Cohen: A Study of Ewing's Career

By Josh Cohen
October 14, 2011

ORLANDO -- Growing up in New York, I watched practically every moment and have replayed all the highlights from Patrick Ewing’s illustrious playing career.

There were many ups and downs, but Ewing’s legacy in New York continues to be cherished by so many basketball enthusiasts. As a result, I decided to provide a study of Ewing’s career.

Along with my analysis, I, along with Dan Savage and Richie Adubato, who was an assistant coach in New York during Ewing’s rookie season, offer some opinions to a variety of questions. Also, send in your own responses to contest@orlandomagic.com and the best, most thought-out replies will be added underneath each question.


THE GRAND ENTRANCE


From Dave DeBusschere’s enthusiastic reaction during the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery to Pat O’Brien’s renowned quote to a famished city’s jubilation, the arrival of Patrick Ewing to New York was the perfect remedy for a franchise desperately craving a star.

Very few athletes in sports history were as highly touted as Ewing. After four extravagant years at Georgetown, which included three NCAA Finals appearances and one collegiate championship, the No. 1 pick in the 1985 NBA Draft was expected to be, not only a local superman, but a global sensation.

Not since legends Walt Frazier and Willis Reed delivered championship banners to Madison Square Garden had the Knicks been in serious contention to claim ultimate triumph.

With the onset of Ewing’s presence, however, New York’s anticipation of basketball dominance skyrocketed. The hype in The Big Apple was so momentous that anything but hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy would be considered dissatisfying.

Perhaps unjustifiably, though, Knicks fans’ immediate expectations of such mammoth success were simply impractical. Coming off a cheerless season in which New York accumulated a division-worst 24 victories, it would inevitably take time for Ewing and his rebuilding team to develop into a league power.


Were expectations too high when Ewing first entered the NBA?


RESPONSE

Cohen
Yes and No. During the days when collegiate players spent a full four years in college, it was more clear whether they were ready to handle the challenges that the NBA presents.

By being the most dominant player of his generation and indubitably deserving to be the No. 1 overall pick, it was understood why so many people expected Ewing to make an immediate difference.

On the other hand, at a time when superstars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were at the pinnacle of their respective careers, there really was no way Ewing could match their prestige so quickly.

Savage
In my opinion, the expectations for Patrick Ewing were not too high. He was an amazing collegiate athlete, who performed at an extremely high level over his four-year career at Georgetown.

As a three-time consensus All-American, one-time National Player of the Year and an NCAA champion, you knew the second he stepped foot in the Big Apple with a No. 1 pick label attached to his side that his larger-than-life frame would have to carry larger-than-life expectations.

But if you thought the expectations for Ewing were big back then, imagine what they would be like now in this media-driven era?

Adubato
Well, he was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft playing in the biggest market in the NBA. Expectations were high but that comes with the territory.

I don't think the pressure effected his development or growth, but the fact of the matter is this was the pros and everyone around him was very talented. Just like every other star player, it takes time for them to become a complete player.

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THE EARLY YEARS


Some thought that if Bernard King could surmount a destructive knee injury he suffered just months before Ewing’s arrival that the two could evolve into one of the paramount, most all-encompassing tandems in the NBA.

After missing all of Ewing’s rookie season and in spite of his courageous return at the start of the 1986-87 campaign, it was noticeable that King’s explosiveness had significantly diminished and, as a result, New York decided to release him.

Without a partner in crime and despite performing at a supreme level, which included earning Rookie of the Year honors, Ewing didn’t have the backup to keep the Knicks in playoff contention during his first two seasons in the league.

All that changed, however, when New York kept its product local by selecting Brooklyn native and St. John’s luminary Mark Jackson in the 1987 NBA Draft.

With Ewing’s All-Star status, Jackson’s dynamic floor leadership and a cast complete with defensive-minded and hard-hitting role players such as Charles Oakley, the Knicks transformed into a perennial playoff team by 1988. His statistics booming and his headship mounting, Ewing appeared to have his team on the brink of something spectacular.

And even though New York continued to run into a wall in the playoffs against familiar foes such as Boston, Detroit and Chicago, the potential was visible and the exhilaration was building.



If King had stayed healthy, would he and Ewing been the best tandem in the NBA?


RESPONSE

Cohen
The short answer is no. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars would each probably still been more prolific tandems at that time.

