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Ewing Felled by Achilles

The 1999 NBA playoffs weren’t supposed to be about one man anymore, now that The Man is retired.

That changed with one medical report Wednesday. All of a sudden the Eastern Conference finals weren’t about the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, their bickering about the officiating or even Knick Coach Jeff Van Gundy’s job status.

Those discussions ceased when an MRI exam revealed a partial tear in Knick center Patrick Ewing’s left Achilles’ tendon. He’s out for the rest of the playoffs, just when he was becoming their focal point.

No player on the remaining four teams displayed the burning desire to win this up-for-grabs championship as much as Ewing. He dragged his body up and down the court, with that Achilles’ that had already been plagued by tendinitis, a right wrist that was broken last season and assorted bumps and bruises he picked up along the way.

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Ewing felt “a ripping sensation” in the tendon during warmups before Game 2 Tuesday night, according to Knick team physician Dr. Norm Scott. He went back to the locker room, had it checked out and was cleared to play. Ewing played 25 minutes and scored 10 points in Indiana’s 88-86 victory.

Wednesday, the Knicks learned the bad news.

Why this? Why now, when the coast was finally clear?

Ewing had been denied by Michael Jordan as much as anyone in the 1990s. The Knicks lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the playoffs in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996. With Jordan out of the way, this might have been Ewing’s last chance at that elusive championship.

By splitting the first two games of these conference finals and gaining home-court advantage in the series, it’s the closest Ewing has been to a title since the Knicks took the Houston Rockets to seven games in the 1994 NBA finals.

Seven more victories. That’s all he needed to cap a career and go out with no need to apologize to anyone. Playing for one of the most esteemed franchises in the NBA, Ewing already holds team records for points and rebounds. He is one of only 12 players in league history with more than 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds.

But he doesn’t have a ring.

Imagine John Elway getting hurt in the AFC championship game instead of playing in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego last year, and you probably know how Ewing feels.

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“He was despondent,” said Scott, who gave Ewing the news Wednesday. “He was really depressed. Here’s something that’s looking like it’s reachable, and now this.”

Normally the topic would turn to what lineup changes the Knicks would make and how this would affect the remainder of the series, which resumes Saturday in Madison Square Garden.

Those questions came up during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, but Van Gundy couldn’t bring himself to address them.

“Today’s more about Patrick than it is about our team,” Van Gundy said.

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Sooner or later it’s always about Ewing with these Knicks. He was supposed to be the savior when New York drafted him after winning the inaugural lottery in 1985. Fourteen years later he is deemed the reason why they haven’t won a championship.

For most of that time the talk has been about what Ewing doesn’t do, not what he does. He’s not a leader, he doesn’t hit the big shots, he doesn’t take his team to the next level. Never mind that he’s never had a Scottie Pippen or a Joe Dumars or anyone close to his Hall of Fame level to help him carry the load. (Remember, Elway didn’t get it done until Terrell Davis joined him in the backfield.)

Never mind that the most important New York shot in the past quarter-century--a follow-up slam off a missed John Starks layup in Game 7 of the 1994 conference finals against Indiana--was made by Ewing. That gave the Knicks their first trip to the NBA finals since they won the championship in 1973.

People said it was Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston who got the Knicks through the first two rounds of the playoffs this year. When the stakes mounted in these conference finals, it was Ewing who put the Knicks in position to win.

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He gave his teammates inspiration simply by playing through pain, providing the, yes, leadership by showing that no excuse was tolerable.

Ewing scored six points in the final 2:09 of Game 1 to help the Knicks turn a five-point deficit into a three-point victory.

He scored four points in the last 1:08 of Game 2, and that missed jumper at the buzzer looks a little more excusable now that we know the extent of his injury.

He’s not playing anymore because the doctors won’t let him. His leg will be immobilized for six weeks, and Scott said Ewing will be ready at the start of training camp in October.

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Ewing will also be 37 at the start of training camp, with another grueling regular season in front of him and two rounds of playoffs to win to get back to this point.

“Talking with him today and seeing him today, I just felt very, very bad for him,” Van Gundy said. “It’s like he’s being cheated out of another opportunity.

“I wish there was a way to honor a guy who did so much for us this year and really was the consummate team guy.”

There’s nothing they can do at this point. Even if they pull off the improbable and win a championship, wouldn’t that be cruel to force Ewing to watch it all from the sidelines?

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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How Knicks Have Fared in Playoffs With Ewing

A look at how far the New York Knicks advanced in the playoffs since center Patrick Ewing joined the club out of Georgetown. The Knicks’ overall record in playoffs with Ewing is 67-61. Ewing will miss the rest of the 1999 playoffs with a partially torn left Achilles’ tendon:

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* 1985-86: did not qualify

* 1986-87: did not qualify

* 1987-88: lost to Boston in the first round, 3-1

* 1988-89: lost to Chicago in the conference semifinals, 4-2

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* 1989-90: lost to Detroit in the conference semifinals, 4-1

* 1990-91: lost to Chicago in the first round, 3-0

* 1991-92: lost to Chicago in the conference semifinals, 4-3

* 1992-93: lost to Chicago in the conference finals, 4-2

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* 1993-94: lost to Houston in the NBA finals, 4-3

* 1994-95: lost to Indiana in the conference semifinals, 4-3

* 1995-96: lost to Chicago in the conference semifinals, 4-1

* 1996-97: lost to Miami in the conference semifinals, 4-3

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* 1997-98: lost to Indiana in the conference semifinals, 4-1


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