For the second time in a week I am dedicating Today in NYC History to the team of my youth, the New York Knickerbockers. The franchise was going through one of its frequent dreary spells when it hit the lottery jackpot on May 12, 1985, winning the rights to draft Georgetown star Patrick Ewing. During his long and storied career, Ewing brought the Knicks to great heights, though they repeatedly fell short of winning a championship.
Ewing was born in Jamaica, moving to the Boston area when he was 12 years old. He didn’t formally learn how to play basketball until high school, but being agile and seven-feet tall proved helpful. At Georgetown University he was one of the most dominant college players of all-time, leading the Hoyas to three title games, losing one to Michael Jordan’s University of North Carolina, and triumphing over Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars. In the spring of ’85, he was the obvious first pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
That year, each of the teams that missed the playoffs were given an equal chance of receiving the #1 pick, a new system devised by David Stern to prevent teams from losing intentionally. (Under the prior system, the best pick went to the worst team.) The Knicks won the lucky envelope guaranteeing the number one pick, which some loonies claim was a conspiracy theory, and drafted Ewing before a raucous crowd a month later.
Ewing joined a mess of a Knicks team, which had just lost its best player, Bernard King, to a devastating ACL injury. (Two months removed from my own ACL surgery, I’m bopping around on staircases again, and fired up to tackle jumping in the next few weeks, in case anyone is wondeirng.) Ewing showed up ready to play. During his 15 seasons with the Knicks he was an 11-time all-star, routinely among the league leaders, though never at the top, in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. Ewing was part of the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” and is still 21st on the all-time NBA scoring list. For perspective, he was passed by Lebron James only this spring.
The Knicks entered a new golden era, with the Garden rocking on a nightly basis as the Knicks made deep playoff runs for more than a decade. Unfortunately, the team always came up just short, losing several close calls to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Most devastatingly, the Knicks fell just a few baskets short against the Houston Rockets in the 1994 Finals, a series in which Ewing was badly outplayed by his fellow center, Hakeem Olajuwon. When the Knicks made the 1999 Finals, a banged up Ewing couldn’t even take the court, and had to watch the Knicks go down meekly to the San Antonio Spurs, led then as now by Tim Duncan.
After the 2000 season, the Knicks management cruelly traded a clearly washed up Ewing to Seattle rather than letting him retire a Knick, the first in a long series of poorly conceived transactions that soon made the Knicks the laughing stock of the league. The Ewing Trade is a curse we live with as fans, though I suspect the curse will break when Patrick finally finds that elusive head coaching job. He has toiled on the sidelines as an assistant for more than a decade, frustrated that he has only received two head coaching interviews, though I can tell him, getting the interview and then not getting the job is actually more frustrating.
Patrick Ewing was a player with many shortcomings, weaknesses that became magnified as he grew older and slower, as David Halberstam mercilessly explained. He often came up short when the game got most intense, and his lack of charisma provided no shield to fans’ frustration as his skills diminished. I said hello at an “NBA for Obama” fundraiser in 2012, back when I had disposable income for such fare, and he just looked too sad to bother. He’s a human being, after all, one who dealt with racism on the court as a high schooler and college player, then carried the emotions of millions of crazy New Yorkers on his back for 15 years. He was the best player he could be, which wasn’t always enough, but his tenacity was so intense it reduced Shaquille O’Neal to tears just thinking about it.
So pour one out for the Warrior, take a long fadeaway, or just watch this jersey retirement ceremony and bask in the good vibes.