The Truth About Patrick Ewing

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August 12, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

ewing

It’s a mistake to say that every athlete who comes to New York has won it all.  Although it’s a little bit more accurate, it can’t even be said that every athlete who came to New York and should have won, did in fact win.  In New York City, athletes are broken up into two groups: Those who won, and those who did not.  Despite the athletes like Mickey Mantle, LT, Walt Frazier, and Mark Messier, guys who were supposed to win, and did just that, there are those who didn’t win, yet should have.  They occupy their own sub-group within the category of “Guys who failed to win a championship”.  Guys like Amar’e Stoudemire, Jason Bay, and anyone who’s ever played for the Jets after 1969 are excluded from the category of “Guys who should have won a championship” though, because there was never any realistic chance of them actually leading their team to a title.  Within the lexicon of athletes-who-should-have-won-but-didn’t, there’s one name that stands out above all the others to New Yorkers: Patrick Ewing.  But beyond this, or quite possibly because of this, Patrick Ewing has become the most underrated NBA superstar who ever played the game.

In the entire history of the NBA, there is arguably no bigger ring-less superstar than the original savior of the New York Knicks franchise.  What separates a guy like Patrick Ewing from the impressive legion of other ring-less superstars, all of whom were victims of Michael Jordan?  This illustrious bunch of superstars includes MVPs, all-time leaders in major statistics and first-ballot hall of famers.  Before I can offer my defense of Patrick Ewing as the most underrated superstar to ever play in the NBA, I have to examine and disprove the counter argument, that Ewing is in fact overrated.  This entire argument, belief, and lifestyle choice however, is centered around one core tenet.

The biggest (and only) bullet that’s fired against Ewing[1], is that he never won a championship.  In fact, this looks especially damning in comparison to the three other premier centers of that era: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal.  When we talk about all the rings that those three have[2], there’s one crucial detail that everyone besides Bulls’ fans seem to leave out: The Dream, Robinson, and Shaq won all of their rings when Jordan was either out of basketball or nowhere near his prime.[3]  Unlike Ewing who went up against Jordan five times, all of which involved Jordan in his prime, or at his peak, Dream and Robinson NEVER faced off against Jordan in the playoffs, while Shaq only faced the real Michael Jordan once…and promptly lost.  Despite not playing against him, neither Robinson nor Olajuwon could even make it to the NBA Finals unless Jordan was either out of basketball or out of shape/out of his prime.  Shaq too had to wait until Jordan was out of basketball before he would win his first ring.  Whereas Patrick Ewing had the ultimate oppressor, the ultimate handicap working against him, Robinson, Olajuwon, and Lakers-era Shaq had a much easier time making it to the Finals.

Just let it happen Mad Max.

Besides the Jordan handicap, another anomaly occurred in the NBA during the 1990s.  It’s an anomaly that doesn’t appear in the NFL, MLB, or NHL, as it’s distinctly unique to the NBA.  There is a damning stigma that will forever ensnare itself around a superstar who fails to win the Finals.  In no other sport is a championship as validating, or crucial to one’s legacy than in the NBA.  The reason why this exists is because unlike in the other three major sports, the precedent that was set in the NBA was that the superstars always win.  Even if it takes four tries, as in the case of the Baltimore Bullets, or even if it takes seven tries like the Lakers, the superstar will get his ring.  In the NFL all-time greats like Dan Marino and Junior Seau never won Super Bowls, and in the MLB, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ty Cobb all played their entire careers without winning a World Series.  In those sports the precedent had already been established that a player’s legacy and status as an all-time great wasn’t dependent on winning a title.  It only served to enhance their resume and legacy.  By comparison, because of the absolute paradigm created that the superstars win, a resume lacking a championship is seen as incomplete and sullied by that which is missing instead of what is present.[4]

Throughout the entire history of the NBA, the best players always won: Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain, Frazier, West, Kareem, Robertson, Walton, Hayes, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Bird, Magic, Thomas, and Jordan.  Beyond mere expectation, this was the norm, the absolute, an immutable and universal law.  The 1990s became the first time in the history of the NBA where superstars were no lingered guaranteed to win a title.  Granted, this paradigm shift was caused by a Hyper-Star, but because it was such a stark contrast to the status-quo, players like Ewing, Barkley, and the rest, became the first generation of superstars who couldn’t climb the mountaintop.  As a result, they’re forever grouped together and maligned as the guys who couldn’t get the job done.

