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Changing NBA game, greatness passes Ewing

Page 2 columnist

The other day we in New York had a small river of crocodile tears running through our sports world. The occasion was Patrick Ewing's return to New York for the first time since he was traded to Seattle in the offseason.

Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing's return to New York as a Sonic on Feb. 27 was overhyped and insincere.
Not only was the occasion -- like so many others in sports -- overhyped, the idea being that this was an important event for serious New York sports fans and that the emotions on all sides would be powerful. But the candor displayed by the majority of sportswriters was of dubious authenticity.

I realize the need for some kind of midseason hype -- the season is a long one, marked by endless patches of midwinter gray, and anything fresh to write about is to be seized upon. But I also happen to know what many of the sportswriters who contributed to the night of Ewing nostalgia think about Ewing and his game, and it is significantly less than how they wrote about both.

Having been scorned a thousand times in postgame lockerroom interviews, in private, they are a great deal more scornful of him and the limitations of his game than they are in public. Nonetheless, there was an immense flurry of attention in all the local papers and on the local media, as if this game and this occasion truly mattered. The local media was simply desperate to find something to write about in a long season.

The game itself quickly came and mercifully passed. Ewing, an older player with bad knees who should have retired several seasons ago but who in the madness of contemporary sports salaries still makes $17 million a year, duly played his assigned role in the homecoming, displaying emotions rarely exhibited during his Knicks career.

Then it was all over, and he went his way, some $200,000 richer for the night's work.

The hype, as it always does in contemporary sports, quickly receded. But it left me once again with the question of Ewing's career and the long-simmering debate about it, how good he really was -- and what went wrong. All week, local sportswriters had tried to make the case for him as a great player, coming up with varying excuses for his failure to win a championship:

  • The fact that his career coincided with that of Michael Jordan, and that therefore only Michael's greatness stood in his way;

  • The fact that the Knicks' front office was in turmoil in the early years, and there was too great a turnover in management and coaches;

  • And the fact that he lacked a worthy supporting cast that comparable great players enjoyed.

    Well, how great a player was Patrick Ewing?

    First, let me stipulate one critical ground rule: I do not believe that you have to win a championship to be a great player. There are -- especially from the days before free agency, when a player had less control over his career -- great players who never had the right players around them, and therefore did not win rings. Jerry West was a great player, and near the end of his career he finally and deservedly won a championship. But if Wilt Chamberlain had not leveraged his muscle into forcing a trade to Los Angeles, West might easily have finished his career kingless.

    Still, I most emphatically do not think Ewing was a great player. His statistics are awesome, he will surely make the Hall of Fame, and I know for a fact that he is listed among the league's 50 all-time best players included in the book published by the league itself on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. After all, I wrote the forward.

    Is he a very good player? I guess so. The Knicks in the years of his prime were always going to be respectable, though they were never going to surprise anyone. In the end, I came to hate watching them play: It was all so heavy and slow and predictable. I find him the most puzzling of players, talented, hard-working and, in the end, limited.

    His ability leveled out very early in his career, and unlike most very good and great players, he lacked a sense of or feel for the game that often made the best of them seem like coaches on the court. I think one of the most important things that happened during his career was that the game of basketball changed and he did not -- or could not. And as the game changed, it unveiled his weaknesses. He was better and more dominating in college, when he concentrated on defense and rebounding, than he was on the pros, when he seemed to think he was first and foremost a jump shooter.

    The tipoff to what most sportswriters really feel about him was evident during the homecoming week when they described him as a warrior. Ah, there it is, I thought, the W word. When basketball writers want to say something without being truly candid -- when they think a player works hard but in the end is not really talented -- they use the W word.

    Basketball, lest we forget, is not war; basketball is a game of speed, power and amazing quickness of reflexes. Now, more than 20 years ago, it is also about agility. In some odd way, for all of Ewing's vaunted statistics, the game was very hard for him, and he did not adjust very well to making it easier.

    When I first saw him -- back in high school All-American games -- I thought he was going to be a great pro, an assessment that seemed to be confirmed in college. He was big, strong, had come into his body early, for there was nothing ungainly about him at 18, which is unusual for a 7-footer. I had rarely seen a college big man run the floor that well. But the truth is that in the pros his game became heavy, his focus more on offense than on defense -- and centered more on his own shots than his teammates. He became a 7-foot jump shooter.

    He did not have particularly good hands or feet. As such, he was always turnover-prone. But I think the key to what made the game so hard were his reflexes. There is no scientific evidence here, but his reflexes -- especially his ability to react to loose balls -- struck me as being unusually slow by NBA standards; if there was a loose ball on the court, then someone like Dennis Rodman was at one end of the reflex gauge, and Ewing was at the other.

