It has been over three decades since the Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball program could call themselves National Champions. The mystique of one of college basketball’s most dominant championship teams, the 1984 Hoyas, is one of either mystery or forgotten tale. The 1985 Georgetown-Villanova NCAA final goes down as the greatest upset in college sports, if not sports history. The Hoyas have not been as successful as they were during the ’80s (three Final Fours between ’82-85) having only made one since ’85, losing to Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Ohio State in 2007.
Georgetown would end the 1983-84 season with a record of 34-3, only losing one out-of-conference game on the road to DePaul and two conference games—to Villanova and St. John’s, both at the Hoyas’ home court at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. The Hoyas had an easy pre-season and early season schedule before heading into rough and tumble Big East regular season battles with rivals Syracuse (1987), Providence (1987) and Seton Hall (1989), all of whom would make a Final Four appearance within the next four years. Despite the Big East being no cakewalk, the ’83-84 Hoyas would dominate the league like no other team has before or since.
Heading out west for the Las Vegas Classic at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of Nevada-Las Vegas, the Hoyas started the season ranked fourth in the Coaches Poll and would lose a spot despite not losing a game. Blame it on the weak early season schedule—they failed to play a ranked team for the first month of the season—or maybe it was “Hoya Paranoia” after all.
Victories at UNLV (69-67), and over No. 14-ranked St. John’s at Madison Square Garden—which was nicknamed “The Sweater Game” for the moment Thompson came out of the visitor’s locker room while both teams were warming up wearing an exact replica of St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca’s lucky sweater—set the tone for the remainder of the regular season. Georgetown went on to win that nationally televised game by 22 points. Exactly one month later, SJU exacted its revenge, 75-71, at the Cap Centre. That would be the Hoyas’ final loss of the season. Thompson’s team would end the season with a 14-2 conference record as the Big East Tournament approached.
A first-round bye in the conference tournament led to a huge victory over Providence before the Hoyas defeated St. John’s—the previous season’s tournament champion—79-68 to advance to the final against their biggest rival, Syracuse.
The Gtown-Cuse rivalry almost deserves its own story; by ’84 the two teams and their coaches had been deciding conference championships since the inception of the Big East Conference, and they remain nationally relevant to this day. The Orangemen finished in second place during the ’84 Big East season, two games behind the Hoyas. In what can be considered, along with the 2009 six-OT Big East tournament final between UConn and Cuse, the best Big East game ever, Syracuse and Georgetown fought tooth and nail in the ’84 conference title game on March 10 at a rollicking Madison Square Garden.
Two former McDonald’s All-American freshmen would play a huge part in the outcome. Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and Reggie Williams were both highly touted freshman guards for Syracuse and Georgetown, respectively, but Washington’s hype was on an entirely different level from the moment he stepped foot in the Carrier Dome in upstate New York. The Brooklyn native came out of Boys and Girls High School with a then-unheard of amount of media coverage for an incoming freshman. The Pearl finished the contest with 27 points on dazzling drives and pull-up jumpers while Williams played a lesser role for the Hoyas. But he would have his time to shine later on in the biggest game of the year. It was primarily the responsibility of DC native and senior captain/defensive stopper Gene Smith to slow Washington down at some point that night. Smith’s job was to pressure all the point guards the Hoyas faced and the freshman Washington was quickly becoming his toughest assignment.
“That was the toughest game we played all March,” says Smith today. Now the Chief Sales Architect for Cotton & Rubber Brand Marketing Consulting Firm, Smith knew going into that final that Syracuse was taking the game as seriously as the Hoyas were. “[We] won the regular season title but you want to win the Big East Tournament,” he says. “The teams were bitter rivals. Big John [Thompson] didn’t like [Syracuse coach Jim] Boeheim and Boeheim didn’t like Big John. You knew something was going to happen that night.”
Hoya sophomore guard Michael Jackson would score 20 points—going 8 for 8 from the line—along with tournament Most Valuable Player Ewing totaling 27 points to beat the Orangemen 82-71 in overtime. Boeheim was on record as not being satisfied with the game’s outcome, shouting at the post-game press conference, “The best team did not win tonight.” He was referring to the punch thrown by Hoya freshman forward Michael Graham at Orangemen forward and all-tournament selection Andre Hawkins following a loose ball scuffle. What Boeheim did not know but would later find out was that the best team in the nation would ultimately be the same team that beat his that night.
Georgetown opened the 1984 NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 seed in the West bracket draped across their chest and nearly got it snatched off by underdog Southern Methodist University in the second round. A 7-0 center by the name of Jon Koncak—a future Lottery pick of perplexing proportions—along with his Mustang teammates nearly shocked the collegiate basketball world, leading at halftime before losing 37-36. A late tip-in by Ewing of a Gene Smith missed free throw became the difference between a historic upset and the Hoyas advancing on.
“That game against SMU was huge,” says Horace Broadnax, currently the men’s basketball head coach at Savannah State University, who was then a sophomore guard. “They had a big man to match up with Patrick, they had an opportunity to play a game prior to us [Back in the pre-64-team days the No. 1 seeds got a bye—Ed.] and there was no shot clock,” Broadnax continues. “Ewing made a huge play or we would not be talking about the 1984 National Championship.”