However, when Bernard King was at his peak, some believed he could evolve into a top 25 player of all time. Remember, King led the NBA in scoring in 1985 with 32.9 points per game and one year earlier had become the first player since 1964 to score 50 points in consecutive games.

There was a chance Ewing and King could have been inexorable, but only if they learned to develop chemistry with one another. That’s a tall task for two stars who demanded the ball every time down the floor.

Savage
Without a doubt, a King-Ewing combo would have made the Knicks much more formidable early on. It also would have provided Ewing with an extremely talented on-the-court counterpart early in his career, giving the pair plenty of time to develop quality chemistry.

But with Bird and McHale, Magic and Worthy and the up-and-coming MJ and Pippen combo, Ewing and King would have had a tough ladder to climb in order to be considered the top tandem in the league.

Since the other aforementioned duos did achieve such a great level of success with one another, I don’t think it would be fair to put any potential tandem past them based on a scenario.

Adubato
If Bernard King was healthy, he and Ewing would have had a great chance of winning a championship. There is no doubt that they would have won 55 to 60 games together and if you win that many in the regular season, you certainly have a chance to win it all.

And if you win championships, you can be considered an all-time great pair.

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GETTING CLOSE


Perhaps not quite as riveting as the Magic vs. Bird enmities of the 1980’s, there was a budding interest in all contests that revolved around Jordan vs. Ewing.

With the Knicks and Bulls at the forefront of championship discussion in the early 90’s, NBA enthusiasts couldn’t help but become besotted by this blossoming rivalry.

Two big markets, two remarkably big stars, and two championship-worthy franchises: That was the theme in New York and Chicago.

Unfortunately for Ewing, however, it was MJ’s time to shine as the Bulls swept the Knicks in the First Round of the 1991 playoffs, demoralized New York in a thrilling seven games in the 1992 conference semis and, in spite of the Knicks possessing the home court advantage and a 2-0 series advantage, sent the blue and orange packing once again in the 1993 conference finals.

During these years, nonetheless, Ewing had essentially won over the haughty fans of New York with his governing dominance, unrelenting determination and big-game production.

Considering the Knicks had made further advances in the playoffs each year, there was plenty of optimism circulating around the New York region.


Was it in 1992 or 1993 that Ewing had a better chance of beating Jordan in the playoffs?


RESPONSE

Cohen
Most people would say 1993 because the Knicks had home-court advantage and a 2-0 series lead, but the real answer is 1992.

Some forget Ewing’s Willis Reed-like performance in Game 6 of the 1992 series against Chicago when he delivered 27 points despite limping on a badly sprained ankle. If healthy, it’s very possible Ewing could have catapulted New York past Chicago in Game 7 that year.

Also, the presence of Xavier McDaniel, who was awesome in that series against the Bulls, and Mark Jackson gave the Knicks a more complete regime to work with in 1992.

Savage
Taking into account all the circumstances, the 1993 Knicks had a better shot of beating Michael Jordan in the playoffs.

First off, Ewing wasn’t dealing with a severe injury situation and secondly, New York had home-court advantage along with an early 2-0 series lead.

You can definitely make an argument that if Charles Smith did not have four consecutive potential game-winning shots blocked in the closing seconds of Game 5, the Knicks eventually win the series in front of an electric Garden crowd in Game 7.

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THE CLIMAX


When Jordan made his stunning announcement following his third consecutive championship that he would retire from the NBA and experiment with baseball, the consensus was that the Knicks should be favored to claim the Eastern Conference.

Though some observers felt the Knicks didn’t contain a second star, the principal belief was that Ewing’s excellence together with Pat Riley’s coaching and a cast filled with dependable role players was enough to topple the competition.

While it wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, the Knicks fulfilled their promises to transform into the beasts of the East in 1994.

After a first-place regular season finish and a year that highlighted Ewing’s MVP-worth (24.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks), the Knicks finally overcame the Bulls – albeit an absent Jordan – and triumphed in the conference finals against the Pacers to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.

It was only fitting that the two most complete centers in the game at the time, Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, would match up on the league’s biggest stage.

Some suggested that whoever prevailed in the series would be labeled the best center of their generation.

Every possession in the paint in all seven games was an all-out war, but ultimately, it was Hakeem’s finesse that proved most sizeable as the Rockets claimed the title in seven games and forced Ewing to swallow up confetti -- which would later become a symbolic image -- as he exited the floor and moped down the tunnel back into the locker room in defeat.


