King of New York

by August 29, 2007

This story is accompaniment to the Patrick Ewing interview, “King of New York,” from SLAM 111.

I hardly ever talked to Patrick Ewing when he played in New York. It wasn’t just that it was my first time in NBA locker rooms (even though it was), it was more that Patrick was couldn’t have been less welcoming if he was wrapped in barbed wire.

His pre-game routine was always the same. He’d come stomping into the locker room, already dripping with sweat, knees wrapped in ice, more often than not dribbling a basketball, giant headphones clamped over his ears (through which you could clearly hear high-volume hip-hop). He would make his way to his locker, in the center on the left-hand side of the room—two seats or so over from where Stephon Marbury dresses now—and the media would silently clear a path.

Unlike many superstars, Patrick usually talked pregame, but it was always on his terms. Two or three minutes of (sometimes) testy answers, ended with a curt “that’s it.” If you missed him, too bad. Keep in mind that this was 1996, so some beatwriters and TV people had probably been living with this for over a decade.

Ewing was beloved, of course, and a perennial All-Star, but his reticence with the media (and the fans) prevented him from becoming a megastar along the lines of his close friend Michael Jordan. That, of course, and his failure to deliver a championship to New York. Still, others on the Knicks, primarily guard John Starks, got love on a level that Ewing never did. But Starks was a workingman’s hero, one who wore his heart on his jersey (and often pointed to it), while Ewing preferred to keep his emotions undercover and just keep hitting that 15-foot jumper. He was—and still is, to an extent—a stubborn man, one who was never that open to changing his game, even when it appeared to be the right decision (ask Don Nelson). The Knicks made the Finals in ’94 and ‘99—getting to a seventh game against Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in ‘94—but could never take that last step. And, by ’99, it was obvious that Ewing was no longer the player he once was.

This capped off an uncomfortable couple of years in the Garden, when boos rained down more often than the familiar chant of PAT-RICK EW-ING! And when that chant did come, it was often derisive, as Ewing, struggling with balky knees, insisted on remaining the centerpiece of the Knicks offense. Eventually, mercifully, unthinkably, it ended with a trade, as Ewing was sent to the Seattle Supersonics for an assortment of high salaries, draft picks and Glen Rice. The Knicks are still trying to recover.

But somewhere along the line, Patrick Ewing found peace. Freed from the expectations of New York and the boo-birds at the Garden, he became more open, speaking at (greater) length with the media and dropping the inaccessible façade. His last two years in the NBA, with Seattle and then Orlando, Patrick Ewing seemed to be a changed man.

I got to know Ewing better in those last two years—in the four or five times I saw him—than in the countless Knick games I had attended in years past. It started with something simple, like a nod or a fist bump (a Ewing specialty), but we eventually had a couple of conversations when he was playing alongside a young Tracy McGrady in Orlando.

Even after he retired from playing, I’d see him from time to time—at All-Star, at a Reebok party in NYC, when his Knicks jersey was retired in 2003 (which finally put a proper ending on his Knicks career). And I’d always mention that we wanted to do a Q&A with him, and he’d always answer sort of affirmatively, but we never got anything solid nailed down until this year.

It wound up happening at the Finals—which, coincidentally enough, I had no plans on attending. Getting to Cleveland and finding accommodations proved easy enough, getting into Game Three wasn’t as simple. I wound up watching from an Irish bar across the street from the Q.

But the interview went off without a hitch. I met with Ewing in the sprawling lobby of his downtown hotel—he came straight from the gym, sweating. Appropriate. We found a quiet spot off in a corner, he laid a line of cell phones and Blackberrys on the table in front of us (three, I think), and we got down to business. I was told I’d get a half-hour—and a half-hour in, he was saying “one more question” (and I was panicking a little since I’d barely asked him about the Knicks)—but he gave more, and we got through a good portion of his long, extraordinary career. I focused a lot on his days at Georgetown because I feel like those days are the most underappreciated and unknown (at least to the average SLAM reader, who most likely wasn’t born yet). What follows is the complete transcript of the interview that ran in the magazine. Enjoy.


