From "Hoya Destroya" to Yao's mentor
Patrick Ewing earned the nickname “Hoya Destroya” while leading Georgetown to three NCAA championship games in four years – taking the 1984 title with an 84-75 victory over the Houston Cougars. Ewing was selected as the 1984 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Ewing averaged 16.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and shot .658 from the field that season for the 34-3 Hoyas, winning the Naismith Award and AP National Player of the Year honors. The Hoyas had a 15-3 NCAA Tournament record during Ewing’s career, including close losses in the 1982 and 1985 championship games.
Ewing has fond memories of his experiences in the newly formed Big East Conference.
“Georgetown ran the Big East – even before me," Ewing says. "They fell off a little bit after I left, but right now they are on a rebuilding track. Those were some great years. We had a lot of rivalries, a lot of great players and a lot of memories – some good times. It was great. Every school had two or three NBA players on their team. Pitt, Georgetown, St. John’s, Syracuse. The conference was great. A lot of those players stayed at home, staying close to the East Coast; most of those guys were East Coast ball players. We were known and revered all over the country.”
Bill Wennington faced Ewing both during Wennington’s college days at St. John’s and in the NBA, most memorably during a couple playoff series when Wennington was a backup center for the Chicago Bulls (1994-99).
“Patrick was a guy who improved every time you played against him; he was always getting better," Wennington recalls. "I remember playing against him when we were both freshmen. Going in to play against him, obviously he was the big name and it was always a big game. You could see his game developing as he got older…When I was at St. John’s, I always looked to those games during the season as benchmarks in terms of how my game was doing compared to him. In college, I just tried to keep my body in front of his and between him and the basket. In the pros, we tried to double down on him a little bit more, make him pass the ball out of the post.”
Concerned that teams might tank games to obtain the first pick in the draft, the NBA instituted a lottery system involving all non-playoff teams. The team with the worst record would no longer automatically receive the first pick.
Ewing was the big prize in the NBA’s first draft lottery, selected by the New York Knicks with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 draft. New York lost in the playoffs to the eventual NBA champions in 1983 (Philadelphia 76ers) and 1984 (Boston Celtics) but injuries to star forward Bernard King and other key players caused the team’s record to plummet to 24-58 in 1984-85.
The Madison Square Garden faithful hoped that Ewing’s arrival would immediately vault the Knicks back into playoff contention.
Hall of Famer Hubie Brown – Ewing’s first pro coach – recalls his initial impressions of his star rookie center: “The thing that we immediately saw as a coaching staff was that he could score. He was a better scorer than he was a rebounder and shot blocker. He came out of college as a rebounder and shot blocker. Well, for NBA standards he was below average in both of those categories but he was a prime-time scorer.”
Ewing averaged 20.0 ppg and 9.0 rpg and won the Rookie of the Year award despite a knee injury that limited him to 50 games. He averaged just over two blocked shots per game.
“The blocked shots never came when he was playing his man," Brown says. "The blocked shots would only come in the back of the zone traps when he was moving from one side of the lane to the other. So, that was kind of interesting. What had to happen was that the weight programs designed by the training staff had to build up his lower body strength and his upper body strength for the rebounding and the shot blocking on his man, not in the rotating of the defense – that had to improve. If you go back and check his stats, you will see that. You will see how the stats progressively got better. That came with (A) knowing the league and (B) building his body and changing his physique. He was a scorer from the first day of practice.”
Ewing’s situation shows how tough it is to be a great NBA post player. Despite being a dominant inside force in the college game, Ewing had to get stronger in order to have similar success at the professional level. Ewing worked diligently and his statistics improved correspondingly. After not producing more than 9.3 rpg in his first four seasons he had a streak of nine straight years of averaging 10-plus rpg. His blocked shots per-game average increased from 2.1 as a rookie to 2.3 to 3.0 to 3.5 to a career best 4.0 in his fifth season. Ewing had six seasons with 200-plus blocked shots and ranked in the top ten in blocked shots 13 times.
The Knicks failed to qualify for the playoffs in Ewing’s first two seasons – in no small part because he missed 51 games due to injuries. But after that he led New York to 13 straight postseason appearances, including trips to the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999.
“There are good memories and bad memories, but they are still memories," Ewing says. "It’s hard right now because I’m working for the Rockets and the Rockets are the team that we lost to in ’94. We came so close. The next one against the Spurs, unfortunately I wasn’t able to play. That was the toughest one to swallow because I had to sit there and listen to all the noise that the fans were yelling and I wasn’t able to get out there and try to shut them up. That was heartbreaking.”