How does the Ewing vs. Olajuwon matchup in the 1994 Finals compare to other all-time Finals showdowns?


RESPONSE

Cohen
The exquisiteness of Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon was that it encompassed two recognized big men each at the pinnacle of their respective careers. Aside from Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, it was probably the most eye-catching inside matchup in NBA Finals history.

But, when you really examine NBA history, showdowns such as Walt Frazier vs. Jerry West, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson and even contradictory positional matchups such as Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone and MJ vs. Charles Barkley were probably more significant in the grand scheme of things.

Savage
I think then Rockets Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said it best before the series when he explained: "Any time you have two great teams whose key players play the same position, what a clash it is.” If he would have known that the series would go all seven games, he probably would have declared it among the best right then.

Unfortunately for Ewing, he came up short against Olajuwon. And although he did his best outrebounding The Dream, 12.4 to 9.1 rpg., and setting a then Finals record with 30 blocks in the series, many people point to the fact that Hakeem outscored him in every game as the reason New York ultimately lost.

Instead, they should probably point to Starks’ 2-for-18 shooting performance in Game 7 and the lack of support for New York’s big man.

Adubato
It's really hard to say because remember, the Knicks' guards shot horribly in that final game. If they, and in particular John Starks, have better games, Ewing and the Knicks may win the championship.

It was a lot diffierent too what happened the next year between Shaq and Olajuwon. That was a young player coming into his own vs. a proven veteran. Ewing and Hakeem were two guys in the middle of their prime. It was a great matchup and has to be considered one of the best in Finals history.

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THE FRUSTRATION


While Ewing’s supreme status remained optimal, there was a growing theory that his supporting cast was deflating.

John Starks was labeled inconsistent, Charles Oakley, while always tenacious, was one-dimensional and others such as Charles Smith and Derek Harper were classified as too average.

Lacking a superstar sidekick, Ewing was relied upon to be overwhelmingly better than everyone else each and every night.

Most spectators and analysts figured the Knicks were a cinch to at minimum return to the conference finals in 1995. But instead, an ambitious Indiana team, sparked by an implausible performance from Reggie Miller in Game 1 of New York’s conference semifinal series with the Pacers, and an unforgettable missed finger roll by Ewing at the buzzer in Game 7 ended the Knicks’ season.

Stunned and bewildered, some wondered if New York’s window to take advantage of Ewing in his prime had been emaciated.

A year later after Jordan had returned to greatness, it was a similar theme as the Knicks were removed from the playoffs by the eventual champion Bulls.

Changes were necessary and front office management decided to shake up the roster during the 1996 offseason by acquiring fan favorite Larry Johnson in a trade from the Hornets and by signing burgeoning guard Allan Houston.


Did Ewing not have enough of a supporting cast to win an NBA title?


RESPONSE

Cohen
History proves it: Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Jordan had Pippen, Bird had McHale and Parish, Kareem (in his prime) had Oscar (or vice versa), etc.

It’s imperative to have at least two legitimate stars to seriously contend for an NBA championship. Ewing would have had King if Bern stayed healthy and the trio of LJ, Houston and Sprewell would have been plenty if Patrick was vigorous at that stage of his career.

So, essentially Ewing didn’t have the necessary and complete supporting cast at the most important time of his career.

Savage
The way I see it, Ewing never had enough of a supporting cast to win an NBA title.

Every superstar in the league needs a Robin to their Batman. Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen. Even Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps the greatest big man of all-time, was unable to win a championship by himself.

Although some people will point to the fact that he was alongside an All-Star in John Starks, in my opinion, New York’s shooting guard was far too streaky to be considered a viable No. 2. Case in point, that pivotal Game 7 when he went 2-for-18 from the field, including a miserable 0-for-10 stretch in the fourth quarter.

Adubato
I don't think he did. If King was healthy and played with Ewing for a few years, they could have won it. Maybe later in his career when he had guys like Larry Johnson, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, then you can say that he had some high level talent around him.

But he never really had a true star in his prime and as we all know, you need at least two stars to be serious about winning a championship.

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THE TRANSITION


As the old adage goes, it was the dawn of a new era in many ways at Madison Square Garden by 1998.

Aside from Ewing and Starks, the Knicks roster had been overhauled with fresher talent. But one thing had certainly not changed: If the Knicks were going to contend for a championship, Ewing would be depended on to guide them there.