Like a modern day Samson, Ewing’s sick flat top was the source of his power.

So, how does this separate Patrick Ewing from all the other superstars who couldn’t win a ring?  Well, there’re two factors that lead me to believe that Patrick Ewing is not only the most underrated player of all time, but that he’s criminally underrated at that.  The first factor, is purely intangible, difficult to prove, and sounds more like an excuse to anyone who has already made up their mind that Ewing isn’t underrated.  It’s the pressure.  Patrick Ewing was the most coveted college player since Lew Alcindor, and by virtue of being drafted by the Knicks, in the very first lottery no less,[5] the entire hopes and aspirations of not only a franchise that he didn’t originally want to play for, but of an entire city was thrust onto his 22 year old shoulders.

Ewing’s Hoya’s went to three NCAA title games in his four years, a feat that hadn’t been seen since John Wooden’s UCLA juggernaut.  He was the defensive anchor, and was expected, or more appropriately, supposed to instantaneously lead whichever team drafted him into contention.  Playing in New York, which is about as starved for a championship as DMX is for a woman, every time Ewing didn’t win (which was all the time) he was scrutinized for it, as if it was either his fault, or that he wasn’t performing as advertised.  No attention was paid to the fact that the second best player on those late 80s Knicks team was either a lazy Mark Jackson, or Dominique Wilkins’ younger brother who was more like the Scrappy Doo to his brother’s Scooby Doo.  It was never about the lack of quality players, or the inability of ownership to surround Ewing with talent, the rhetoric in those early days was always about how Ewing had failed.

No other player, besides Wilt Chamberlain ever had to deal with as much scrutiny, adversity or pressure as did Patrick Ewing.  The expectations were enormous, however, it seemed as though everyone, sportswriters, fans, and commentators alike were all too eager to pounce on him like hyenas over carrion, should he fail to live up to such impossible standards.

What does go oft-ignored is that Ewing was originally projected to be a defensive oriented center, and not the all-around dominant force that he became.  He tirelessly worked on his footwork and jump shot in order to expand his game and become a better-rounded player.  The modern day comparison would be if Roy Hibbert started shooting three point shots as easily as Steph Curry did.  That’s how far Ewing’s offensive game developed.  To this day, he’s known as the greatest jump-shooting center of all time, but those expectations, the improvements he made to his game are considered negligible by larger comparison to what he wasn’t able to accomplish.  Robinson and Shaq were simply dominant from the get-go, and while Olajuwon’s Dreamshake was often the talk of the NBA, he was already seen as an explosive scorer with the agility of a guard when he was drafted.  When we talk about expectations, what’s never mentioned is how Ewing surpassed the expectations that were attached to his own abilities.  He made himself better which is something that Shaq and David Robinson, or even Karl Malone can’t say.

Patrick was known to high-five and hug fans in the middle of a game.

Although it may sound absurd now, Ewing was a much more heralded prospect than Michael Jordan.  Jordan was considered to be a no doubt stud, but Ewing was projected as the game-changer.  Even Hakeem Olajuwon, who had Ralph Sampson to not only learn from, but also deflect any criticism or fantastic expectations, wasn’t billed as the next Wilt Chamberlain as Ewing had been.  As a result, every season which Ewing did not win a championship, his reputation not only became stained with the most odious stench of defeat, but it bore with it the added insult of someone who should have won, but didn’t.  No one cares that he played for seven different coaches (including Stu Jackson for some fucked up reason) in his first seven years, or that he never played a single game with another Hall of Famer, they just care that he never won.