SLAM: Seems to me now there’s a lot of concern from players over their own images. It never seemed to be that way with you—you never seemed to really care what anyone thought.

PE: Yeah, you know, a lot of guys—I mean, I was of the philosophy you’re not gonna change people’s image of you, people are gonna think what they wanna think, or most people think whatever they read or whatever they hear from the media. But I felt that as long as my friends and family, people who were close to me, knew the real me, people who were in my circle, knew what I was, I didn’t really care what other people think about me. But you know what, these guys are business people, they’re concerned about what the public feels about them, what corporate America thinks, because that’s what drives the economy, that’s why they have big endorsement deals, and basketball is a business, so they definitely have to be concerned about that. But the bottom line is they still have to go out there and produce, and I thought that’s what I did—I went out there and I produced.

SLAM: You had a share of that, too—I thought it was funny that you came out of a Nike school in Georgetown and signed a big deal with adidas. How did that come about?

PE: I mean, first of all, I wanted to go with Nike. I wore Nike all through high school, all through college. And I was more familiar with Nike than with adidas. But just like the other way—I think Michael wore Converse for his college career, and he wound up with Nike. It was just, we were both represented by the same person, David Falk, and Nike paid Michael the most money and adidas paid me the most money. So that’s why.

SLAM: Going back to the beginning, you grew up in Jamaica, and moved here when you were how old?

PE: I moved here when I was 12.

SLAM: Growing up there, you weren’t playing too much basketball.

PE: Nah, I didn’t even know what basketball was. They had a thing called netball, which I guess that was similar, and I saw that being played once. But for the most part I didn’t know what basketball was. Basically all I played was soccer—we called it football back then—and cricket. But those—with track and field—were the three most popular sports in the Caribbean back then. And now basketball is starting to pick up strength.

SLAM: What position did you play in soccer?

PE: I was a forward. People always said because you’re so tall you should be a goalie, but like basketball, I like to score. [Laughs] I want to get up there and run up and down, you know, be active.

SLAM: So when you moved here, how did you discover basketball?

PE: Well, we moved to Boston—Cambridge—went on the playground, saw these guys playing this game, basketball, and I was standing there watching them, and they asked me if I wanted to play. I told ‘em I didn’t know how to play. They didn’t care because they just needed another body—I think they wanted to play three-on-three. I played it, I liked it, took me a while to become good at it—but like any other kid you go through trials and tribulations, people teasin’ you because you’re not that good and because I was very tall. But you know, I just said, I’m not playin’ for them, I’m playin’ for myself. I enjoy doin this thing, so I’m gonna continue to do it. And I kept practicin’, and kept playin’, and I just got good.

SLAM: Then you played for Mike Jarvis in high school.

PE: Well, I played for Tim Mahoney my freshman year, then I played for Mike Jarvis. But before that I played with this guy named Steve Jenkins—he basically taught me all the fundamentals that I needed to know about basketball. He laid all the groundwork—him, then Tim Mahoney for a year, then Mike Jarvis for three years—they laid all the foundation to help me become the player that I am today. They taught me about Bill Russell and all the great players who were before me.

SLAM: I read a quote from Mike Jarvis saying you were gonna be the next Bill Russell—but a scorer on top of that. Was he telling you stuff like that?

PE: [Laughs] He was tellin’ me stuff like that. Bill Russell was the greatest center ever, especially in that area up in Boston, not taking anything away from Kareem or Wilt, but in Boston, Bill Russell is God. So naturally when you’re a center and doing the things that I could do—I was a great shotblocker—and I guess that reminded a lot of people of what Russ did. So they wanted me to emulate my game after him.

SLAM: Did you get a chance to talk to him back then?

PE: No, I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to Bill until I got to college. Because John Thompson and he are very good friends, and he brought him in to talk to the team, and he sat down and talked to me.

SLAM: Was that some of what influenced your decision to go to Georgetown?

