PATRICK EWING : Giant Who Will Lead Georgetown in Defense of NCAA Title Isn’t at All Like His Image; Soon, He’ll Be a College Graduate
Every once in a while, a big man comes along who is comfortable with himself. He doesn’t stoop, he doesn’t apologize for being 7 feet tall. He sticks his chest out, his chin forward, and whoever is uncomfortable with it, too bad. Patrick Ewing stands so straight and spreads his arms so high and wide he appears sometimes to be eight feet tall. His physical gifts are staggering, his determination even greater.
Patrick Ewing is comfortable being Goliath.
And Georgetown University has benefited. Over the past four years, the school’s good basketball program has become great. In his four years at Georgetown, the Hoyas have won 113 games, losing only 22, and took the NCAA championship last season, largely because of Ewing.
His coach, John Thompson, says Ewing is the period that ends all sentences at Georgetown.
Ewing recently reflected on his years at Georgetown, which after basketball apparently will end in May with him graduating--which many said he would never do--after winning at least one NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal and several all-America honors.
“I’ve paid my dues,” Ewing said. “When I look back, it seems like yesterday that Billy Martin, Ralph Dalton and I enrolled here. And I kept thinking, ‘Four more years; how long is this going to take?’ I was so nervous, like any other freshman probably. I remember calling home a lot and needing my family to cheer me up.
“I think I’ve really matured a lot since then, off and on the court. I adapt a lot better to situations that present themselves now than I did three years ago. When I first came, I was so immature. I wasn’t ready to really cope with a lot of things. I know people thought I was ready to cope with leaving school and going pro. But I knew I wasn’t ready for that kind of life. I needed college, not just the books but to learn about life. I think I’ve blossomed, meeting new friends and what not. I’ve had fun. I’ve done the things most people have done in college, from what I can see.”
There is one thing he has done that none of his classmates at Georgetown can claim: Ewing plays college basketball better and harder than anyone else in the country. Trying to measure Ewing’s impact on the game with individual statistics is impractical. Over four years, he has averaged about 15 points per game and just more than nine rebounds, but these are numbers that don’t tell much. The fact that he has more than 100 blocked shots each season says more.
But blocked shots don’t encompass those opponents dare not take or those thrown over the backboard, or the passes tipped away, or the players frightened for the rest of the game. And no statistical category can measure how well he has played in nearly every big game.
Ewing’s performance level in important games is phenomenal. His high school teams won 94 of 99 games and three Massachusetts state championships. As a freshman, in the 1982 NCAA championship game against North Carolina that will be remembered as one of the best title games ever, he had 23 points and 10 rebounds in a losing effort. In the first eight minutes, Ewing did not allow North Carolina to put the ball through the net. He was called for goaltending four consecutive times and five times before halftime.
Ewing still contends that only two blocks were goaltending. Thompson says now, “I just told him to block anything that came to the basket. ‘Go up after it and don’t worry about goaltending. Establish the fact that you’re going up. A kid is aware of the fact that you blocked his shot, whether it’s goaltending or not.’ ”
Then there was the Hoyas’ second-round NCAA tournament game last year against SMU, when Ewing, with one minute to play, kept them on their path to the national title. Thompson recalled, “We were setting up in our pressure defense, in which Pat is in the back (at the other end of the court from where his teammate--Gene Smith--was shooting foul shots with 51 seconds to play). He ran over to the bench, and said, ‘Coach, let me get on the line.’ I looked at him, he looked at me, and I told him to go ahead.” Thompson laughed. “And he got there and tapped the ball in and we win the game.
“It’s the first time I can remember something of that significance where we changed what we were about to do. If I’d had told him, ‘Hell no,’ he’d have gone back and played in his regular spot. That’s a sign of greatness, no question.”
There have been so many signs, it’s impossible to recount all of the spectacular dunks and blocks. One recent reverse stuff shot off an off-target lob pass was so remarkable that Thompson said afterward, “You see Pat do that and you think (man) can fly.” And in one sequence this season against Boston College, Ewing blocked 10 shots, six of them in the last three minutes.
Usually when a coach refers to a player being “great,” it means he--through ability, attitude or whatever resources--makes his teammates better. Since Ewing’s greatest strength is his defense, it’s no wonder Georgetown is one of the best defensive teams ever to play the game. Ewing played no small part in Georgetown’s holding opponents to a record-low 39% shooting last season.
Bob Cousy, the former Boston Celtic, described Ewing’s impact this way: “John can send those guys out to play literally any defense he wants, any configuration, any alignment and say, ‘Hey, attack the ball.’ It allows the rest of the guys to play with supreme confidence.”