The Knicks went 8-3 with Ewing in the lineup during the 1999 playoffs, but Ewing was forced to the sidelines with a torn Achilles tendon after an 88-86 loss to Indiana in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks eventually won that series but were only 4-5 in the playoffs that year without him.
Just the fact that Ewing was still playing in 1999 is a testament to his work ethic and tenacity, because he suffered a devastating, potentially career-ending injury in a December 20, 1997 game at Milwaukee. Andrew Lang pushed Ewing as he tried to catch a Charlie Ward pass and Ewing crashed to the ground, dislocating his right wrist and tearing ligaments. The injury was so severe that one of the bones almost poked through the skin. Ewing missed the remainder of that season. He never quite regained full range of motion in the wrist but his relentless, determined rehabilitation work enabled him to resume his career.
“It definitely affected me," Ewing says of the injury. "My shot wasn’t as pretty, wasn’t as pure as it had been, but I still was able to shoot and I was still able to get it done.”
Ewing helped the Knicks reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 before concluding his career with brief stops in Seattle and Orlando. He only made the All-NBA 1st Team once but earned six All-NBA 2nd Team selections and finished in the top five in MVP voting six times while playing in an era of great centers – including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Robert Parish and David Robinson. Ewing was selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List, won two Olympic gold medals (1984, 1992) and currently ranks 14th in NBA history in regular season points (24,815; 21.0 ppg) and sixth in blocked shots (2894; 2.4 bpg).
THE NEXT STAGE
Ewing now works as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets. He admits that he did not expect to become a coach.
“When I retired I didn’t want to just sit at home and not do anything," Ewing says. "Michael Jordan offered me a position in Washington and I started out as a coach. That was something he allowed me to try to see if I liked it. I liked it and I kept with it. The situation happened in Washington that he moved on and then Jeff Van Gundy, who I played for in New York, offered me a position in Houston and I took it. I’m still enjoying it, I’m still learning and hopefully one day I will get a head coaching job.”
Ewing is very serious about eventually becoming a head coach, declaring, “Why do something if you are not striving to be the best at it?”
Ewing can draw on the knowledge he gained while playing for two legendary coaches, John Thompson at Georgetown and Pat Riley with the Knicks.
“They are two different people," Ewing observes. "Coach Thompson is a great person and a great coach. I felt that I came to Georgetown as a boy and left there as a man. He taught me a lot of things not only on the basketball court but also in life. He played the position so he could give me a lot of insights about the center position. Pat Riley is more flamboyant. He is a great ‘Xs and O’s’ coach. He made his name in L.A. with ‘Showtime’ and then came to New York and helped put that franchise into the spotlight. They are two great coaches and I learned a lot from both of them and I admire them both.”
Ewing appreciates the importance of preparation: “I think scouting is great. It gives you insight and makes you a better player. There is a saying, ‘What puts you apart from the other players and what makes you a great player is if after the scouts see you and they know everything that you are capable of doing that you can still go out there and do it.’ That is the mark of a great player. Some people can have good nights every now and then, but the great players have good nights 99 percent of the time.”
One of his trademarks as a player was aggressiveness. Is it possible to transmit that trait to others as a coach?
“That was just the way that I was," Ewing says. "That’s just in my nature. You can bring it out in a person, but I think that you have to be born with it.”
So how does he try to “bring it out” of Yao Ming, who has been criticized for not being aggressive enough?
“First of all, you have to be confident," Ewing explains. "You have to believe in yourself. That is one thing that I tell Yao: ‘No matter what happens, believe in yourself and never doubt yourself.’ I think that Yao is going to be a great player. He has great offensive skills and he just has to believe in himself and dominate.”
Yao seems to be taking that advice to heart, particularly since the All-Star break. He is averaging career highs in points (22.5 ppg) and rebounds (10.2 rpg) and is the highest scoring center in the league. Ewing also averaged career highs in his fourth season (22.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg), setting the stage for the highest scoring season of his career the next year (28.6 ppg). It will be interesting to see if Yao can make similar progress in 2006-07. If Tracy McGrady gets healthy and Yao continues to develop, that dynamic duo may yet deliver Ewing the championship ring as a coach that he just missed getting as a player.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com