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But no one comes in for more teasing than Mutombo. "That is their jealousy speaking," he says. "They know that when they face me, they cannot stop me. They are driven by jealousy."
They are probably motivated more by pride than jealousy, but the big three are every bit as competitive in their summer workouts as in games that count. "Watch them go against each other in pickup games," says Thompson, "and you'll swear they're going to fight." Indeed, Ewing and Mourning exchange deadly glares whenever one calls a foul on the other, and every few minutes one of the big men disgustedly slams the ball down so hard it bounces nearly to the rafters. But there has never been more than a heated argument between them, probably because they know just how far they can push each other before they come to blows.
It also helps that each has an area where he is unchallenged. "The strongest? That's got to be Zo," says Mutombo. "He works the hardest at the weights because he's the one who likes to look at his muscles the most."
"Dikembe's got the best stamina," says Mourning. "You get him out on the track, and he runs forever."
So where is Ewing's advantage? "Age," he says. "They might have younger legs, but I've got more tricks. I've already taught them most of them, but there are a few I'm keeping to myself until I retire."
No one is immune from being the target of trash talk, but there are several reasons why Ewing seems to command the greatest respect from the other centers and from the younger Hoyas who fill out the games. With eight seasons in the NBA, he has moved into the role of an elder and is accorded the appropriate deference. He also has the trump card in all trash-talking battles, having won three of the four regular-season meetings he has had with Mutombo and three of four with Mourning, plus having won the only playoff matchup of these Hoya alumni, when New York beat Charlotte in five games in the last Eastern Conference semis.
Finally, Ewing is the root of the Hoyas' family tree of centers. "This wouldn't have happened without Patrick," Thompson says. "He's the one who would call when he was on the road with the Knicks and ask, 'Coach, how's Zo doing? You want me to give him a call?' One of the things that is sometimes missed about Patrick is his enthusiasm for others' performances." Asked to assess Mourning's and Mutombo's NBA progress, Ewing sounds like a mentor. "They've made me proud," he says.
"You don't usually think of centers this way, but Patrick is really a gym rat," Mourning says. "He's the one that sets the tone for the rest of us, because he's always playing, always working on his game. You know that turnaround jumper he has that's so automatic now? Well, I remember when it wasn't. That shot is the result of who knows how many hours of hard work that Patrick put in after he turned pro, after he had the big contract. That's the kind of thing that makes people around here respect him so much."
Mourning and Mutombo both arrived in the NBA with surprisingly polished offensive games, thanks in part to their summer workouts during their student years against Ewing and against each other. Says Thompson, "I remember Patrick saying to me the summer before Alonzo's rookie season, 'Coach, people are going to be surprised at Zo.' I said, 'Shhh.' " Sure enough, Mourning averaged 21 points in his first pro season. Though he lost to Shaquille O'Neal in Rookie of the Year voting, some felt he was the best newcomer by season's end.
"By the time I got to the NBA, I already felt like a veteran in some ways," says Mourning. "I had already put in a lot of time against two of the biggest, strongest centers in the world. There aren't many 7'2" centers as agile as Dikembe or many 7-foot centers as strong and skilled as Patrick. I'd already been in awe the first time I played against Patrick. I wasn't about to be awed anymore."