PE: Not really. What influenced me to go to Georgetown—all of the schools I visited, I could have gotten a great education at all six of ‘em. But the reason I went to Georgetown was John Thompson. One, it was close to Boston, where my family was. John Thompson played my position, so I just felt very comfortable there. UCLA was my second choice, but I was very happy I chose Georgetown.

SLAM: Obviously some of the Boston-area people weren’t very happy about that.

PE: Oh yeah, they were very angry. They wanted me to go to Boston College. But you know what, if I was gonna stay home, I would have gone to Boston University, because of Rick Pitino. I thought he was a great coach and I liked what his program was doing. But you know, I wanted to get away from Boston. I wanted to get away from my family and grow. Find out what it’s like to be away from home.

SLAM: People still talk a lot about the whole “Hoya Paranoia” thing, you guys staying quiet and just coming in and killing people. Was that a very deliberate thing?

PE: I think it was just something that grew. Pat Riley or Jeff Van Gundy, they do a lot of the same things that John Thompson did in terms of they keep people away—if it’s not positive energy, you try to keep it away. And you can only do so many interviews. If I did every media request back then that was asked of me, when would I have time to do my work or even have a social life? So we picked and choosed what I did. And naturally I probably could have done more, but I didn’t want to. He was pushin’ me to do a lot more—

SLAM: Coach Thompson was?

PE: Yeah, Coach Thompson. But I was like, ‘coach, this is all I choose to do,’ and he took the hit for me. But it was—yeah, we were the Hoyas, Hoya Paranoia, but like a big quote I remember back then, it ain’t paranoia if they’re really after you. And everybody was after us. The media, the other schools. But you know, we just kept it ‘hey, they’re gonna think what they want, they gonna write what they want, we’re a great family, we’re doing extremely well, so let’s not worry about that and let’s just go out and play. And kick ass.

SLAM: And obviously it worked out really well for you.

PE: It worked. It worked. We kicked ass, we took names—unfortunately only won one NCAA title, but we played in three of ‘em. It was a great experience.

SLAM: And the two you lost, there was Jordan’s shot [in ’82] and Villanova shooting as good as anyone will ever shoot again [in ’85], and they were both very close games.

PE: You know what? The bounce of the ball. Villanova we lost by what, two? And North Carolina we lost by two or one, one of ‘em. We could have easily won both of ‘em—I could have easily had three championships.

SLAM: And the Big East was tough back then, too. Chris Mullin…

PE: Pearl. The Big East was at the height of college basketball back then. Like you said, Chris, Pearl, Pinckney, we had some great talent.

SLAM: Who’d you look forward to going up against the most back then?

PE: Everybody. Everybody. Every team was pretty stacked. I mean, we had the best team in the Big East and the best team in the country, but you know, when you play against St. John’s and you come up to New York, that game’s gonna be hyped, it’s gonna be on TV, Villanova, with Ed and Dwayne McClain and Gary McClain, or [John] Pinone, I think was there my first two years. You know, it was always gonna be battles. Connecticut, even Pitt with Charles Smith. You look at every team, Boston College, with those guys. I mean, every team was good. A majority of ‘em was ranked, and even if they wasn’t ranked, they still were great teams.

SLAM: Did you relish being the intimidator back then? Blocking shots…

PE: I just enjoyed just being good. Being great. Blocking shots, scoring, when I had the opportunity to, runnin’ out on the fast break, getting dunks. I mean, I just had fun. My whole college experience, it was a great experience for me.

SLAM: Because you had that series of goaltends at the start of the Carolina game.

PE: Yeah, but you know what, lookin’ back at it, I’d say maybe one or two of ‘em was goaltending, but the rest of ‘em I didn’t think were. But hey. That’s what was my job was to do, was to block shots and patrol the paint. No layups. You couldn’t knock people down like we used to do in the NBA [laughs], but anything that comes in to the basket, my job is to erase mistakes.

SLAM: Did you ever consider leaving school early?

PE: I thought about it. My junior year, when they was passin’ that rule, the hardship rule, I thought about leaving. But you know what, I had one more year, I enjoyed my college experience so much. Coach Thompson told me you could make a lot of money, he told my mom before that that we could make a lot of money, but I wanted to finish my college career, enjoy it for one more year before the real world, before entering into the real world.