The second factor that leads me to claim that Ewing is the most underrated player of all-time is that Ewing maximized the (minimal) amount of talent around him during his prime.  Never has any other NBA player done so much with so little talent to work with.  From 1985-2000, Ewing’s teammates only made a total of three all-star games.[6]  The closest thing Ewing ever had to a sidekick was John Starks who went undrafted and speaks like an idiot.[7]  Charles Oakley was an enforcer, and a murderous rebounder but couldn’t shoot the ball from more than eight feet away, Charles Smith never should have played basketball after this, Kenny Walker could do nothing but breakaway dunks, Latrell Sprewell was psychotic, Larry Johnson played with a broken back, Derek Harper was too old to be effective, and no one had any idea what the fuck to do with Anthony Mason.  That’s it.  In his 15 year career in New York, these were the best players that Knicks management could surround Patrick Ewing with.

Just to recap—Michael Jordan had (Hall of Famer) Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and (Hall of Famer) Dennis Rodman.  Hakeem Olajuwon had (Hall of Famer/Cry-Baby) Clyde Drexler, Otis Thorpe, and Mario Ellie.  David Robinson had ((eventual) Hall of Famer/David Robinson Meal Ticket) Tim Duncan, and Shaq had ((eventual) Hall of Famer) Kobe Bryant and ((eventual) Hall of Famer) Dwyane Wade.  I trust that you what I’m saying.

Now for all of Patrick Ewing’s ring-less peers.  Unlike Ewing, they all had Hall of Fame level talent around them.  Stockton and Malone not only had each other, but they also had the underappreciated and wildly wily Jeff Hornacek, and Byron Russell.  Not only did Charles Barkley start off his career alongside Dr. J and Moses Malone, but when he was traded to the Suns, he was gift-wrapped and sent to a team that was on the cusp of true contention.  He played with would be Hall of Famer, Kevin Johnson, and the unheralded Dan Majerle, both of whom individually still have appeared in more all-star games than Starks and Oakley combined.

This right here is as good as the Knicks ever got with Patrick Ewing. And yes the one with a re-breather is John Starks.

Before he pouted his way out of Portland and into the arms of the defending world champion Houston Rockets, Drexler played with Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter, and Buck Williams, guys who were named all-stars multiple times, and who all averaged at least 11 points per game in 1990 and 1992.  Porter was a functional point guard and Jerome Kersey  Even though the talent that Drexler was surrounded with wasn’t as impressive as the talent that surround Barkley, Malone, Stockton, and Robinson, it was still a hell of a lot better than what Ewing had to deal with.

And yet, despite any real semblance of talent, Ewing still took his team to game seven of the NBA Finals.  If not for Sam Cassell, and John Stark’s unannounced nervous breakdown,[8] the Knicks would have won the 1994 Finals and Ewing and Olajuwon would be stuck with the same number of rings.  For the guys that Ewing was surrounded with in 1994, even making it to the Finals was the furthest of reaches for a group of guys who had every iota of talent maximized by playing with Patrick Ewing.  Oakley was exiled from Chicago the minute the Bulls drafted Horace Grant, John Starks was literally working in a grocery store before he became a Knick, I’m pretty certain that Anthony Mason was on some kind of work-release program, Greg Anthony became a bust after about 100 games, and a senile Rolando Blackman was their backup shooting guard.  Anyway you color it, the Knicks of the early 90s had absolutely no right being as serious a contender as they actually were.

No one had a more perilous path through the playoffs than Patrick Ewing. No one had to go through Michael Jordan five times. And why does Shaq look like Peter Boyle?

