Legends profile: Patrick Ewing
That is the one-word description often applied to Patrick Ewing.
He was indefatigable and relentless in pursuit of an NBA championship despite being denied on an annual basis. Bold predictions did not always materialize and some took them as empty promises, while others as a will to succeed. One of the finest shooting centers to play, he left the game as the New York Knicks’ all-time leader in nearly every significant category and the game’s 13th all-time scorer with 24,815 points.
He arrived in New York after a ballyhooed college career with the Georgetown Hoyas that included one NCAA title and appearances in two other championship games. The team’s fierce in-your-face style of basketball created a phenomenon known as “Hoya Paranoia” and as the key intimidating defensive presence, Ewing was tagged the “Hoya Destroya.” A media star since his schoolboy days, his anticipated arrival to the NBA was unprecedented.
Never achieving the Holy Grail of the NBA, Ewing came painfully close. He led the Knicks all the way to the NBA Finals in 1994 but lost to the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets in seven games, which avenged a loss by Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars to Georgetown in the 1984 NCAA championship game.
Also, at the tail end of Ewing’s career with the Knicks, he was sidelined with a partially torn Achilles’ tendon when the San Antonio Spurs defeated New York in the 1999 NBA Finals.
Some hold that Ewing’s failure to win a ring is the litmus test defining his career. But timing is everything and Ewing just happened to be born within five months of both Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls defeated Ewing’s Knicks in five playoff series. In fact, from 1990 through 1998, the NBA championship went to teams that featured either Jordan or Olajuwon.
Nonetheless, Ewing’s career highlights and production are impressive. They include averages of 21 points and 9.8 rebounds, 11 All-Star berths, an All-NBA First Team bid and six Second Team selections. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1986, was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and played on two gold medal-winning Olympic basketball teams, in 1984 and 1992.
The Jamaica-born Ewing arrived in the United States at age 11, and the gangly youth who had reached the height of 6-foot-10 by junior high school was initially awkward on the court when introduced to the game. But by the time he was a senior in high school, the world knew he would be something special.
“He will be the next Bill Russell, only better offensively,” high school coach Mike Jarvis said of Ewing while the budding giant played at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin School. Many had similar thoughts as he was heavily recruited and was the focal point of media attention throughout his basketball career.
He understood the hoopla that came with his stardom but always reserved his right to just play basketball. Perhaps that is why he chose to attend Georgetown, where he blossomed under the mentor-like guidance of coach John Thompson, a 6-foot-10 former NBA backup center to Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics in the mid-1960s. Ewing’s pro career was presaged by four superb years at Georgetown. Besides his team accomplishments, he was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player as a junior and as a senior, and his long list of honors included The Sporting News College Player of the Year Award and the Naismith Award.
Although many of his contemporaries — including Olajuwon, Jordan and Charles Barkley — were leaving college early to join the NBA, Ewing stayed all four years and earned a degree in Fine Arts. His patience paid off as the yearning for his services reached almost epic proportions with the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery in 1985. As recounted in Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Clippers president Alan Rothenberg and GM Carl Scheer joked about enlisting 33 (Ewing’s jersey number) Hasidic rabbis to chant Ewing’s name in unison to enhance the team’s chance of winning his draft rights.
This new lottery system was devised to discourage teams from tanking games to get the chance to pick first in the Draft. All non-playoff teams would participate in a lottery to determine the order of selection. However, in its introduction, the side effect was similar to a sideshow. Rather than just two teams with high hopes of winning a coin flip, the additional teams multiplied the hype. This first lottery, more television-friendly than a coin toss, was broadcasted from New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Mother’s Day.
The Knicks, with the third-worst record of the seven teams involved, won the lottery and the rebirth of a venerable old franchise was delivered.
The Knicks obviously wanted Ewing, a potential franchise center, as much as the other lottery teams. However, the expectations for the Knicks were slightly different. The team played in New York, the media capital of the world and to many the Mecca of basketball. Many fans still remembered the halcyon days when Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier led the Knicks’ championship teams of 1970 and 1973.
In reality, the team was more than respectable. New York had been a playoff team three of the preceding five years, led by 7-foot-1 center Bill Cartwright and the electrifying Bernard King, although Cartwright missed the entire season and King suffered a serious knee injury the year prior to Ewing’s arrival. With Cartwright and King sidelined, the team’s progress was short-circuited as the record dropped dramatically, putting the team in a position to draft Ewing.
