NBA 75: Patrick Ewing graduates to MVP level

The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is longtime Knicks star Patrick Ewing. This story about Ewing originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 1990, issue of The Sporting News.

NEW YORK — Last summer, as Patrick Ewing went through an offseason workout, his trainer told him that if he added some muscle, he’d become the best player in the National Basketball Association

Ewing’s 5-year-old son, Patrick Jr., was playing nearby and heard the remark. He piped up. “My daddy already is the best player.” Who could argue?

If the past two seasons were a coming-out party for the New York Knicks’ 7-foot center, then the 1989-90 campaign must be his coronation. Ewing, 27, is having himself a season straight out of fantasyland. At last look, Ewing was averaging 27.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots a game while sinking 53.9 percent of his shots from the field and 81.1 percent from the free throw line.

“I think I’m having a great year,” Ewing admitted, showing about as much exuberance as he will permit himself. “But it’s not my style to talk too much about that. I’ve always thought I was a very good player and that I was playing up to my potential. This year, my scoring is up because I’ve gotten more shots. My teammates are getting me the ball. If they get it to me, I will score with it.”

Lithuanian emigre Sarunas Marciulionis, a former member of the Soviet National team who is a rookie with the Golden State Warriors this season, marveled at his first look at Ewing. “Never have I seen something like that,” he said. “A machine. Just a machine.”

Marciulionis had just seen Ewing score 44 points and grab 24 rebounds in leading the Knicks to a 129-111 victory over the Warriors at the Oakland Coliseum Arena on November 29. At the time, Ewing was in the midst of a four-game western swing during which he averaged 35 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 65 percent from the field.

“Awesome,” said Philadelphia 76ers center Mike Gminski after Ewing scored 32 points in leading the Knicks past the Sixers, 114-103, on December 5 at Madison Square Garden. “They’re finally using the guy. The guy is getting the ball 35 times a night. When you go to the Garden, you know you’re in for it.

“His first few years in the league, maybe he wasn’t ready for it. Now that he’s totally involved in the offense, other parts of his game are picking up. I don’t know that there’s a center having a better year than he is.”

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Gminski’s praise may carry more weight than other plaudits because he has had more success against Ewing than most other NBA pivotmen. When he says Ewing has become The Force, believe him. It was Gminski who held Ewing to 45 percent shooting accuracy and a scoring average of 17 points in three playoff games last season. Because the Knicks won all three, people forgot how Ewing struggled.

Ewing was named the NBA’s Player of the Month for November as he got the Knicks headed toward a second consecutive Atlantic Division title. But Ewing wants more than that. He wants the Knicks to go beyond the second round in the playoffs and he hopes to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player

“I’m greedy,” Ewing said, flashing a disarming smile, which comes easily these days — in contrast to the dour image he had when he was under the microscope at Georgetown University. “I want both, but I can’t win the MVP if we don’t win a lot of games. I want to win the championship.”

Ewing swears he’s not trying any harder than he did in any of his first four seasons in the NBA. He believes there is a circular logic at work when critics praise or damn something.

Now that the Knicks are winning, that line of reasoning goes, Ewing is playing better and because he is playing better, the Knicks are winning. The opposite, therefore, must have been true when he and the Knicks were struggling. He had entered the NBA from a college program that seemed to feed off its image as a basketball bully.

At Georgetown, he glowered and rarely spoke with the press. He was able to exist behind a wall of security and distrust set up by Coach John Thompson. But what many observers saw as a negative, Ewing maintains was a positive.

“I don’t think I was sheltered,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to grow as a person and get a degree without living in a circus.”

Once he learned what he could do with the basketball, it took him to greater heights than anyone could have imagined. Still, his rise to professional prominence has not come without pain.

For years, he would read about a Patrick Ewing he did not know, an angry one, an ignorant one, a non-communicative one, an underachieving one.

“People perceived me one way,” said Ewing. “Now, some of those same people say I’ve changed. But I’m the same as I’ve always been. It’s just that some people stopped perceiving me as they did in college. People see you on the basketball court and they assume that’s the way you are in person. That’s not the case. On the court, I am one way. Off the court, I’m totally different — laid back, calm.”

