STEPHON JOHNSON: Patrick Ewing.
Anytime that name is mentioned a few buzz words or images immediately come to mind. For some it’s disappointment that he couldn’t deliver the New York Knicks a championship. For some it might be all the forces that got in his way that prevented him from winning a championship. Some might see the image of Ewing missing a layup in Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. Others might think of his tip-dunk in game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Whether you were a fan of Ewing or not, everyone could agree that the man was simply a warrior on the court.
He’s also someone who completely changed the concept of what a center in the NBA could and should do.
Ewing came to the Knicks in the mid 1980′s as the savior of a franchise who had fallen on hard times. The story’s been retold countless times so I’ll spare you the details, but the one important thing that’s forgotten about Ewing’s career is how he transformed his game from fierce shot blocker, dunking center to a finesse center who could hit a 20-foot jump shot. Of course, Ewing’s patent move is his post-up/fade away, but the fact that a center could shoot from that far was still a rarity in the league. Ewing was the first.
While many of his so-called “failures” have been chronicled ad nauseum, and forever turned into a sports-culture gimmick by Bill Simmons’ B.S. “Ewing Theory” nonsense, no one has chronicled his toughness. Ewing was one of the toughest players in the history of the NBA. Period. Case in point: Ewing played a good chunk of the 1999 playoffs with tendonitis in his ACL. During the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers that year, Mark Jackson and Rik Smits cracked a few jokes about Patrick Ewing’s ACL troubles being a lie just to make him look good to the public.
After missing the game-winning shot in game two, Patrick Ewing sat out the remainder of the playoffs with a torn ACL. Jackson and Smits stayed quiet and then took their loss to the Knicks in six games.
When Ewing missed that finger roll layup against the Pacers in ’95, he could’ve easily used the excuse of bum knees, which was true, since he couldn’t dunk. But he decided to be quiet and take his beating in the press.
A retirement ceremony, more than any other, is the best way to measure the importance of someone’s achievement. While Bill Simmons, again, claimed that Ewing wasn’t a hall-of-fame player the day of the ceremony at Madison Square Garden, the fact that Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning and other NBA greats attended speaks louder than someone who claims to speak from the mind of a fan.
While that ceremony in 2002 was great it reminded Knick fans of something that hasn’t been spoken of in public until now: The Knicks should have let Patrick Ewing play out the last year of his contract and retire a Knick. The team would’ve cleared a tremendous amount of cap space and could’ve used that to acquire Tracy McGrady, who was a free agent the following year and wanted to break out of cousin Vince Carter’s shadow in Toronto. The Knicks, instead, traded him to the Seattle Supersonics in a three-way deal involving the Phoenix Suns where they received such greats like Glen Rice, Luc Longley, Travis Knight, Vladimir Stepania, Lazaro Borrell and Vernon Maxwell, along with several draft picks (which would be thrown away by Isiah Thomas a few years later).
Even though the Knicks are still feeling the weight of not letting Ewing finish his career as a Knick, his greatness is underrated. There’s a reason why New Yorkers miss him now. He clocked in, clocked out and always worked hard. Just like New Yorkers do. He also was a bit frustrating, but in the end, he was still one of the best. Just like New York.
AKIE BERMISS: I grew a Knicks fan in Brooklyn, New York. When I was 11, I played in the local “Junior Knicks” basketball league. I had a Knicks winter coat, a windbreaker, two or three jerseys, and more NYK tee-shirts than I can possibly remember. And every spring, around playoff time, I fell horribly behind on my homework and studying while I cheered the Knicks through their ups and (mostly) downs. I was (and still am) a die-hard Knicks fan. Didn’t matter that we never won a championship — there was always next year. Why? Because there was always Patrick Ewing.
Yes, so when Ewing was drafted to the Knicks I was 2 years old. And so, for much of the time the Knicks were building their team around him, I was completely unaware of professional sports. But, the early 1990s when I was entering middle school and puberty and playing basketball regularly — I had my local idol. Patrick Ewing. Some people spent hundreds of dollars on the Air Jordans or the Charles Barkleys (remember those?), but I usually thought there was nothing better than getting a summer pair of Ewings to wear around town.
So — cutting to the chase — we never won the big prize. We went to the dance more often than not, but for a whole host of reasons we never got that most coveted trophy. And unfortunately, for those who are not Knick fans, that often overshadows all the great things we did. In those early 90s, the Knicks were one of the best teams in basketball. If you wanted to be a contender — you had to go through Ewing and company. And many didn’t have what it took. If you followed the Knicks during the regular season — it was easy to believe they could bring home a championship.