What brought them together though was Patrick Ewing.  He allowed them to play their game in a way that maximized their talents.[9]  He learned to play with the mercurial John Starks and the brutish Charles Oakley to the mutual benefit of everyone involved.  Instead of them catering to Ewing’s style of play, they all found a way to gel together.[10]  Ewing never played with guys who were already established all-stars, like a Kevin Johnson, or Buck Williams, or Otis Thorpe.  He never played alongside Hall of Fame talent like Penny Hardaway, Scottie Pippen, or John Stockton.  Because of that, he had to, and did make his teammates better, and in the case of John Starks, Greg Anthony and Anthony Mason, better than they had any right to be.  It’s just that his teammates weren’t as good as those on the teams of other superstars.  With what little Ewing had, he surpassed the surrounding talent’s furthest reach, and maximized and redoubled a comparatively minimal amount of talent.  How Ewing was able to seriously work with and get the most out of the players that he was surrounded with is the basketball equivalent of Jesus Christ feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Designating a player as a superstar is a very serious title that shouldn’t be thrown around as carelessly as it is.  Superstars make their teammates better, and can affect the game in more than one way.  In the NBA, a player can be a superstar and never win, guys like Ewing, Barkley, etc.  However, there were some players in the Jordan-era who never won and are still lumped in with all the other ring-less superstars despite not being superstars themselves.  Reggie Miller and Dominique Wilkins are the two that come quickest to mind.  Both were incredible scorers.  That’s it.  They couldn’t do anything else.  If either one went cold, their team was done for.  Miller’s idea of defense was to either choke someone or try and jerk their face off, and Wilkins would try and score even he didn’t have the ball.  They were both one-dimensional players who failed to make their teammates better.  In fact, in the case of Miller, the case could be made that his teammates made him better.[11]  Wilkins never made it to the NBA Finals, and Miller only made it in 2000, in one of those “Well, somebody has to win the East years”.  Yes, Miller made it to the conference finals six times, but that’s just the PC way of saying that he went 1-5 in those series.  You can successfully build around a superstar, but not a faux-star, and that’s what separated the Hawks from the Celtics and Pistons, and what separated the Pacers from the Bulls, Knicks and Magic.

As much as people blast Lebron James for needing “help” to win a title, every championship team save for the 2004 Pistons, 1994 Rockets, and 1977 Trailblazers had at least two Hall of Famers on the team.  Every team however, has had at least two perennial all-stars on their roster.  It’s a fact—every superstar needs another star alongside him to win a title.  With no real help around him, Ewing got much closer than anyone gives him credit for, and did so with much less surrounding talent.  The fact that Ewing put up such great numbers[12], took a team of miscreants to game seven of the Finals, pushed Jordan to a game seven in the playoffs (only one of three times in Jordan’s career), and actually developed his game further than expected, proves that with the least amount of support around him, and the most amount of pressure atop him, Ewing was still able to craft a superstar legacy.  The lens that we use to examine these players, especially Patrick Ewing, has to change from focusing on what they didn’t achieve, to what they were able to accomplish.  It’s just a shame that he needed a ring to justify it all.


[1] And by extension Barkley, Malone, and Stockton.  But not so much against Reggie Miller.  Probably because everyone realizes that he was a fake superstar.

[2] A combined eight between the three of them.

[3] Be real Rocket fans, you all know that Jordan’s 1994-95 season was nothing more than a prolonged rehab session.

[4] This is why the NBA Hall of Fame already has Bill Walton’s plaque polished and ready as soon as he beat Dr. J in the 1977 Finals.

[5] Of which there is already an inordinate amount of conspiracy theories regarding the league manipulating the draft so that Ewing would wind up with the Knicks.  They’re probably all true.  And you know what?  It was for the best.

[6] John Starks and Charles Oakley in 1994, and Allan Houston in 2000.

[7] To paraphrase noted Patrick Ewing hater, Bill Simmons, if Ewing played with any other shooting guard besides Starks, he would have ended his career with at least one ring.

[8] Seriously.  In game seven against the Rockets he went 2-18 from the field.  This includes 0-11 from the 3-point line, and 0-10 in the fourth quarter.  He was never the same player after that.

[9] Ewing’s usage rate only crept past 30% three times in his career.  This means that only three times did 30% of the plays run through Ewing.  Superstars in the NBA should routinely have a usage rate of over 30%.  But then again, at the time everyone thought that John Starks and Allan Houston were better than they actually were.

[10] Yes, Pat Riley coached those Knicks, but the way he coached wasn’t specific to Patrick Ewing.  His coaching style embodied the players that were on the roster.  The grit-n-ground wasn’t suited for Ewing, unlike how Showtime was geared exactly for Magic Johnson.  Instead of having a system of play tailor made for him, Ewing was simply playing in Riley’s ground-and-pound system because it worked.  Later commentators have suggested that Ewing would have actually been better off playing in an up-tempo style.

[11] Mark Jackson, the poorest man’s version of Steve Nash, and Rik Smits were bigger contributors than they should have been.  Oh, and Miller played with Hall of Famer Chris Mullin.

[12] While with the Knicks, Ewing was a perennial 20-point, 10-rebound a game player.

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