Ewing was still touted as the franchise’s savior. His burden was even heavier than expected in his rookie season without King, who was still out with that knee injury, and Cartwright, who played just two games. Rebuilding the team took a while, but Ewing was an instant success. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds and became the first Knicks player to capture the NBA Rookie of the Year award since Willis Reed in 1964-65, although Ewing missed 32 games because of a knee injury which also caused him to miss the All-Star Game.
Ewing wasn’t known for offensive prowess while in college, where Georgetown coach John Thompson placed emphasis on defense and keeping big men in the pivot. But once in the pro ranks, away from the restraints of college opponents sagging on him, Ewing surprised many with his scoring ability, eventually developing an unstoppable baseline jumper.
King played just six games in Ewing’s second year and was playing with the Washington Bullets by the third. Ewing was also playing with a variety of power forwards and he sometimes teamed with Cartwright in a two-center lineup. Ewing did, however, turn in strong numbers as the Knicks slowly gathered a credible supporting cast.
In his third year, Ewing finished 20th in the NBA in scoring (20.2 ppg), ninth in field-goal percentage (.555) and third in blocked shots (2.99 per game). Rick Pitino took over as head coach prior to the season and guided the Knicks to their first playoff berth in four seasons, where the Boston Celtics defeated New York 3-1 in the first round. Ewing contributed 18.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in the series. Ewing also made his second All-Star Game appearance in 1988 and was named to both the All-Defensive Second Team and the All-NBA Second Team at season’s end.
In 1988-89, with Cartwright having been traded to the Bulls for Ewing’s eventual right-hand man for the next decade, power forward Charles Oakley, No. 33 became an All-Star for the third time and he earned his second straight berth on both the All-NBA Second Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. The Knicks won the Atlantic Division with a 52-30 record in Rick Pitino’s second and final season as head coach.
Ewing ranked 12th in the NBA in scoring (22.7 ppg), third in blocked shots (3.51 per game), fourth in field-goal percentage (.567) and 20th in rebounding (9.3 rpg). New York advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games. Ewing averaged 21.3 points and 10.0 rebounds against the Bulls, dominating Game 5 with 32 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Ewing put together a spectacular year in 1989-90, ranking second in the league in blocked shots (3.99 per game), third in scoring (a career-high 28.6 ppg), fifth in rebounding (10.9 rpg) and sixth in field-goal percentage (.551). He made his fourth appearance in the NBA All-Star Game and was voted a starter for the first time. At season’s end he earned his only selection to the All-NBA First Team.
Ewing continued to dominate in the playoffs. Down 0-2 to the Celtics in the firstround, Ewing led the Knicks to a series victory after posting 44 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 and then 31 points in an emotional Game 5 triumph. However, the Knicks were ousted by the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He averaged 29.4 points in 10 postseason games, highlighted by a 45-point effort in the Knicks’ Game 3 victory against Detroit.
Prior to the 1991-92 season, Pat Riley took over as head coach of New York. For the next four seasons, Ewing anchored one of the best teams in the league as the Knicks won at least 50 games each year and advanced to the NBA Finals in 1994. He was remarkably consistent during that span, averaging between 23.9 and 24.5 points while pulling down at least 11 rebounds per game each year.
New York ended the 1991-92 regular season tied with Boston atop the Atlantic Division. The Knicks then advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, losing to Chicago in a grueling seven-game series. Ewing averaged 22.7 points and 11.1 rebounds during the postseason.
In 1992-93, Ewing finished fourth in the balloting for the NBA Most Valuable Player award after leading the Knicks to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 60-22. An All-Star for the seventh time, Ewing finished sixth in the NBA in scoring (24.2 ppg) and seventh in rebounding with a career-high 12.1 per game.
Ewing averaged 25.5 points and 10.9 rebounds in the 1993 postseason, but for a third straight year the Knicks could not unseat the Bulls. The Knicks lost the Eastern Conference Finals to Chicago in six games after going up 2-0. Momentum swayed to the Bulls after winning Game 5 at Madison Square Garden when point-blank-range shots by Knicks forward Charles Smith were blocked with seconds left.
Ewing led New York to the 1994 NBA Finals, during Jordan’s first retirement hiatus. Ewing posted 24 points and 22 boards in a Game 7 win over the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Finals was a referendum of which of the great centers would be remembered as a champion. A tooth-and-nail battle premised on Riley’s physical style of play, no team topped 100 points in any of the seven games. The Rockets stole Game 6 at the Garden and in the decisive game, Knicks shooting guard John Starks shot 2-for-18 from the field and the Rockets won 90-86.