And the chief person responsible for that was Number 33. Without Patrick Ewing, the Knicks would’ve been a failed and forgotten franchise in the 80s. Ewing changed the way the Center position was played. He dominated without being a showboat. He had power and finesse (I remember being a Shaquille O’Neal fan early on and thinking, “If he could only learn to get some of the craft and grace of Ewing, he’d be unstoppable!”), he play inside and outside of the paint with great ease and facility. He LED the team! Almost like a point guard. And he was the heart of the devastating Knicks defense — which on numerous occasions was able to shut down the best Bulls team there ever was.
All this, did Ewing do, all while never being respected for his greatness. While often carrying a team full of malcontents and miscreants. Streaky scorers who pretended to be reliable and hot-headed hustlers who, more often than not, were in danger of fouling early in the 4th quarter. And playing against Michael Jordan in his heyday, Reggie Miller in his heyday, and Hakeem Olajuwon in his heydey. And when the next generation of players came in, Ewing remained not only relevant but dominant. Right up until the day he smashed his wrist.
Even then, he managed to contribute to whatever the Knicks seemed intent on becoming. But, for some reason, just as I was finishing up high school in 2000 — the Knicks decided to trade away Ewing with something like a year left on his contract. Seriously? For like five years, you’d watch MSG and see Herb Williams rocking player-coach vibe every time they had a shot of the bench. To just trade away Ewing like that… it was just disrespectful. To the man and the franchise. Yea, even unto the city and state of New York.
Serves us right, what has happened. In the ten years since he left, we’ve been a sad, sucky disgrace. It hurts to watch the Knicks, these days. We still haven’t gotten any championships, but there’s no grace left. No class. No elegance.
Ewing, for all the things we liked to say about him while he was here, was the embodiment of all those things to a Knicks fan. And for THAT, he should be remember. And let these last half-score years stand as a memorial to his greatness and the penance for so betraying him after 15 great years.
CHRIS PUMMER: While Ewing’s ugly split with the Knicks might seem like the perfect bookend — both for an era when the center’s large talents forgave other roster flaws, as well as the franchise’s current funk — the Hall-of-Famer’s exit was not the first domino to fall in the team’s descent into irrelevance.
It’s easy to look at the bad talents and worse contracts the Knicks got in return for Ewing. But those millstones were collecting around the team’s neck long before Longley and Rice arrived. After all, the Knicks were already saddled with Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. Those deals were the product of trying to put enough talent around Ewing to win a title.
Once Ewing was gone, the philosophy of adding good-but-not great players couldn’t carry the Knicks deep into the playoffs anymore.
The dominoes didn’t start falling because the Knicks dumped Ewing. The big man was an all-time great, but he was also finished by the time he was jettisoned from Madison Square Garden and landed near the Space Needle. The dominoes were already falling because having a talent like Ewing forgave the lack of another top-shelf talent.
The search for that talent continues today for the Knicks, who are still trying to shake off a decade of poor management.
HOWARD MEGDAL: While Chris is correct about some poor contracts, none of the three he cites were responsible for roster-clogging disasters that came from the trade of Patrick Ewing.
Here’s the list of players received for Ewing: Glen Rice, Luc Longley, Travis Knight, Vladimir Stepania, Lazaro Burell, Vernon Maxwell. For much of the next few years, the Knicks tried to build with these players, rather than jettisoning them, in order to justify the trade.
What followed was the only logical step- pair these players with mediocrities that could fit under a cap number that had swelled beyond repair. So the trades for players like Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson (two first-round dealt in that one) made it more certain the team would not rebuild anytime soon.
In the meantime, a Ewing-replacement-centric outlook meant trying to replace Ewing. So Frederic Weis was drafted, rather than Ron Artest. Weis spent the better part of the decade injured in Europe, finally dealt in 2008 for, of all people, Patrick Ewing Jr.
By the time the middle of the decade rolled around, bad contract for bad contract led Isiah Thomas to deal for Stephon Marbury. That deal simply doesn’t happen without the previous hole dug to justify the Patrick Ewing trade and avoid rebuilding.
The Marbury deal, naturally, is one that kept on giving. This year, a tremendous Georgetown center, Greg Monroe, is available in the draft.
But the Knicks have no lottery pick, thanks to the Marbury deal.