The NBA celebrates players from the NBA 75 roster almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Knicks star Patrick Ewing. This column about Ewing originally appeared in the September 30, 2002 issue of Sports News.
Patrick Ewing has never won an NBA championship. Sing it, memorize it, write it 150 times on the board, and tattoo it on his forehead. It’s a fact, and in the twisted web of human opinion – not to mention the more confusing twisted web of human sports fans – that’s all that seems to matter. On the day Patrick Ewing announced he was no longer playing in the NBA, a slew of sports appeared on the evening news and talk-radio commentary on his back followed by the inevitable slap: Pat Ewing? Good player, did not win the jackpot.
There are standard arguments that transcend the boundaries of all sports, and with Ewing officially retiring, one of the most enduring of them emerges: What good is a great player if he never wins a championship? That’s the problem with Ewing, and NBA fans should get used to it. A slew of ’90s NBA greats are close to putting together a discount bus fare, and most of these guys will retire without league-issued jewelry. This is just a result of playing in the same decade as Michael Jordan and the Bull, but it does mean that when Karl Malone, John Stockton, Alonzo Morning and Reggie Miller hang to the top for the next two years, there will be as much discussion about their failure to win trophies as their accomplishments in the stadium.
It starts with Ewing, who clearly had a career in the Hall of Fame. But when a radio pundit heard about it on Ewing’s retirement day, “Critics have the final say on Ewing in the NBA records, his legacy will always be that he didn’t win everything.” This is the kind of petty comment that really burns my sushi.
It’s simple: Ewing is one of the top 10 centers of all time, and that’s a serious achievement. After Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakim Aliwan and Shaquille O’Neal, Ewing fits comfortably into the second tier of positions ever.
It’s bad enough to think of players in terms of how “critics” portray things in “The Chronicles” (who are the critics? Where are these records? What is the legacy, anyway? My fellow media outlets immediately look for a way to disparage the accomplishments of the great players? Why do so many New York fans think about Ewing in terms of what he didn’t do (i.e. win it all) rather than what he did while playing for such a scattered organization, which had been unfortunate in previous years, one failed to enclose a good talent in his prime and one passed With eight coaches in his fifteen seasons with the Knicks?
People who thought that Nix Ewing was worthless because they were without a throat, should think about how useless they were without him, or how worthless they had become since he left. People who think the only measure of a player is championship rings should remember that Randy Brown has three rings, while Mark Madsen and Mike Smrick have two. People who think that any season that does not end with a championship is a waste of eight months, should spend less time kneeling in their shrines in Red Auerbach and joining the rest of the civilizations.
The stats on Ewing are impeccable for the position. In his career, he averaged 21 points and 9.8 rebounds. Consistency was his trademark, and few players extracted as much from their talents as Ewing did. He played hard, played painfully, and often did so without a dip in production. For eight consecutive seasons, he averaged at least 22 points and 10 rebounds, while only playing 18 games averaging 37 minutes per game. He averaged 2.4 blocks in his career, and surprisingly, he’s the Knicks’ all-time leader in thefts.
Wash the stats down, though, because anyone who’s seen Ewing has to admit his greatness and control, even without the ring. It was almost unstoppable running through the corridor. He wasn’t much of a passer, but keep in mind that for most of his career, he hasn’t had anyone on his team who deserved a pass. As effective as the paint was, its ability to knock down 15-foot jumpers (can we call those high-armed shots, jumpers?) separated it from most seven-footers. He was a fierce defender and warrior, and despite what many claim, he was a winner.
There were failures in New York, sure, and it was made worse by Ewing’s championship promises. But the ups and downs are a product of expectations, and the only reason Knicks had such high expectations during Ewing’s career is because of Ewing. The Knicks have never been able to find a good complement to Ewing, that ambient player who can balance Ewing’s internal attack.
Patrick Ewing did well, but he never won The Big One. We can say the same about Malone, Stockton, Miller and Haddad, and surely many more will. Let’s hope the daily logs have more to say.