybe Hoyas just aren’t what I imagined them to be.
After considering the stakes involved, I decide it’s time for an emergency trip to Obama Land, our nation’s capital, to clarify things. For the sake of our national security, the true meaning of Hoya Saxa must be found. Blackjack Bauer is on the case.
Under the guise of doing an article for SLAM Magazine, I stroll across the Hilltop on my way to meet with current coach, John Thompson III, aka JT III. He’ll surely have the answers I need.
I approach the Mecca of Georgetown Basketball, McDonough Arena, which serves as the practice facility for the men’s team and headquarters for the athletic department. Entering the lobby, I find myself surrounded by an assortment of mahogany cases filled with trophies, honors and other memorabilia from the university’s athletic programs. I am more interested in taking a peek at the glistening McDonough hardwood, something that I have not seen in over a decade.
Mike “Mex” Carey, Sports Information Director for the Hoyas, walks up the hall and politely breaks my reverie. We exchange pleasantries and head up to the men’s basketball office. On the other side of the gym, a towering man with a gallant stride and arms like a condor walks off the floor.
“G Money,” I say, referring to Monroe.
“Yeah, he just finished working out,” Mex adds.
I am not surprised to see him here. Patrick, Alonzo, Dikembe, Sleepy Floyd, Iverson, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, DaJuan Summers and pretty much any other former player you name all come back to McDonough to work out and pass on their wisdom to current players. That’s the way things work around here. That’s why Greg Monroe is here. I know that without even asking.
The central hive of Hoya Paranoia is about as understated as it gets. The most noticeable part of the office décor is a decaying, deflated basketball that sits near the entrance. I wonder about the significance of this particular artifact. What gifted hands has it been handled with? What history does it have that it is displayed so prominently?
“So what’s the article about?” Mex asks.
“Oh. Well, it’s not set in stone yet. Just trying to do a nice piece about the program,” I reply.
Years of poker playing serve me well in this moment. I must not reveal my search for the true meaning for Hoya Saxa. Blackjack Bauer doesn’t break. Our national security is at stake.
Mex’s eyes tilt upward to the other side of the room. JT III turns the corner. I rise and shake his hand. I notice that unlike the last time I stood in front of a Thompson, I am able to speak clearly and my hands do not shake.
We go deeper into the office. If the lobby is the hive, this room is the inner lair. More than 25 years of achievements and priceless memorabilia engulf the space. Multiple Big East Championship trophies.
Multiple Big East Player of the Year awards. The 1984 National Championship ball. So much hardware that there’s barely a place to sit down. Some might find it hard to believe that these items are purposely tucked away in the inner sanctum of the arena. I simply nod. Hoya humility.
“So what’s the article about?” asks Coach.
I look at Mex and dance around the answer in roughly the same manner as the first time. Shockingly, Thompson accepts my response. Maybe it is because there is a lot of history between JT III and myself even though we have never met. As two men who consistently deal with our fathers’ infallible legacies being held in comparison to the work we do, we have as solid an understanding of each other as two men can have in the moment they first speak. While virtually no writer has resisted the temptation of comparing JT III’s tenure at Georgetown with that of his father’s, I have no problem skipping past that point. As a freelance writer and the son of a journalist/author/magician who covered the best of American sports for decades, I already understand his position.
Masking my true purpose lest Blackjack Bauer be exposed, I delve into casual commentary about the program. I start with last year’s disappointing first-round loss to 14th-seed Ohio University in the NCAA Tournament. In retrospect, it was an especially frustrating way for a season to end considering that the Hoyas handily beat both National Championship teams (Butler and Duke) earlier in the year and played West Virginia, another Final Four participant, down to the wire in a thrilling Big East Championship game.
“We didn’t play well,” Coach admits. “Anytime you don’t play well in March, you go home. The names across the jerseys are irrelevant.”
Brutal honesty. No excuses. No grievances. A Hoya answer for sure.
“We knew that we could beat anyone in the country, but if you don’t dot your Is and cross your Ts, you can lose also. That’s part of growing up as a player and as a man. It hurts, but hopefully it prepares us for this year.”
