On this day 100 years ago, about nine blocks away from its current Verizon Center home, the Georgetown men’s basketball program started off with a bang. A 22-11 drubbing at the Washington Light Infantry Armory turned out to be the start of a legendary college club – and a story whose highs and lows rival those of the classic epics.
Georgetown’s inaugural win over neighboring Virginia came on Feb. 9, 1907, just a few months after Maurice Joyce, a Johnny Appleseed of mid-Atlantic college basketball, was tapped as Athletic Director. Joyce, who had founded teams at Navy and Virginia, held the reins over a 2-2 finish in 1907, including a thrilling two-point loss to George Washington that marked GWU’s first-ever athletic victory over Georgetown.
The next year, led by GWU expatriate Fred Rice (FLL 1910), the Blue and Gray coasted to a 6-2 record, earning the unofficial title of “Champions of the South” after downing Virginia in January. But the program was bleeding financially, and Hoya basketball was discontinued at the end of the 1908-09 season.
Enter third-year law student James Colliflower (C 1909, LAW 1914) – the man who saved Georgetown basketball. His proposal for a booster-club-supported team won over the Athletic Association. The team, meanwhile, was less than welcoming to undergraduates and did not garner student support or on-court success. But when it opened its doors to the College in 1910, the days of winning records soon returned.
Joyce stepped down in 1911 and turned the team over to Colliflower. Three years later, the thriving Hilltoppers began playing their games at Ryan Gymnasium.
Ryan, which occupied the space now known as the Davis Center, was a staple of the Blue and Gray’s second decade, and it saw Georgetown take off to a 41-15 record from 1918 to 1925. The biggest star of this age was Fred Fees (FLL ’19, LAW ’20), who scored a school-record 30 points – more than the entire Gallaudet team combined – in a 48-22 victory in 1919.
Coach John O’Reilly presided over most of this golden age. The “Silver Fox,” as he was called, was a master of recruiting who produced unprecedented success in the Hilltoppers, but his team sunk to 5-8 in 1925-26. In a year, O’Reilly would be replaced by Elmer Ripley.
A packed house sent O’Reilly off in 1927; the following season, Georgetown’s dwelling was a little more spacious, as the team moved to the Arcadia Arena in the District for Ripley’s first season. (The nomadic Hilltoppers would have eight other off-campus homes over the next 22 years.) Ripley had played professionally, and the experience seemed to rub off on the 12-1 Blue and Gray.
After Ripley left for Yale in the fall of 1929, it was clear that Georgetown jumped the shark. For the next nine years, most of them under former captain and recent graduate Fred Mesmer (C ’30), the Hilltoppers usually lost more than they won. They could, however, find solace in the play of prolific scorer Ed Hargaden (C ’35), Georgetown’s first-ever all-American.
Coach Elmer Ripley, no stranger to dramatic entrances, returned in 1938. In his first season back, the Hoyas were co-champions of the six-year-old Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball Association.
Ripley’s greatest feat came in 1942-43, when a World War II-depleted squad finished 19-4 and secured an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The so-called “Kiddie Korps” was not done; it upset NYU, then did the impossible against heavily-favored DePaul.
With the Hoyas clutching a four-point lead midway through the second half, center John Mahnken fouled out. Who would guard 6-foot-10 titan (and future NBA legend) George Mikan? Backup forward/center Henry Hyde (C ’47), of course!
The unknown sophomore (and future congressman) somehow held ikan in check for nine minutes and the Hoyas won the game, prompting one astonished fan to utter, “Believe it or not, by Ripley!”
Georgetown lost in the final, and the next two seasons were suspended for the war. The era, however, contained one further milestone: In 1942, draftees Frank O’Grady (C ’42), Al Lujack (SFS ’42) and Don Martin (C ’42) made Georgetown’s first mark on the NBA.
In the latter half of the 1940s, the Hoyas sunk into uncharted waters. Despite Ripley’s reputation and the strong play of forward Andy Kostecka (SFS ’48) and guard Tom O’Keefe (C ’50), Georgetown floundered on the road and weathered its share of off-court distractions.
One such distraction: Following a poor road trip in January 1948, Kostecka complained to the press about his playing time – and Ripley cut him from the team.
Ripley was gone a year later, and Georgetown was mired in mediocrity for the rest of the decade. The sole exception was a first-round showing at the prestigious National Invitational Tournament in 1953, thanks in large part to center Bill Bolger’s (C ’53) 18.3 points per game.
And, of course, the Hoyas finally found an on-campus home when cDonough Gymnasium was constructed in 1951.
McDonough’s early years could well be considered the Dark Ages of Georgetown Basketball, representing Georgetown’s longest period of .500-quality play. There was guard Brian Sheehan (CAS ’61), who averaged 15.9 points per game over three years, but little else until Coach Tom O’Keefe took charge in 1960.
For six years, O’Keefe guided Georgetown on a promising postseason chase that never quite ended up where it was supposed to. Georgetown beat top-ranked Loyola of Chicago in 1963-64; the Hoyas went 16-8 in 1965-66 and all-time great Jim Barry (CAS ’66) gave three years as a premiere forward. But O’Keefe ended up retiring without any major laurels to his name.
After three more seasons of middling basketball under new coach Jack Magee, the Hoyas were finally back in the NIT, matched up against the daunting LSU Tigers in 1970. LSU’s star, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, presented Georgetown with a ikan-esque problem, and it was up to senior guard Mike Laska (CAS ’70) to summon the spirit of Henry Hyde and keep the Hoyas in the game.
Somehow, Maravich was held to one field goal over the first 10 minutes. He called his overall 6-for-16 showing “pitiful” after the game. Yet LSU’s trio of big men gave the Tigers a seven-point lead with 3:08 remaining, causing three Hoyas to foul out.