A rematch with UNLV was next, with a result similar to their initial meeting in Las Vegas earlier that season. This time the Hoyas won by double-digits, as they did the next round against Dayton for the right to go to the Final Four in Seattle. There they would meet the University of Kentucky, the rare college team as big and tough as the Hoyas. The Wildcats had two 7-foot centers patrolling the paint for them in Sam Bowie and Mel “Dinner Bell” Turpin—both of whom would later become NBA Lottery picks—and had the luxury of playing their regional final game on their home court at Rupp Arena in Lexington, defeating Illinois 54-51. The following season the NCAA would create a rule that disallowed this from ever happening again in any round of the Tournament.
The game between the Hoyas and Wildcats would be played thousands of miles away from both Kentucky and DC at the massive Kingdome—basketball capacity: 38,471—in Seattle.
Blame the first half difficulties on the dome’s dimensions or nerves, but Georgetown could not get out of its own way, committing 20 team fouls during the first half. Kentucky went into their locker room with a 29-22 lead. The Hoyas’ sophomore trio of Jackson, David Wingate and Harold Broadnax clearly had to pick up the slack on offense, while Smith, who recently organized a Hoya basketball reunion barbecue in DC, wasn’t going to go out without a fight as he kept up the full-court defensive pressure on the Wildcats. The second half went the way Georgetown needed, as the Hoyas got offensive production from Ewing, Michael Graham and Reggie Williams while holding Kentucky scoreless for the first 10 minutes of the half. The Hoyas made six of their first seven shots while the Wildcats missed their first seven.
Ultimately, Kentucky would muster just 11 points the entire second half en route to a 53-40 loss. A return to the Final Four after a rough 1983 postseason meant a lot to Thompson’s team, in particular seniors Smith and Fred Brown. Brown threw “The Pass” following what would ultimately be Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper for North Carolina; his pass went to Tar Heel All-American and future Hall of Fame inductee James Worthy instead of a teammate in the final seconds of the 1982 championship game.
This matchup with the Houston Cougars for the ’84 title created an opportunity for redemption for the senior guards. Brown, a native of the Bronx, came into Georgetown as a heralded recruit out of then-basketball powerhouse Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Smith, on the other hand, was not expected to even be playing much for the Hoyas, let alone spend his junior and senior years as team captain. Both men would benefit in different ways from a national title.
“Morgan State was my only offer coming into my senior year [at McKinley Technology High School in DC],” Smith recalls. “A month before graduation Coach Thompson offered me a scholarship. There was no recruitment. I went to church and got saved right after I signed the Letter of Intent.”
The same could be said for Graham during his one and only season as a Hoya. “The one year I spent at Georgetown was like four years,” says the 6-9 Graham from his home in suburban Maryland, where he works as the CEO of his own company, Solid Waste Consultants. “When I got there I thought I was going to play more than I did during the regular season but instead got more minutes during tournament time.”
It could be argued that Graham’s contributions against Kentucky and later Houston would be the deciding factor in the Hoya’s one and only National Championship.
The Houston Cougars, whose center was a young Nigerian by the name of Akeem (he would later adopt an “H” at the front of his first name) Olajuwon, started the game strong by getting Ewing into foul trouble.
But Georgetown, behind the excellent play of their two-man freshman class of Williams and Graham, clawed their way back to a 10-point halftime advantage. Despite the lead, Graham felt the game was decided during pre-game warmups. “Instead of working up a sweat during layup drills, the Houston players, except Olajuwon, were looking over at me and laughing, kind of taunting me,” Graham says. “I knew we had them at that point—they were nervous, scared.”
While at Spingarn High in DC, Graham was recruited by Maryland and Villanova, but chose Georgetown and its stiff academic standards because of the man with the towel. “Coach Thompson was the father figure I did not have growing up,” he says.
The Hoyas held on to a small lead for a while; the further the game went on, the tougher the defensive pressure was on Houston guards Alvin Franklin, Reid Gettys and Bennie Anders to get the ball to their Phi Slamma Jamma teammates. When the ball happened to be in the hands of the man nicknamed “The Dream,” Olajuwon did not disappoint, finishing with 14 points and 9 rebounds. But the Hoyas would ultimately put the game away, led by Williams, who scored a team-high 19 points. “I dreamt about that game before I played in it,” says Williams. “I felt we had a better team and I always wanted to be part of a championship.”
The Hoyas also benefitted from 16 points from Wingate and 14 from Graham. The victory gave Coach John Thompson and Georgetown its first and thus far only National Championship.
To say that Thompson was the first basketball coach (or coach of any major sport, for that matter) of African descent to win a national title in NCAA Division I history is one thing. That Georgetown had done it with mostly inner-city black kids is another. “It was historical,” says Williams.
Georgetown had always been located in the nation’s capital, but on April 2, 1984, it was also the undisputed capital of the college basketball world.