For Ewing it was a crushing end to another fine season. He led the Knicks in scoring (24.5 ppg) for a seventh consecutive year and participated in his eighth NBA All-Star Game. The Knicks co-captain also averaged 11.2 rebounds and 2.75 blocks while becoming New York’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Walt Frazier.
For the next four seasons, Ewing averaged no less than 20.8 points, but the Knicks endured Eastern Conference Semifinal losses in succession to the Pacers, Bulls, Miami Heat (now coached by Riley) and finally the Pacers again.
The first Pacers series loss is remembered by many for Ewing’s failure to sink a finger-roll in the waning moments of Game 7, which would have forced overtime. But many also forget that in Game 5, with the Knicks down 3-1, he scored with less than two seconds left to lift the Knicks to a one-point win and save them from elimination. The Heat defeat is noteworthy for the suspension of several players for leaving the bench during a Game 5 scuffle. Without Ewing in Game 6 and other suspended Knicks in Game 7, the Heat came back to win the series.
Ewing missed much of the 1997-98 season with a lunate dislocation and torn ligaments of the right wrist. During Ewing’s rehab, Knicks forward Larry Johnson said, “I thought I was a hard worker, or claimed to be a hard worker, but I’m in there before practice and he looks like he’s already been there an hour. So if anyone can come back, he will.”
He did, defying the doctors’ prognosis that he would not be able to return that season. Although Ewing may have lost some of the snap in his shooting motion for the remainder of his career, he returned and played through any discomfort, only to lose in five games to the Pacers in the Conference Finals.
As the 1998-99 season approached, Ewing was consumed with labor negotiations as the Player’s Union representative. The season was delayed until February and shortened to a 50-game schedule. Before the start of the season, the team acquired Latrell Sprewell in a deal that sent Starks to the Golden State Warriors, and Marcus Camby arrived from Toronto in exchange for Oakley.
The team had trouble coming together but jelled during the postseason, becoming the first team to ever reach the NBA Finals from the eighth seed. Ewing averaged 17.3 points but suffered an injured Achilles’ tendon in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers. Without Ewing, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and David Robinson were too much for the Knicks as the Spurs won the championship in five games.
Ewing and the Knicks enjoyed one last hurrah in 1999-2000 by eliminating Riley and the Heat from the playoffs for the third consecutive season. But the Pacers defeated New York in the Conference Finals and Ewing’s career as a Knick was over.
Unable to agree on a contract extension with Ewing before the 2000-01 season, the Knicks — with the veteran center’s blessing — traded him to the Seattle SuperSonics. Knicks fans had mixed emotions about Ewing’s departure. Some could never forgive him for not bringing the title back to New York, or for his sense of privacy that limited a personal connection with the fans. Others appreciated his productive work ethic, the excitement he brought to the Garden and his commitment to the franchise.
He played just one season as a Sonic and another as a backup with the Orlando Magic. After announcing his retirement, he was hired as an assistant coach by the Washington Wizards, joining Jordan in his old nemesis’ final season as a player.
Ewing’s No. 33 was retired before a Madison Square Garden crowd on Feb. 28, 2003. As reported on the Knicks’ official Web site, as the moment approached prior to halftime, the Garden was buzzing with a chant of “P-a-a-at-t-tri-i-i-ck E-e-e-wi-i-ing!!! Pa-a-a-tr-i-i-ck E-e-e-wi-i-ingggg!” Louder and louder the chant grew to an almost unreachable crescendo.
The scene was reminiscent of the many spring playoff dates the Garden hosted during Ewing’s career. Jordan may have said it best, “He has a heart of a champion. When you thought about New York, you thought of Patrick Ewing. He came and gave life back into the city.”
Fittingly, when Ewing was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, he went in Riley. And in a twist of irony, his longtime rival, Olajuwon, was one of the other marquee names of that Hall of Fame class.
“Like I’ve said before whenever I’ve been asked the question if I ever thought I would make the Hall of Fame, the answer is no,” Ewing told knicks.com. “I never really thought about it. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame numerous times growing up, taking tours of it, and I never thought one day I’d be in it, but it’s great.”
After retiring, Ewing worked as an NBA assistant coach with the Wizards (2003-04), Rockets (2004-06), Magic (2007-12) and Hornets (2012-17). He helped tutor several young big men in the league, with his most notable pupils being Yao Ming and Dwight Howard. He was hired to coach his alma mater, Georgetown, in April of 2017.