    Patrick Ewing
    Ewing's game with the Knicks became heavy, slow and predictable.
    That meant that he lacked what today's best players -- Jordan, Allen Iverson and others -- take for granted, the ability to start one move, and then to adjust in midmove to what the defense is doing, in effect running options off your own move.

    Once Ewing started a particular move, it was difficult for him to adjust to the swarming force of the defense which the predictability of his moves had inevitably triggered. Late in big games, everyone in the arena -- most relevantly the opposition and his teammates -- knew what Ewing was going to do on offense: He would take the ball on the side, drive to the key and take that jump shot.

    This also meant that he was unusually vulnerable to the strip because of the double team that almost always awaited him. It was a move which seemed to have no options off it, not the way he ran it. He became the most predictable of players in the most predictable of offenses. Like most professional basketball players, he chose to practice most what he was already good at, shooting, rather than work at what was obviously hard for him, passing.

    More than in any major sport, the key to basketball greatness is the ability to make other players better. Here is where Ewing is most vulnerable in his claim to greatness. No major player of the era which is now ending was worse at passing off the double team than Ewing.

    This limited his teammates, made it hard for them to play with him, and it made the New York offense an opposing coach's dream. When people claim that his biggest limitation was that he did not have quality teammates, the truth is that we don't really know how good they were because he never made them better. The ball was always his.

    His ego was tied to his scoring and to being the main man on offense. The offense had to be run through him. Yet his limited passing ability, and the slow way he reacted to the play developing so quickly around him, made that a flawed strategy. Still, we live in an age when most coaches are hostage to their superstars, and their superstars' agents, and that was surely part of the problem with Ewing -- there was little incentive for him to change.

    When Don Nelson arrived for a cameo run as Knick coach, the first thing he tried to do was to get Ewing to work on passing off the double. When Nelson first broached the subject to Ewing, his star player said nothing; he simply walked away. That seemed to close the subject. In time, it was Nelson who was let go.

    When Allan Houston signed with the Knicks, it was fascinating to watch the difference in his game with and without Ewing on the court. With Ewing playing, there was an almost crippling hesitation to Houston's game, as if he was dealing with an invisible defender. Do I dare take this shot? he seemed to be wondering. When Ewing went out for a couple of games, Houston finally seemed to blossom.

    Patrick Ewing
    Unfortunately for Ewing, shown in 1988, centers became less important as the athleticism of the players systemically went up.
    Over the years, we have watched other big-time players become better passers as they began to understand the truth of basketball, that truly great players had to be good -- if not great -- passers, and that the center who passed not only made his teammates better, but inevitably got better shots himself.

    In recent years the most dramatic improvement in Shaquille O'Neal's game is in his passing. But Ewing never improved. I think at a certain point he became a prisoner of his game and his ego. His game became heavier and heavier, and the teams he starred on late in his career were heavy as well -- pound the ball into the key and then pound the other team. It was basketball as rugby.

    That the game was difficult for him showed, I think, in the essentially joyless way he went about it. I realize that athletes do not have to be likeable, that basic charm is not necessarily part of the preparation for a sports career. I am all too aware that, for all professional athletes, the game is as much business as it is pleasure. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of any big-time sports figure who seemed to take so little pleasure in what he did each night, who went about his task so grimly.

    One of Michael Jordan's coaches, summing up his career, once said that he never gave the appearances that he had been sentenced by a judge to play professional basketball in Chicago. By contrast, Patrick Ewing almost always looked like he had been ordered to play by some unsympathetic higher power.

    One of the things that happened in the years that Ewing played was that the position of center became less important as the athleticism of the players systemically went up. The prototypical new stars were 6-6, 6-8, 6-10 complete players who could put the ball on the floor, move easily and fluidly with the ball, pass well, if need be, or offer up an ever-wider variety of shots off the dribble.

    That Portland would turn away from drafting Michael Jordan because it already had Clyde Drexler, who played the same position, and take Sam Bowie instead because Bowie was a classic center, seems less likely to happen today -- the people running the team would know there was room for both Drexler and Jordan in the same lineup, as there was room for Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

    The big man who adapted better to the changing league -- he came into the league at virtually the same time as Ewing -- was Hakeem Olajuwon. His game became far more creative and less predictable, and he became a very good passer off the double team. On defense he played like a center; on offense, he played like a small forward. Rarely has one player outplayed another the way Olajuwon outplayed David Robinson in their famed playoff series in the same season that Robinson was the league's most valuable player.

    That for me, was the performance of a truly great player.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, will write bi-weekly columns for Page 2.

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