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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Patrick Ewing: Fifth Member of "Dream Team" to be Inducted in Basketball Hall of Fame

When Patrick Ewing is officially enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame tomorrow, he will be the fifth member of the legendary Dream Team to earn that honor, following in the footsteps of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler and Magic Johnson. It is possible that all 12 Dream Teamers will eventually be enshrined; the only players about whom there could be the slightest question are Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner but Mullin has already been a Hall of Fame finalist twice, while Laettner's great college career may be enough to convince voters of his worthiness (keep in mind that the Hall of Fame honors all levels of the sport, not just--or even primarily--the NBA).

Speaking of great college careers, Ewing led Georgetown to the NCAA Championship Game three times in four seasons, winning the 1984 title after an 84-75 victory over Houston and fellow 2008 Hall of Fame inductee Hakeem Olajuwon. Ewing earned the 1984 NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award. He also made the AP All-America First Team three straight years and won the 1985 AP NCAA Player of the Year Award. Not surprisingly, the New York Knicks chose Ewing with the first overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. Although Ewing won the 1986 Rookie of the Year Award, he only played 50 games that season and 63 games in his second season, raising questions about whether or not his balky knees would enable him to enjoy a long career. Hall of Famer Hubie Brown--Ewing's first NBA coach--explained to me how Ewing's role changed when he made the transition from college to the NBA: "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."

Although Ewing ranked ninth in the NBA in blocked shots as a rookie, he was not yet a complete defender. Brown recalls, "The blocked shots never came when he was playing his man. 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 averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 13 seasons but he did not average 10 rpg until his fifth year in the NBA; after that, though, he averaged at least 10 rpg for nine straight years. Ewing never led the NBA in blocked shots but he averaged at least 3 bpg for five straight seasons and he ranked in the top ten in blocked shots each of his first 12 seasons (and 13 times overall). Ewing's 2894 career blocked shots rank sixth in NBA/ABA history (that statistic has only been tracked since 1973-74 in the NBA and 1972-73 in the ABA). Reinforcing Brown's comments about the differences between Ewing's game as a collegian and as a pro, Ewing never made the All-Defensive First Team and he only earned three All-Defensive Second Team nods. However, Ewing ranked in the top ten in scoring for eight straight years, peaking at 28.6 ppg (third in the league) in 1989-90.

Ewing averaged 21.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 2.4 bpg during his 17 year career, earning 11 All-Star selections, one All-NBA First Team selection and six All-NBA Second Team selections; All-NBA honors were hard to attain for centers during that era: Ewing's career overlapped with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal. Ewing never won an MVP, but he finished in the top five in the balloting six times (1989-90, 1992-95). The only real blank space on his resume is that he never won an NBA championship; he led the Knicks to the 1994 Finals, but Olajuwon avenged his 1984 NCAA Championship Game loss to Ewing by leading the Houston Rockets to a seven game. Ewing's Knicks also made it to the 1999 Finals but he injured his Achilles tendon during the playoffs and was not able to play in the Finals.

For those who don't know about Ewing's game or those who forgot, here is a video featuring 13 of his greatest NBA plays:



Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls presented the main roadblock for Ewing's Knicks; the Bulls eliminated the Knicks from the playoffs in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996. The only time Ewing beat the Bulls in the playoffs was 1994, when Jordan was playing minor league baseball, and even then the Knicks needed help from a bogus Hue Hollins foul call against Scottie Pippen in the pivotal fifth game. Ewing became somewhat notorious for his annual guarantees that the Knicks would win the championship but when he was later asked about this he sensibly replied that he could not very well pick his team to lose. While that is certainly a valid point, Ewing probably would have been better served to find a way to express confidence in his team's chances without making guarantees that became punchlines after the Knicks were eliminated.

Ewing had a feathery soft shooting touch but he was never quite the same after suffering a devastating injury on December 20, 1997 when Milwaukee Buck Andrew Lang fouled Ewing as the Knick center tried to catch a lob pass from Charlie Ward. Ewing landed awkwardly on his right (shooting) wrist, suffering a dislocation that was so severe that one of the bones almost poked through the skin. Ewing missed the rest of that season and never regained full range of motion in his wrist; it took a strenuous rehabilitation program just to make it back in the league at all but Ewing persevered to play four more seasons. "It definitely affected me," Ewing told me several years later. "My shot wasn’t as pretty, wasn’t as pure as it had been."

After finishing his playing career in Orlando, Ewing accepted an offer from Michael Jordan to become an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. Ewing later became an assistant coach in Houston, where he served as a mentor for Yao Ming, and Ewing is now an assistant coach in Orlando, where Dwight Howard is his current pupil; it is hard to imagine two centers who are more different than Yao and Howard. With Yao, the challenge was to get him to play more aggressively and be more of a physical presence. While Ewing worked in Houston, he told me that his message to Yao was all about mentality: "First of all, you have to be confident. 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." While Yao needed to work on his mindset, Howard still needs to work on his skill set in terms of developing back to the basket post moves and any kind of reliable shot outside of the paint. Yao showed marked improvement during Ewing's brief time in Houston and it will be interesting to watch Howard's development over the next few years.

During his playing career Ewing did not expect to become a coach but now he hopes to become an NBA head coach one day: "Why do something if you are not striving to be the best at it?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:50 AM

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3 Comments:

At Tuesday, September 09, 2008 8:39:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Being a Knicks fan Ive had a love hate relationship with Ewing since 85. I thought he was going to be that G'Town player who was Bill Russell defensively. He ended up being like Bob Lanier shooting outside shots and having a little post game. He was a warrior for the Knicks but he never won that ring. Jeff Van Gundy said people say hes not a champion. But how can Stacey King be a champion but not Ewing? I agree with that statement but as a center you need a ring to be considered an all time great.

That door in my moms house still has a hole in it for the punch that was drilled after his missed layup vs. the Pacers in 95 game 7. The result was Riley retiring and that bum Don Nelson coaching trying to make Anthony Mason a point guard. Ewing didnt like that. If you noticed that HOF speech I didnt hear Ewing mention Don Nelsons name either. Maybe I missed it.

 
At Wednesday, September 10, 2008 1:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

No, you didn't miss it; Ewing was quite thorough with who he thanked and I'm sure that the omission of Nelson's name was quite intentional. After all, Ewing even mentioned the names of some of the Knicks' interim head coaches!

 
At Wednesday, September 10, 2008 8:31:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Thought I didnt miss it. Very interesting and calculated on Ewings part. I usually do watch those ceremonies (you know my disdain for the Hall) but I actually enjoyed it this year. I missed AD's part though.

 

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