Or, as friend and teammate Kenny Walker says, “He’s a big teddy bear.”

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If so, that teddy bear felt like growling during his first few seasons in the NBA. Although he won Rookie of the Year honors in the 1985-86 season, he was widely criticized for sitting out 32 games because of injuries. A balky knee, which eventually required surgery, cost him 19 games during his second season.

When he failed to demonstrate dominance, he was roundly ripped by the press, and by Hubie Brown, the Knicks’ coach at the time. Brown was convinced that he needed to implement a Twin Towers approach with the Knicks, and decided that Ewing should play forward with Bill Cartwright at center.

As Ewing expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement, and as the Knicks stumbled through the first part of the 1986-87 season, Brown became furious. Once, he went so far as to say, “Patrick is embarrassed by his play.”

Ewing wasn’t embarrassing himself, but he was stung by Brown’s remarks. As a result, he withdrew from the coach.

A Knicks teammate that season said, “The only reason he’s starting is because they’re paying him $3 million a year.”

Brown was fired as the Knicks finished 24-58, tied for last in the Atlantic Division. But he launched a parting shot, saying, “The guy who is not doing his job is Ewing.”

A current Western Conference coach, demanding anonymity, said, “The word around the league then was that people were questioning his heart.”

The criticism of Ewing flowed as freely then as the praise does now. “You can’t let what people say bother you,” Ewing said. “I think I’m the same now as I ever was.”

Not really. First off, instead of hearing that he was the cause of the Knicks’ horrid records — a 23-59 mark in his rookie season and the 24-58 log the next year — he is told daily that he is the reason for the Knicks’ resurgence, which began with a 52-30 mark last season.

He doesn’t look the same, either. The most obvious change is the smile, which he rarely flashed in his first two seasons as a pro. Now, it’s as much a part of Ewing as his nigh unstoppable jump shot. Then, too, he has become more muscular, through adherence to off-season conditioning programs.

“I am stronger, physically,” he said, “and I am five years older, five years more mature. People get better with age, they get wiser, smarter. I’m more poised, under control.”

Ewing has been compared to some of the game’s legends, of course.

Perhaps Wilt Chamberlain, the model of the multi-faceted center, is the only player who can be held up to the present-day Ewing

Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers said only last year, “To be honest, I didn’t think Patrick Ewing was as good as he was cracked up to be.”

Now, Johnson says, “Patrick has taken his game to the utmost. I don’t know what turned the switch on, but I know it’s going to be awful hard to turn off.”

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Ewing stresses that it hasn’t happened by accident. Always confident, his sell-assurance grew greater last season, when, playing a career-high average of 36.2 minutes and appearing in all but two of the Knicks’ games, he had personal bests in scoring (22.7), rebounds (9.3), field goal percentage (.567), free throw percentage (.746), assists (188), and blocked shots (281).

“I think I was given the talent to do what I have done,” said Ewing, “but there are a lot of people out there with the same talent and ability who don’t make it. You’ve got to work and refine it, I take a lot of pride in what I have done. I have done a lot.

“I think there is still a lot left to accomplish.”

If there is one nuance to Ewing’s game that has made him an MVP possibility this season, it is in his ability to pass.

“That’s the key to Patrick,” said Stu Jackson, first-year head coach of the Knicks. “If he’s a threat at passing, he cannot be guarded.”

Of course, guarding Ewing is only one problem for his opponents. Being guarded by him is another matter.

“You can tell just how vital Patrick is when you watch the reaction of other players when he’s out of the game,” said Jackson. “They’ll come into the lane, drive to the basket. People’s eyes light up because the intimidation factor’s not there.

“When he is in there, they don’t even think about it. They come downcourt and start looking around, second-guessing themselves.”

Said Knicks guard Trent Tucker, “He’s our security blanket.”

That’s true at both ends of the court. If Ewing continues to produce at his current levels, he will set team records for points and blocked shots.

“Maturity and experience is the greatest teacher for a young, talented player,” said Lakers General Manager Jerry West. “He’s become a dominant player.”

Patrick Ewing Jr. has known that for some time.

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