Patrick Ewing was a center who flourished as an offensive force, excelled as defensive intimidator, and helped personify basketball throughout the 1990s. It just so happens — and conveniently so — that this skyscraper of a player spent his dominant years changing the game in New York City. That was the bonus — for him, for the Knicks and for the NBA.
Ewing elevated the Knicks and his own legend simultaneously with a string of dominant performances and seasons that made him one of the giants of the decade. The scorecard cannot be disputed: Ewing was an All-Star 11 times and an All-NBA selection seven times. He led the Knicks to a pair of appearances in the NBA Finals. He brought Madison Square Garden to life. He played in a talent-rich era and yet few players were singularly as important to their teams as Ewing was to his.
He arrived from Georgetown as the big prize, with a big anticipation, and a big arrival in the Big City. Everything about the launch of Ewing screamed loudly enough to command a catchy headline on the front of the New York tabloids. In the modern-day NBA, few players received a heartier welcome, and Ewing did everything in his power to deliver the same impactful punch that team president Dave DeBusschere laid on the dais when the Knicks won the draft lottery in 1985.
This is the tale of a New York sports legend who reflected the glare of Gotham by thriving on the big stage, enduring the pressure from within and beyond, enduring epic clashes against Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and never cheating his team or the arena out of an honest effort on a nightly basis. Patrick Ewing was built for this — built for New York — and a franchise was better for it.
It wasn’t easy; these journeys are never that simple. And the hardest part was trying to be everything to everyone — as New York often demands — right from the jump.
As a rookie, Ewing was already considered one of the game’s finest big men. The acclaim came rather instantly. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds and won Rookie of the Year. He was the franchise’s best big man since Willis Reed a decade earlier.
Success was limited in two respects: Ewing hobbled through his first two seasons, unable to play a full schedule due to injuries; and the Knicks didn’t make the playoffs either season.
But Ewing established himself as a force at both ends, especially offensively. In college, he wasn’t asked, or needed, to be Georgetown’s primary option. With the Knicks, Ewing had to demand the ball and do something with it. His offensive improvement placed him among the best centers in the league and with that came respect, both from his peers and from the greats of the past.
Pat Riley had the perfect description for Ewing: “A warrior,” said the Knicks’ coach. Yes, indeed: Ewing was a dependable rock for the Knicks following those early career injuries and always felt obligated to be there for his teammates and the Garden crowds that showed him much love.
He knew his importance to the club as the Knicks tried to exorcise their biggest demon: Jordan and the Bulls. You must understand; Jordan and the Bulls spooked the Knicks in the 1990s. The Knicks were swept by the eventual champion Bulls in 1991. Their third playoff meeting in the Ewing era was the most contested however, the East semifinal in 1992 went seven games. Ewing was incredible in Game 1 with 34 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks in the Knicks’ win. But the Bulls rallied and eventually came to the Garden for Game 6, ready to eliminate the Knicks, and instantly put the famed arena on hysterical alert. This was Jordan, the game’s greatest player; these were the Bulls, piecing together a dynasty; and these were the underdog Knicks, one of the few teams able to plant a seed of concern within Chicago and who bravely fought through the first five games.
The rough-house Knicks under Riley had their ace in the hole, and it was Ewing, the one player the Bulls simply could not contain. He knew he needed to be superhuman for the Knicks to have a chance, and if such an effort might cost him physically, well, that was a price he was more than willing to pay.
Ewing had a certain demeanor — stoic, mostly serious — that was taken the right way on the court. He was eager to do the job, eager to be the competitor he was. But that could also be misconstrued in other ways, which is often easy to do in a large media market like New York.
It might be a stretch to say Ewing was characterized as misunderstood; the New York media market is much smarter than that. However, because he was mainly a private person who wasn’t very forthcoming in discussions with the public, Ewing was definitely mischaracterized to some degree, compared to other city icons such as Namath or Jeter or LT or Clyde.
Highlights? Oh, Ewing had a few. He was every bit the prime-time player. He wasn’t your typical gravity-challenged, lumbering low-post center. He could attack the rim with impunity. He had a graceful mid-range jumper with a high arch that made it nearly impossible to block. And he’d send shots into the seats with vicious blocks.
A personal favorite is Ewing getting shine at both ends of the floor in a single sequence: With a block and then, after racing downcourt, a trademark dunk. The Miami Heat knew the feeling when Ewing haunted them multiple times.
Ewing was comfortable in his own skin. He was private yet welcomed the chance to be a star in the biggest city. He was demanding yet beloved by teammates and fans and respected by the relentless New York media. He carried the hopes of a franchise that craved respectability and at the very least he gave the Knicks that. He gave everything he had to those who mattered, and isn’t that all we can ask of our sports heroes?
Ewing carried himself with great dignity and in that sense, his professionalism matched his performances. Whether it was his efforts in those brass-knuckle matchups against the Heat and protege Alonzo Mourning, or clashes against the Bulls and Michael Jordan, or really in any competition he faced on the floor, Ewing was a solid representation, a reflection of the city in which he worked.
The golden, greatest moment in an athlete’s career is when the moment of truth demands nothing less, when there’s no second chance, when there’s one shot. Patrick Ewing’s turn came on a spring day in 1994. Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals was at the Garden against the Indiana Pacers. The Knicks hadn’t reached the NBA Finals since winning in 1973. This was a setting and a situation that centered around one player. Would he deliver or get devoured by the magnitude of the moment?
Patrick Ewing delivered. He was a force at both rims. He had 24 points, 22 rebounds. Every one of his touches was bigger than the previous one, because this contest stayed close. With 26 seconds left, he grabbed a missed shot by John Starks and placed it into the basket for the game’s biggest shot.
When the buzzer sounded, the noise inside the building and the emotional release by the starved and satisfied Knicks fans, deafening as it was, was squeaky compared to the roar by the man of the moment. When it was finally over, Patrick Ewing faced the crowd and, with every ounce of energy he had left in his 7-foot body, let loose a scream punctuated by outstretched arms. This was his time, his crowd, his game. His response.
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