All of the aspirations and goals were abruptly halted on Jan. 12, 1998, however, when Ewing broke his wrist and tore ligaments in the aftermath of being fouled while attempting a dunk in Milwaukee.

The news was shattering as the Knicks’ prime attraction was announced out for the remainder of the season and to make matters worse, some wondered if his career was in jeopardy.

With astonishing heart and resolve, nonetheless, Ewing recuperated in time to return in the midst of New York’s playoff run. Although the Knicks were eliminated by their archrivals, the Pacers, in the conference semis in 1998, many commemorated Ewing for his fortitude to come back.

While his wrist by all accounts was fine, it was an Achilles tendon injury during the lockout-shortened 1999 season that denied Ewing from thriving.

Thankfully for some brilliant front office moves that included attaining Latrell Sprewell, New York managed to catch fire in the postseason.

By the conference finals, Ewing’s injury had become so severe that he was forced to miss the rest of the playoffs that included the NBA Finals.

Ewing’s absence against David Robinson and the Spurs proved too detrimental as the Knicks lost in the championship round in five games.

After playing in just 62 games the next season and taking a much lesser role on a team that had become more guard oriented, the Knicks had an extremely difficult decision to make.


If Ewing doesn't get injured in 1998, do the Knicks win the title at some point?


RESPONSE

Cohen
I have said it one million times before and I will for cheers say it again, with a healthy Ewing, the Knicks surpass the Bulls in 1998.

The starting lineup of Patrick, Oakley, Johnson, Houston and Ward with Starks coming off the bench was positioned to create tribulations for MJ’s Bulls. New York was physical up front and had the perfect balance to challenge the defending champs.

With Ewing hurt and despite his return in the playoffs, the Knicks needed him to be at full strength to advance far in the postseason. Even the Pacers that season were too talented to be denied against a limited Knicks squad.

Savage
It definitely would have made things more interesting, but I still think Ewing’s Knicks come up short.

Even if they would have advanced past the Pacers in 1998, MJ and the Bulls were still lurking in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I have trouble seeing the Knicks pushing past them, even though Chicago’s dynasty was in its final stages.

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THE UNIMAGINABLE


There was an almost acerbic, sorrowful feeling spread across New York during the summer of 2000.

Despite the New York Yankees closing in on their fourth World Series title in five years and months before the New York Giants were about to embark on a Super Bowl run, basketball in and around the city felt like it was dissolving.

In spite of all the criticism he had endured over the previous 15 years, New York’s most treasured athlete was widely discussed in the media as a possible trade asset.

It was arguably the most difficult decision any New York sports franchise had ever made, but some wondered if Ewing had already played his final game in a Knick uniform.

After weeks of debating and quarrelling amongst media members, fans and the Knicks organization, a deal was finalized on Sept. 20, 2000 that sent Ewing, perhaps the most cherished athlete to ever roam the streets of Manhattan, to Seattle in exchange for Glen Rice and several others.

It was hard to believe and difficult to accept. But the reality was, Ewing – so garishly associated with blue and orange – was now dressed in green and gold.

There was sentiment in New York that the departure of its basketball icon was more wounding than relieving. Fans understood that Ewing’s days as an elite player were over, but many felt that even if he didn’t suit up, his presence was valuable to the organization and team’s chemistry.

Nevertheless, a chapter so richly defined by one man’s importance and merit was officially over. And the unfortunate part was that despite all of his accomplishments, Ewing wasn’t able to quite complete his ultimate objective of capturing an NBA title in New York.





Should the Knicks have traded Ewing?


RESPONSE

Cohen
Absolutely not.

When a substantial amount of time has passed and you reflect back on a player’s career, it can be heartbreaking to accept the fact that the heart and soul of a franchise didn’t remain with the same team until the very end.

It happens way too frequently in sports (ex. Karl Malone, Joe Montana, Ken Griffey Jr., etc.) where the superstar of a team during a fundamental era of the organization leaves for a new beginning.

Especially in this case where New York had control over whether to trade him or not, Ewing should have remained in blue and orange until his retirement.

Savage
When you talk about deals that don’t work out for both sides look no further than this one.

Soon after dealing Ewing, the Knicks franchise suffered nine consecutive losing seasons. The former face of the Big Apple did not fare much better averaging just 8 points per game over his final two seasons.