SLAM: What do you think the most important thing you took away from Georgetown and Coach Thompson?

PE: There’s just a lot of things. Coach Thompson is a great man, he taught you a lot about life, tell you a lot of stories, brought in a lot of individuals—people from Coca-Cola, or Bill Russell, bringing people from a lot of different walks of life, black individuals or white—but just showing us that there is life after basketball and take advantage of what you have now to ensure that you can have a better life when you leave.

SLAM: Then in the middle of all that you played in the Olympic Trials and the Olympics [1984 in Los Angeles]. Looking back at that now, you guys were as dominant as the 1992 team.

PE: Yeah, we killed everybody. You had myself, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin, Leon Wood, Alvin Robertson, Joe Kleine, Jon Koncak, Wayman Tisdale—we had an awesome team. If you looked at everybody back in college, we were all great players. And, you know, we smashed everybody.

SLAM: And then you look at the Trials and the guys who DIDN’T make it. Barkley…

PE: Barkley, Stockton, Karl Malone. Xavier McDaniel. There were a lot of great college players that didn’t make it.

SLAM: What was your first impression of Charles?

PE: Barkley? A phenomenal—for a guy his size that could move the way that he moved and do the things that he did with the basketball, it was just phenomenal.

SLAM: And Jordan, you’d seen him obviously.

PE: Michael, I knew him from high school, playing against him in All-America games. Back then you thought he was good, but you didn’t think he was gonna be as great as he turned out. Michael is a phenomenal athlete, a great person and a very close friend.

SLAM: What about playing for Bobby Knight? What was that like after playing for Coach Thompson?

PE: [Laughs] It was like night and day. Like night and day. Coach Thompson, he yells, he screams, he scratches and claws, but Bobby Knight is a different breed. You know, it was a great experience playing for him in the Olympics, and he’s a great coach.

SLAM: I saw where in one of the games you guys played against NBA players, he got himself thrown out—or at least would have gotten thrown out.

PE: I don’t even remember. Actually, yeah—a lot of people saw Michael was this great athlete coming into the NBA, so when he was playing against the pros, they wanted to knock him on his ass, make sure that he knows what he’s gonna be in for. So things got heated—I know I got in a couple altercations myself—but hey, it was basketball, it was fun. It served its purpose.

SLAM: And then they had to put the lottery together because you were comin’.

PE: Well, they put the lottery because back then the worst team got the first pick. So they were in fear of a lot of teams—especially teams that weren’t doing well at the end of the year—start tanking games to get the first pick, so they created the lottery. And so be it that the Knicks won.

SLAM: Think it was fixed?

PE: [Laughs] Everybody says that. They still say it. Oh shit, I’ve heard a lot of stories. That the end of the envelope was bent, or they had it in a freezer so it would be colder than the other ones. You hear a lot of different things, man. But hey, I was very happy that I wound up in New York. The only regret I have about being in New York is the fact that we never won a championship. But other than that, it was a great experience for me.

SLAM: Obviously you played at the Garden before for the Big East championship, but had you actually gone to a Knicks game before?

PE: No. I mean, I didn’t grow up in New York, I grew up in Boston, so I went to some Celtics games. But I wasn’t a Knick fan growing up, I was a Philadelphia 76ers fan, with Dr. J., Dawkins and those guys. But you know, going through college I was watching Bernard [King] doing his thing, scoring 50, 60 points, so they were at a point where they needed a few more pieces to get to the next level. And if Bernard hadn’t gotten hurt—well, if he hadn’t gotten hurt, I probably wouldn’t have gone to New York. But it would have been great to have played with him when he was rollin’.

SLAM: Yeah, it was an unfortunate twist—he was probably the most talented guy you ever played with, and it was only six games.