Defense and desire are inseparable. There are plenty of times Ewing hasn’t scored as many as 10 points, yet dominated a game. Roy Chipman, the coach of Pittsburgh, says, “He is the best player I’ve seen--the best--in terms of effort put forth. You never are not aware that he’s in the game. Hell, even when he’s out of the game you think he’s in. We had a fast break once, and our kid triple-clutched, worrying about getting his shot blocked, and Pat was on the bench. You’re always wondering where he is. He may be the best center ever to play this game.”
Tom Davis, who tried to recruit Ewing when Davis was at Boston College and now is coach at Stanford, said he’s felt that Ewing has been the best player in college basketball for the past couple of seasons.
“Have you ever seen him sulk or loaf?” Davis said. “I never have. It’s not only physical talent. There are a lot of people with physical talent. It’s intensity, it’s discipline. He’s proven it year in and year out. He has to be the most valuable person in the draft in terms of wins and losses. There are more magnetic personalities, bigger draws, like Julius Erving or Larry Bird. But I’ll take my chances with Patrick.”
If Ewing has indeed achieved his desire of being a typical college student, then he has done so despite phenomenal circumstances and events, and scrutiny upon his life. From the time he was a sophomore at Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Mass., Ewing was one of the most pursued high school players in the nation. The first time Thompson saw Ewing play, he turned to Bill Stein, then his chief recruiter, and said, “If you get me him, I’ll win the national championship.”
That Ewing is enjoying so much success now seems to be only just after the inordinate amount of criticism he has endured, much of it ugly and racially motivated. There have been signs posted in public arenas, in high school and college, saying he couldn’t read. Bananas have been thrown at him. Because not that many people know Ewing, the image most often projected is of a scowling, sweating giant who hates the world.
On some of the uncomplimentary stories and treatment, Ewing said, “I don’t want to fight it on that level. I guess I did care to a certain degree. But I wasn’t about to go around talking about it or let it affect the way I play. As long as my family and friends knew the truth about me, that was all that was necessary. It might have been tough to hear and see that stuff, but I had all the support I needed.”
It might have been easier had Ewing put up with all the requests for interviews and posed photographs, and reminded people that he is scheduled to graduate on time with a good record from a prestigious academic institution. But he doesn’t see answering critics as being important.
“Pat just doesn’t feel the need to explain himself to anyone,” Thompson said. “I’ve explained to him the ramifications of that, especially in this business. But I think that’s also a refreshing strength; Pat is pretty comfortable with himself. He listens very well to what you have to say about the effects these things may have on him. By the same token, he has a sense of what he wants to do with his own life.
“I have disagreed with him about some things (such as not signing autographs at times when none of his other teammates are asked to sign). I’ve told him, ‘I am not telling you what to do. What I am telling you is how this will be perceived and what this might cost you. You have to at least know how the game will be played.’ I don’t think Patrick will be selected for a lot of things or receive a lot of awards. I don’t think he receives a lot of awards he deserves because of his manner. He’s a proud person, a person who can say no. I’ve told him, ‘You won’t win most votes.’ ”
Ewing might not win too many votes from certain people in the Boston area, which became his home when he was about 11 years old after his parents, Carl and Dorothy Ewing, moved their seven children from Jamaica. If Ewing had stayed home to attend college--at Boston College or Boston University--he would have, as his high school coach, Mike Jarvis, said, “been the greatest thing since ice cream. But the minute he left to play for another tall man with a deep tan, people turned on him.”
Cambridgeport, the community where Ewing grew up and where his father still lives--his mother is dead--is a proud, working-class, self-sufficient neighborhood that is said to be one of the original stations for the Underground Railroad, which brought slaves up from the South to freedom. The community was very much like Carl and Dorothy Ewing. “Don’t ask for anything special, and work for everything you get,” Jarvis said. “That’s the way Pat was raised, that’s all he knows.”
But the streets across the Charles River were so different. Boston has always been a tough city for a black person to live in, let alone a black basketball star who is 7 feet tall. Ask Bill Russell, the man who now is so often used as the standard of comparison for what Ewing might achieve on the basketball court.
Davis, who is white, said he never thought Ewing “was even close to coming to Boston College” and said of the difficulties facing blacks in Boston, “There’s no question of it; it’s a statement of fact.”
Many people close to Ewing said leaving home was the best thing he could have done. Ewing would never knock Boston publicly. But Thompson said, “Patrick has a perception of Boston--and I don’t think he would discuss this openly--as being a very prejudiced place. I told the staff here, ‘I hope Patrick realizes that every white person in Boston does not dislike him.’
“Generalizations are something you’re afraid of when young people are abused. They played some school up there (Boston College Prep) that I went to when he was a senior, when there were chants, chants. And the administrators just sat there, for the good of the game. He definitely was abused.”
From that atmosphere came the negative perceptions. They remained so deep-rooted that even those who played against Ewing didn’t know any better until last summer’s experience with the U.S. Olympic team.