"When we traded him, I would say that was probably a lose-lose," Dave Checketts, the former Madison Square Garden president, once explained. "It didn't work out well for anyone."

Adubato
It’s always a tough decision to make. If the Knicks decided to rebuild at that time, they had to ask themselves, do you keep a guy who is in the twilight of his career?

It’s a hard thing to do and I don’t know if Patrick wanted to leave, but sometimes it could be the best thing for an organization to go in a different direction.

During my coaching days, there were times I had a team where they decided to trade the star. It’s just a part of the business.

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THE NEW BEGINNING


Away from the turbulent media and the millions of crazed-fans who expected nothing but faultlessness, Ewing was able to, in some ways, reinvent himself thousands of miles away.

His one season in Seattle may not have statistically been one of his finer years (9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds), but somewhat surprisingly, Ewing was very durable as he played in 79 games.

But the one night that season that nobody will ever forget was his first return to Madison Square Garden since being traded. It was a glacially cold night in New York on that late February evening, but inside MSG there was so much warmth spread across the arena during pregame introductions.

The sold-out crowd offered an unforgettable ovation to the former Knick great that lasted for what felt like an eternity.

Ewing would again return to New York as a member of the Orlando Magic – the team he finished his illustrious career with.

In April 2002, Magic Head Coach Doc Rivers decided to start Ewing in his final ever game at MSG. While he only scored six points that night, chants of “Patrick Ewing, Patrick Ewing” were so vivacious that it inspired Orlando to clinch a playoff berth.

Another special occasion was on Feb. 28, 2003 – formerly known as Patrick Ewing Night.

Incredibly moving, Ewing delivered a memorable speech to the fans in attendance where he stated, “I’m always a New Yorker,” before his jersey No. 33 was raised to the rafters.


Is Ewing the greatest athlete to never win a professional championship?


RESPONSE

Cohen
Considering the expectations after his illustrious collegiate career and bearing in mind the fact that all-time great centers tend to capture NBA championships at some point, I think Ewing is the greatest player in professional sports to never win a professional title.

Many sports fans will suggest Dan Marino, who certainly is high on the list, and there are some who may even conclude that Karl Malone and Charles Barkley finished just as empty-handed and were on the same status as Ewing.

But Patrick was so dominant throughout his career that it’s almost astonishing that he didn’t win a title. It nearly defies logic.

Savage
With names like Ted Williams, Dan Marino and Charles Barkley on the list of great players to never win the big one; it would take an extremely bold man to proclaim, “Patrick Ewing is the greatest athlete to never win a world championship.”

I’m not that bold.

However, I will say he’s in the conversation.

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NOW AND THE FUTURE


Since his retirement as a player, Ewing has taken his talents to the bench as an assistant coach. Before becoming a Magic assistant in 2007, Ewing served similar roles with the Wizards and Rockets.

Throughout his professional playing career, the product of Kingston, Jamaica earned countless accolades, including winning a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, being named to 11 NBA All-Star Games and claiming Rookie of the Year honors. In 2008, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame to complete his legacy.

In the summers of 2009 and 2010, Ewing contributed to the development of some of the younger players by serving as the Magic’s Summer League Coach.

It’s no secret that Ewing hopes to one day become an NBA Head Coach – a position that he certainly deserves consideration for.

All in all, Ewing will always be considered one of the best centers to ever play the game. It’s just a judgment call as to where you think he ranks amongst the greatest to ever step on the hardwood.


Would Ewing make a good head coach in the NBA?


RESPONSE

Cohen
With what he has already accomplished in his years as an assistant coach, Ewing definitely has the resume to earn a head-coaching gig and, in effect, be successful at it.

During recent Summer Leagues, Ewing demonstrated that he has a gift for teaching young players how to develop into dependable pros. I’m sure at some point, Ewing will be given the opportunity to become the leader of a rebuilding team.

Savage
At every level of basketball, Patrick Ewing has achieved a great deal of success. Even as an assistant coach, he’s done an amazing job with the Magic, helping the team reach The Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

Although most people think that Patrick Ewing is just a “big man coach,” they often overlook the fact that he has many of the same responsibilites as Orlando’s other assistant coaches.

While it’s difficult to say whether or not anyone would be successful as a head coach before they get the chance, I think he deserves a shot. At the very least, he would command a high level of respect, which is something that definitely has to be earned when dealing with the modern-day athlete.

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