It’s already apparent that JT III falls right in line with the Hoya tradition of coaching. That says little about a son taking after his father, but speaks more about the traits which make a good man a great coach. “This program is about preparing young men for life. Their gifts as basketball players allow them to come to Georgetown and showcase their athletic skill, but it’s more important that they grow and learn off the court.”
This sounds more like the Hoya Saxa that I know-a tradition that has graduated 107 of the 109 members of the men’s basketball program who have stayed for all four years.
“Did you see the ball out in the lobby?” asks Coach Thompson.
“The deflated one?” I question.
“We tell all our players that one day they’re not going to be able to bounce that ball. That they need to be prepared for life once that happens.”
Just minutes ago, I sat and wondered what significance that deflated ball had. It turns out its most important value is its insignificance in the greater picture. How it encompasses just one aspect of a much larger and richer life. Looking at a few former players from recent years, the lesson is not being lost. Jeff Green, the underappreciated, workmanlike forward who left Georgetown as a junior to join the Oklahoma City Thunder, will be coming back to GU next summer to complete his degree requirements. Jonathan Wallace, a four-year starter and floor general for the Hoyas in their 2007 Final Four run is currently balancing stints on rosters in the NBDL, Euroleague and the GULC. Haven’t heard of the GULC? That’s because it’s not a league. It’s the Georgetown University Law Center. He’s enrolling there in the fall. And he’ll still be playing ball, too.
All of this is profoundly striking in the midst of an ever-thickening police blotter of collegiate and professional athletes that are making headlines with their off-the-court antics.
“Kids are kids,” says Thompson. “This program builds its success based on what 18- to 22-year-olds do. They are gonna make mistakes. We’ve got to be here to help and support them. Every man does things when they are 18 that they wouldn’t do when they are much older.”
At this point, I realize that we need a travelling version of JT III in every home across the country. A figure that guides young boys toward manhood yet doesn’t judge them for the youthful mistakes they make. Some people call this person a father, but not enough children have actual experience with one. Without a doubt, words like these are invaluable for incoming freshmen, and Coach Thompson has a bumper crop of recruits that will take full advantage of the Hoya culture during the upcoming year.
“One of the greatest aspects of collegiate athletics is that every year you start all over,” adds Coach Thompson. “Every year, the whole composition, energy and feel of the team is different. Trying to get them to think as one, to act as one and have success.”
So much for the small talk. It’s obvious that the man sitting across from me has a love for the game, a commitment to the program, a will to lead young men and a desire to achieve that are as fierce as anyone who will ever coach the game. With little else to talk about, it’s finally time for Blackjack Bauer to complete his mission.
“Coach, what’s the meaning behind Hoya Saxa?”
As I make my final tour of the facilities, the answer that Coach Thompson gives me rolls around in my head. I know that there is only one place to ponder such an answer.
On the face of things, The Stage is just a small, auxiliary court in the back of the building. One might think it’s almost too tiny for top-level ballers to get any real work done there. The baselines are short, the floor is a fraction of regulation width and the walls are padded with blue foam for the inevitable crashes into the paneling that could leave you limping for days. Yet, with no windows and no clock, it is almost as if you are in a place where God himself could not disturb the work being put in.
Standing in the middle of that tiny, unassuming little court, I finally felt what Hoya Saxa is all about. JT III’s words rang in my ears: “It is a function of the institution, the city, my father and countless other things that have made us who we are today. And that’s something that we’re very proud of.”
As we walk out of the building, Mex says, “If you need to talk to any players, let me know.”
“No, I think I’ll be alright.”
I’m sure I could have set up meetings with a line of current and former Hoya players, but I knew that there was no need. Blackjack Bauer had already succeeded and the nation was safe once again.
I already knew the type of men they would be. Talented athletes who hoop with their hearts, but also do their best to make their mark in the world once the ball runs out of air.
They are Hoya Saxa.
And Hoya Saxa is as much about shaping manhood as it is about shaping a jump shot.
What rocks. Indeed.
Blackjack Bauer. Out.