Ewing took note of how he was initially received. “When I first got to the Olympic trials, I kind of could sense apprehension,” he said. “I could see they didn’t know what I would be like as a person. When I’m off the court I’m as nice as anybody else.” Ewing began to laugh softly, then added, “I know some people don’t want to believe that, but I am. I feel the same joys and pains as anybody else. I don’t walk around and consider myself to be a hero or something.
“Just because I am about business on the basketball court does not mean I’m not a sensitive person off the court. But I don’t try to change other people’s opinions of me. If a person thinks you’re one thing, it will be hard to change their image of you.”
Some of Ewing’s Olympic teammates--who are intense rivals during the season--might make it a little easier to change what they feel are false images.
Chris Mullin, the St. John’s all-America, said, “Pat just wasn’t like anything I had heard or read. I really like him. We developed a friendship during the Olympics. We kind of joked about the fight our teams had last year. . . .
“It used to be when I heard people say ugly things about Patrick--you know, the bad stuff people say about him--that I’d just let it slide and listen to it, too. But that’s before I knew him. Now, if I hear someone saying negative things about him, I don’t care who the person is, I’ll go up to him and say, ‘Hey, you don’t know the guy. He’s a friend of mine, and I do know him and he’s not like that. He’s a smart person.’ ”
Joe Kleine of Arkansas had basically the same reaction. “I didn’t know what to expect when I first met the guy. If I had believed everything I read and heard about Patrick, he wouldn’t have even have been able to say hello intelligently. From all the negative stuff I heard about him, well . . . you just don’t know how different he is. We became close during the Olympics. Why? Well, having to deal with Bobby Knight will drive any two people to be close. But we went shopping or out to eat, or just talked.
“He’s definitely intelligent and articulate; I don’t care what other people say. He can talk about a lot of things other than basketball. He’s sensitive and he likes his privacy. Is there anything wrong with that? As far as I’m concerned, he’s a good person.”
Davis, who could feel bitter about having lost Ewing to Georgetown, said simply, “People see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe. Anyone who knows him knows he has some deep-rooted emotions and feelings. The deepness of his family was very obvious.”
Patrick Ewing is about to become a millionaire several times over. He could have left school for the cash and played pro basketball this season. But there was never much doubt in Ewing’s mind--from Day 1--he would finish college.
“I guess it’s just the way my mother and father raised me,” he said. “They said an education is something you have forever, you know, that can’t be taken away. And I always believed that. It was important to my parents that I get my degree and it’s important to me.”
Thompson, told of Ewing’s comments, said, “I probably thought he should have gone (after his junior season) because of the money. From a purely dollar standpoint, I think it was a stupid decision. But now, seeing him laughing and enjoying college and seeing him grow as a young person, I’m glad he stayed. When I see the drug problem (in the NBA) and the emotional inability (by some players) to deal with situations, I think he made the right decision.”
There isn’t any decision to make concerning which college player will be chosen with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The seven worst teams in the league will have a lottery and the one that wins almost certainly will take Ewing.
The major question pro scouts have about Ewing is his offense. They wonder openly if he can be a big-time scorer. It was Jack Ramsay, coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, who said recently, “When you think of Patrick Ewing, you don’t even think of offense. He’s a decent shooter, good enough to keep you honest (on defense) and that will get you to the other end of the floor where he’ll really make his living.”
Whether that was an extreme compliment to Ewing’s defense or a slap at his offense was unclear. But Thompson calls the notion that Ewing can’t do it on offense “the biggest myth in college basketball.
“His timing is something he’s got to be patient with. Sometimes he reacts too quickly as opposed to realizing, ‘Hey, I’ve got three guys on me.’ In terms of posting up, you have to hold it strong and stand there. Patrick is so rapidly moving sometimes that he becomes impatient and he’s got to improve on that.
“But Patrick shoots the ball very well. Very well. He’s not what I call a hope shooter, he’s a good shooter. People will find he’s quick. I think his defense is where his value is because that’s where he’s a rarity, especially in the NBA where they pay people all that money, then have to plead with them to play defense.”
Asked his reaction to criticism of his offense, Ewing laughed. “I’ve got a long way to go,” he said, “but I’ve improved a whole lot. I’ve developed a jump hook. My jump shot is more consistent and I’m more poised. When I first came here, Coach Thompson said, ‘Patrick, you’re not a butterfly,’ because I was trying to play with too much finesse.
“I know I’m a good offensive player now. It doesn’t make me particularly happy to score 30 points. That could happen, but why do we need to do that when we have as many good players on our team as we have? People think if somebody’s (7 feet tall), that means he’s got to score a bunch of points or he’s not doing his part to help the team. Winning, that’s the last word as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always been that way, even in high school.”