Georgetown came back from the dead, scoring six unanswered points to narrow the margin to one. But there were only 17 seconds left, and when Maravich sank two free throws, the ending was inevitable. Georgetown lost an improbable 83-82 heartbreaker.
Over the next two seasons, Georgetown went 12-14 and 3-23, and former pro player (and NIT champion) John R. Thompson Jr. was summoned from the high-school coaching ranks. In Thompson’s third and fourth seasons, Georgetown both won the ECAC-South and made the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 1975 ECAC-South championship came off an 18-footer by freshman Derrick Jackson (CAS ’78) with two seconds left. The Hoyas won the game by one point. The ’76 tournament loss, meanwhile, was a two-point punch in the stomach that left Georgetown hungry for more postseason exposure.
Postseason exposure, of course, would come in droves in the Thompson Era. In 1978, two months after a rivalry-inducing classic against GW, a man named Craig Esherick (CAS ’78, Law ’82) was the hero, courtesy of a dramatic half-court shot. The Hoyas came just short of the NIT final. In 1979, they rode a 24-5 record to an ECAC-South title and a first-round loss in the NCAA tourney.
The best was yet to come, and it all came under the banner of the Big East Conference, founded in 1979. In the league’s early heyday, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (CAS ’82) and Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85) were among the top athletes in the game (and Georgetown’s best ever), and “Hoya Paranoia” was the dominant theme. The Paranoia referred to Thompson’s hiding of his players from the media, a practice likely exacerbated by bad-guy characterizations of Georgetown’s African-American-heavy team.
Thompson thrived on it. His Hoyas played a physical game, and he entered the arena to the pep-band tune of Darth Vader’s “Star Wars” theme. There was talk, too: In 1980, after snapping Syracuse’s 57-game home-court winning streak at its arena’s final game, he declared to the media, “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
Georgetown made three runs to the top in the Thompson era. In 1982, with the Hoyas now playing their home games at the Capital Centre, the Blue and Gray soared to the NCAA final, where Georgetown lost to Michael Jordan’s Tar Heels with help from a late errant pass by Fred Brown (CAS ’84). The stoic Thompson famously hugged Brown after the one-point loss was official.
In 1984, after dramatic Big East wins over rivals St. John’s and Syracuse, the Hoyas beat Houston to win it all. Thompson hugged Brown again as time expired on Georgetown’s only NCAA championship.
A year later, Georgetown was in the final again versus heavy underdog Villanova. In a classic battle that Villanova fans have never ceased talking about, the Wildcats missed one shot over the entire second half and stunned the Hoyas, 66-64. Guard Horace Broadnax (CAS ’86), with a costly turnover, was the goat this time, but more importantly, a major new rivalry was born.
After Ewing graduated in 1985, the days when Georgetown was perennially a serious competitor for an NCAA title came to a close. But there were still several Big East titles to celebrate over the next decade, as well as some classic on-court moments.
In the second round of the 1987 NCAA Tournament, the Hoyas overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. They eventually reached the Elite Eight with help from flashy forward Reggie Williams (CAS ’87). A pair of thunderous, last-second wins over rival Syracuse followed a year later.
In 1989, Thompson made headlines when he boycotted two games in opposition to Proposition 42, an NCAA rule that tied athletes’ financial aid benefits to their academic performance. Soon enough, the association reconsidered its position, and Georgetown was back in full form to make another Elite Eight run, with help from emerging defensive wizards Alonzo ourning (COL ’92) and Dikembe Mutombo (FLL ’91).
Between 1990 and 1996, the Hoyas played in the NCAA tournament for all but one year. In the final two years, speedy guard Allen Iverson shattered Georgetown’s record for career points per game. But in every case that the Hoyas were NCAA-bound, they lost in the second round. 1996-2006
After two and a half more lackluster seasons, in a press conference with its share of profanity, John Thompson resigned as coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, ending his unforgettable 27-year career amid a pending divorce. Assistant Coach Craig Esherick took over the NIT-caliber team in the middle of the 1998-99 campaign.
Georgetown called MCI Center home beginning in 1997, and in 2001, it brought the new arena a banner season. The year was a long and gritty battle, with as many undeserved losses as surprising wins, and the highlight came when a 72-61 win over Syracuse flooded the court with Hoya fans for the first time in the Center’s history.
In the first round of the 2001 NCAA tournament, Georgetown won a buzzer-beater over Arkansas in which guard Nat Burton (COL ’01) scored the winning point. Radio commentator Rich Chvotkin’s call: “Eight seconds, Burton waits, Burton waits, Burton drives – it’s good! It’s good! It’s good! It’s good! It’s good! It’s good! It’s good! My God, it’s good! My God, it’s so good!”
Georgetown eventually made it to the Sweet 16 behind the heroics of the irreverent Kevin Braswell (COL ’02).
We know the rest of the story: Georgetown loses tragically to Notre Dame in four overtimes, in a near-miss season in 2002. A month after receiving a nod of support from President John J. DeGioia, Esherick is fired, and John Thompson III is hired. The Hoyas beat Notre Dame and Villanova in 2004-05 classics. Stars ichael Sweetney (while Esherick was still the coach) and Brandon Bowman (COL ’06) pass through. The Hoyas beat Duke and reach the Sweet 16 in 2006. In 2007, Georgetown is a national contender once again.
It is a long story, and impossible without the likes of such greats as Maurice Joyce, John O’Reilly, Elmer Ripley, Tom O’Keefe, and, of course, John Thompson. There are still, of course, many stories left to tell, and they are being told to this day, nine blocks away from the Hoyas’ old home at the Washington Light Infantry Armory on Pennsylvania and 15th.