Both Sides Laud Ewing’s Leadership
Patrick Ewing has been ridiculed in the media, vilified by fans and booed in Madison Square Garden, prompting him to question the wisdom of accepting the job of union president.
As the most recognizable face of the union that represents locked-out National Basketball Association players, Ewing has become a seven-foot lightning rod for millionaire athletes seeking sympathy from a disgusted public.
For all his time and effort, there’s been little reward. Although the New York Knicks’ franchise player said he doesn’t read the tabloids or listen to sports-talk radio, he’s aware of the criticism.
“Sometimes I regret taking the job,” said Ewing, whose four-year term as president expires in September 2001. “But I’m committed to fighting for what I believe in.”
Because the season can’t possibly start until mid-December at the earliest, Ewing already has lost at least $4.5 million of his $18.5 million salary.
With losses mounting, Ewing steadfastly maintains that he’s willing to sit out the entire season rather than accept a labor accord that he thinks would harm a majority of the players. Others follow his lead, those who know him said.
“He’s got a ton of respect from the players,” said Chris Dudley, Ewing’s teammate with the Knicks. “It’s not just because he’s Patrick Ewing--but because he’s sticking his neck out. It’s definitely a big sacrifice everybody is making, but especially by Patrick.”
Although Russ Granik, deputy commissioner of the NBA, and Ewing rarely agree on the core issues underlying the 4 1/2-month lockout, Commissioner David Stern’s top lieutenant said Ewing’s selflessness should be lauded.
“He’s obviously made the time commitment, including a couple of times on weekends and late nights,” Granik said. “He’s been there.”
This isn’t the first time that Ewing has risked embarrassment for principal.
He and Michael Jordan in 1995 led an unsuccessful charge to decertify the union. Although they failed, their agent, David Falk, recalled the impassioned plea that Ewing made before a gathering of his peers.
“It was beautiful,” Falk said.
Newspaper columnists, however, have belly-laughed at Ewing’s melodramatic characterizations of struggling players whose average salary was $2.6 million last season.
Ewing has said that the players are “fighting for their lives.” He also said that the lockout was “a battle for survival,” and that it was about “feeding our families.”
It wasn’t his only gaffe.
Ewing appeared hypocritical to some by appearing as an analyst for telecasts of the Women’s NBA, whose members are represented by the same union leadership.
While the players seem to have forgiven any of Ewing’s mistakes along the way, many fans haven’t.
Some at New York’s Madison Square Garden last week trumpeted their displeasure, jeering Ewing during a game between his alma mater, Georgetown, and Temple University.
“I’m not sure they were New Yorkers,” Ewing said with a wry smile.
While some boo and hiss, union officials speak glowingly of the job Ewing has done keeping the players united.
Most impressive has been Ewing’s ability to motivate superstars into taking an active role in the negotiations. His biggest coup, some said, was the inclusion of Jordan, the only player with enough clout to shout down Stern.
Other household names that also have appeared at sporadic negotiations are San Antonio’s David Robinson, Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett and Utah’s Karl Malone, a longtime union basher.
Veteran Herb Williams has seen union presidents come and go since joining the NBA in 1981. He said that Ewing is doing the job better than it’s ever been done before.
“When guys like Michael Jordan and David Robinson decide to show up, that’s a direct tribute to Patrick Ewing,” Williams said. “I know that whenever Patrick calls me, he’s going to get whatever he needs.”
Ewing also elicits such praise from Billy Hunter, executive director of the players union.
Hunter is a one-man gang facing the NBA’s public relations machine. Charged with being negotiator, spin doctor, teacher and baby-sitter, Hunter is thrilled that Ewing is on his side.
“Once Patrick and I jelled, and he developed some trust and faith in me, it increased my stature with the players,” Hunter said. “I don’t even want to think about what it would be like if Patrick wasn’t here. I can’t imagine it.”