It is finally over. Jeff Green, the 6’10″ junior Georgetown Hoyas forward, who led his team to Sweet Sixteen and Final Four appearance, has decided to forgo his senior year and remain in the NBA draft. Surely lottery bound, he has weighed his decision carefully, knowing full well with teammate Roy Hibbert returning the Hoyas would be a consensus preseason favorite to win the 2008 NCAA championship, a feat not accomplished by a Georgetown team since 1984. However, between private on-campus workouts, talking to GMs, and advice from JTIII and his agent, David Falk (of Jordan fame), it became apparent he had put himself in a great position in the draft, and barring winning a championship, had little more to prove at the Hilltop. His accolades piled up during a fantastic career, one in which he won co-Big East Rookie of the Year, Big East Player of the Year, Big East Tournament MVP, and NCAA Tournament East Regionals MVP. A steadying and mostly dominating presence on the court, he helped spark both a underacheiving veteran team over the hump and guide a talented but young team to unforseen heights. A slow start to his 2006-07 season, in which the guard play struggled through growing pains, culminated in one in which he executed the Princeton offense as few had ever seen, always playing within himself, giving the Hoyas that rebound, assist, steal, block, drawn charge, or momentous dunk when they most needed it. Always mature beyond his years, it was an absolute pleasure to watch a much maligned college powerhouse rise to glory under the direction of such a classy individual and true basketball talent.
Many people have not had the chance to witness Jeff Green during his three years as a Hoya, but to say that he singlehandly resurrected the Georgetown legacy would not necessarily be an understatement. When I attended Georgetown, John Thompson was no longer the coach and his assistant Craig Esherick was struggling to keep the program “relevant”, as the Washington Post put it. For a school with such a rich history, one of the few private schools with continued success in the most popular college sport, this was unimaginable (and ultimately unacceptable).
The Hoyas transcended the sport in the 1980′s, when John Thompson, or Pops, as he is called, took black players under his wing, the team adopted a bruising defensive mentality, and just wore oppenents down while the 6’10′ coach worked the refs. Although some saw the great Hoya teams as nothing but a bunch of thugs, the black culture (and inevitably hip hop culture) glavanized around the team’s success and saw in a overtly vocal Pops someone who had commanded respect and could speak for them. While most DC sports struggle locally, the Hoyas gained a true national following, to the point that at one point they were the biggest sellers of NCAA merchandise (with former Hoya Iverson leading the NBA in jersey sales as well). Ever notice how in the tv commercials of African children, you aways manage to see one wearing a Hoyas shirt? Yes, we lead the nation in Peace Corps volunteers, but this also reflects how broad the fan base had become.
When I attended Georgetown, this was a distant memory. Pops had left years ago, but there was hope that the best power forward in the conference (save for perhaps Carmelo’s freshman year) would be enough to get the program on the right track. However, Michael Sweetney’s teams struggled to advance in the NCAA tournament, and then even to win. The lowpoint was 2004, the year before I graduated, in which the team went 13-15 overall and 4-12 in the Big East. Overtime losses abounded, and despite having the only player in the country to average 20 ppg and 10 rpg, this was not enough. We had turned down the NIT Tournament the previous year, having missed out on the NCAA tournament, because, as Esherick put it, “the student had to focus on academics.” It would be the first time Georgetown did not attend a postseason tournament since the introduction of the NIT (we had one of the longest streaks at the time). This year, in 2004, we were not even invited. Not even one of the 100 best teams in college basketball. I remember walking to the front row of games, in cavernous MCI Center, because nobody was there. Not even students were willing to attend games.
With the oust of Esherick, in came JTIII. Soft spoken, Ivy league educated, and aware of the vast legacy left by his father, he at least was expected to give a face to a dying program. Bringing along a Princeton point guard in Jon Wallace, he inherited two players he convinced to honor their committments to Georgetown, the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert, a plodding, goofy big man, and 6″10 Jeff Green, an underlooked local player before he shot up the charts with his senior year performances. JTIII brought with him Pete Carill’s Princeton Offense, one that took time to learn and few expected elite athletes to have the discipline to follow, much less athletes of Georgetown reputation. Forced to play out of position, he took over the center spot as Roy skipped rope, worked on a baby hook, and ran laps around the Georgetown campus to be effective in the minutes he was forced to play because of Sweetney’s NBA departure and the lack of players. With a dazzling array of moves for someone beyond his years, his superb passing abilities and strength led him to fit right away into the Princeton offense and gel with the existing veterans. With basically the same team that garnered four Big East wins, the Hoyas finished with an 8-8 record, and went on to the semifinals of the NIT tournament. Green, a unknown coming into the season, was awarded co-Rookie of the Year.
The next season was marked by a victory over number 1 ranked Duke, a game I had the honor of attending. There are no superlatives that could describe the intense atmosphere in the arena, nor the euphoria that gripped DC – yes, DC – after an utterly dominating victory. It was the first win over a #1 team since 1985 for the Hoyas, and vaulted them into the polls for this first time in years. January 21 would not be a fluke, and neither would Green’s excellent showing on national TV. He would lead the Hoyas to the Sweet Sixteen, losing last minute to the eventual champions Florida. But amid his stroking three pointers and overpowering players down low, and executing perfect passes to backdoor cuts, fear was back.
His last season as a Hoya has firmly cemented him in Georgetown’s deep history, almost making it regrettable he could not be included on the All-Century team that was celebrated that season in honor of 100 years of Hoya hoops. Clutch shot after clutch shot, with last seond heroics against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, a momentum changing, jaw dropping dunk against NCAA second round opponent (and rival) Boston College, and a last second game winner versus Vanderbilt in the Sweet Sixteen, he seemed to will the Hoyas back to the Final Four. The collective confidence the team possessed in the Elite Eight game versus UNC was the difference, and for a man who smiled a lot, I never saw him with a bigger grin than wathcing him celebrate with his teammates on the floor after the East Regional victory, singing the fight song, and knowing he, as much as anyone else, had led the Hoyas back to the Final Four.
The Hoyas utimately fell to Ohio State, led by man-child Greg Oden, and many wondered where Jeff Green was with his clutch shots and playmaking. Well, the answer was he was just being Jeff Green, the consumate team mate who never forced that action and trusted in his coach and his teammates. The supporting cast fell short, Conley blew by the Georgetown guards, and perhaps Green didn’t do what he usually had never been asked to do – play for himself – but the Hoya team, as well as Jeff Green, could go home knowing they had completed what was perhaps the most exciting and rewarding season ever in the history of the program, and the powerhouse is back. Perhaps as imortant, the Hoyas are changing the perception of college basketball and black athletes.
Next year’s team returns the 7’2″, NBA bound phenom center who handled Oden and disposed of everyone else, an emerging star in DaJuan Summers, an energetic and talented Ewing, Jr., and five guards ranging from the best shooter in the NCAA (Wallace), a defensive stalwart (Rivers), a throwback street baller (Sapp), a quick penetator (Wright), and a combo guard who makes living getting into the lane and to the rim (Freeman). Success is never guarenteed, but the buzz is back, the recruits believe in JTIII, the reputation of Georgetown is changing, and the team can be seen everywhere from the Metro ads to the back of the New York Post. Alumni are attending games, hanging out with younger grads, and former Hoyas are making their way back to the Hilltop to be part of once again a tradition unrivaled.