Ewing’s exceptional defense makes the comparison with Russell unavoidable for some. Russell was, of course, the center who won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics, and, coincidentally, the man who more or less forced his reserve--John Thompson--into early retirement.
There probably are similarities in style. Ewing doesn’t just swat shots away. He tries to keep the ball in play and start fast breaks for teammates. Thompson prefers the comparisons stop right there.
“Nobody has had the impact on the game, defensively, like Patrick since Russell,” Thompson said. “And there are things Patrick does that could develop into the kind of talent that Bill Russell had. But I’m not going to make my mouth say that Patrick Ewing is as good as Bill Russell. Nobody is as good as Bill Russell. You count Russell, then you skip three or four places then you talk about the rest of the people. Now, when Patrick comes away with 11 NBA championship rings, I’ll re-evaluate that. But you don’t say that a kid who’s in college is as good as someone who’s already done it.”
Cousy does say that Ewing is the first player who’s come along that allows him even to think about making the comparison with his former teammate. “If there were a machine that measured talent, Russ would be below Kareem and Wilt,” Cousy said. “Russ was such a mean bastard, though, it would offset running, jumping, timing. Pat obviously has somewhat of a mean streak and that will help him tremendously.
“Most big men are passive. They don’t have that mean streak and the coach is always building a fire under him. You’re telling a guy who doesn’t want to be 7 feet tall in the first place, who is inhibited by his height, to go out and kill. It’s so easy for a big man to get the rebound, clear it and say, ‘Well, the play will be over before I get downcourt, so I’ll just stay here.’ Pat doesn’t do that. He wants to be there.”
Whenever Ewing’s name is mentioned, the concept of intimidation inevitably comes up, a notion Thompson is wary of. “If intimidate means to make someone physically afraid that you’re going to fight them, then that’s a total disservice to his ability,” Thompson said. “In the beginning, I thought it was a very racially implicated statement.
“Rather than give him credit for the ability that he had, he had to be scaring people. Sure, his ability intimidates a hell of a lot of people, but so did Russ, so did Oscar. Patrick doesn’t do a lot of smiling out on the court; that’s the way he is. Doctors when they operate don’t smile. They’re deep in thought. He has a serious look on his face about what he’s doing. That’s people’s discomfort of inability to handle what they perceive as being bad: Here’s a big kid who can run, who can jump, who’s not smiling and who says, ‘Don’t touch me.’ If the same kid comes out smiling, saying, ‘Oh, I expect to get hit,’ he’d have been wonderful.”
The person Ewing ultimately will be most compared with is Ralph Sampson. People will argue for years to come, just as they still argue Wilt versus Russell.
Thompson’s logic is hard to argue with. “You want me to evaluate Sampson?” he said. “You want me to evaluate (former Houston center Akeem) Olajuwon? I’ll tell you Patrick was better because Patrick won a national championship. All three are exceptional basketball players, but the fact remains that Ralph went through college and Akeem went through college and neither of them won a national championship.
“I heard Ralph (the morning after the NBA All-Star Game) being interviewed on radio and he was talking about how he wanted to show people all the different things he could do: handle the ball, shoot from the perimeter, shoot off the dribble. I’m gonna tell you something--you look for a 7-footer to get near the hoop. You can always find people to dribble between their legs and shoot jump shots. But it’s hard as hell to find people to stay down in that hole and take that banging.”
Part of Ewing’s oncourt maturation has come in tempering his temper. “In high school (and early in college), he really let his temper get the best of him,” said Andre Hawkins, who played against Ewing in high school and for the last four years at Syracuse. “Being 7 feet tall is tough. Most of the guys he’s playing against are 6-8 or 6-10 and everyone is hammering him from beginning to end.”
The college days are almost over. But he’s not ready to get nostalgic. Said Ewing: “I guess maybe the Kentucky game (a 53-40 victory in the NCAA semifinals last year) stands out most to me. Everybody said we’d lose to the twin towers (Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin). I was on the bench with fouls a lot of that game, but the team played well enough without me to win the game. We defied everybody and won that one.
“But it’s hard to find the time to sit around and think about the accomplishments,” he said. “Coach Thompson always says, ‘The time to celebrate is after everything else is over.’ And as far as I’m concerned, it’s not all over.
“I’m sure when I get out of school, I’ll be happy to have no more exams, no more classes. At least for the first year, I’ll enjoy just having free time. But after that, I guess it could get boring. I love to draw, I may get seriously into that in some form. I only get to do it now in class. I don’t have that much spare time to do it as much as I want.”
How would he like to be remembered at Georgetown? “If I was writing this, I would say, ‘Patrick Ewing is just a cool, calm collected guy who likes having fun and who wants to graduate on time.’ I think that’s what you could say about a lot of college students. I think I’m ready to move on now and handle life.”