PE: Actually I never played with him. When he came back, I was hurt. I practiced with him once [laughs], I practiced with him once. I had gotten hurt, but I thought that I was healthy enough to practice. I practiced with him that one time, and the doctors almost had a heart attack. They were like ‘Pat, are you crazy? You could have tore your knee or worse!’ [Laughs]

SLAM: When you found out it was New York, what was your reaction?

PE: I was very happy. You know, New York, Indiana; New York, Indiana? Of course it was New York. When you look at all the teams in the lottery my first choice was to go to Golden State because Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd was there, he was a good friend of mine from college. And then my next choice was New York. New York was close to Boston, close to Washington, my friends and family could come up and go to the games, so I was very ecstatic that it was New York.

SLAM: It’s funny, because I think people look at you and New York and see consistency—11-straight all-star appearances—but you had a merry-go-round of coaches and owners and different teammates. Was that difficult?

PE: It was hard, because like you said people were in and out, in and out, in and out. I think I played for nine different coaches in 15 years, three or four owners, three or four GMs. I kid Mike Saunders, who was the trainer for us back then, he and I are the ones who had been there the longest.
But it was unfortunate—I thought the Knicks could have done some things different to surround me with more talent, especially when I was young. I thought they tried to do that when Ernie and Pat and Checketts came along. But hey, things happen.

SLAM: You went from becoming ‘the next Bill Russell’ to being the best jump-shooting center in NBA history. How did you work that transition—what inspired you to add that part?

PE: Well, I’ve always been able to shoot. I’ve always been able to shoot. But in college, Coach Thompson wouldn’t let me take my jump shot. He was like, ‘son, get your ass in the post. [laughs] They pay you from the inside out. Stay your ass in there.’ So I stayed in there. But I’ve always been able to shoot. It’s funny, I remember when I came to the Knicks I’m sitting around with Dick McGuire, who was the Knicks great scout, and he’s like ‘Patrick, where the hell did you get that jumpshot from? I thought all you could do was block shots and rebound and run on the break and dunk?’ I was like, Dick, I’ve always been able to shoot. It’s not something that you’re just gonna develop overnight. I’ve always had the touch, just coach Thompson wanted me to primarily play on the post, and we had other great shooters out on the perimeter, so what was I going out there for? But in the NBA, I mean, the offense was opened up. In college it’s zones and all these crazy kinds of defenses, and in the NBA you gotta play one-on-one. And when I came in, everybody was bigger than me. I was tall, but I wasn’t as strong as a lot of those guys, so they were beatin’ the hell out of me. So I stepped out to block a little bit, developed a pump-fake drive move, but first you gotta be able to hit that shot to bring ‘em up. So I started consistently hitting my jumpshot and when they come up I tried to go around ‘em, use my quickness. So that’s where my game developed. Also, the guy I was working out with back then was John Bebe Dorran who played at Georgetown before me, and he was a guard. So he was trying to tech me a lot of guard things, working on my jumpshot with me to help me become a better shooter.

SLAM: Because you were always a big guy.

PE: When I first came here I was 5-11 at 12. And I just kept growin and growin and growin. And at 15 or 16 I was this height.

SLAM: I know you’ve had a great friendship with Mike over the years, but you were also fierce rivals. Did that relationship ever get complicated?

PE: Well, you know, just like Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo and I, we’re great friends. But when we step out on the court, it’s win at all costs. You can be friends after the game, but once the game starts it’s all about trying to get the job done.

SLAM: And talking about Dikembe and Alonzo, was that a tradition that started with you guys, or were there other Georgetown centers that you went back to?

PE: Well, you know, when I got there, a lot of the guys that played way before me would still come back and play. Merlin Wilson, and other guys—Eric Floyd, I played one year with him as a freshman, he was in the NBA and he’d come back. Because in the summers we’re down there playing, working on our games. We had great runs, especially in September when school started, a lot of the Bullets would come over and play with us. So we had some great runs. And it started a cycle. When I came up and graduated, and myself and Billy Martin and Ralph Dalton, we’d come back and work on our games and play. And it started a cycle. Me, right now, I’m too old right now—I go back every now and then and sit there and watch them play and watch my son play, but for the most part that still happens.
Only one more question after this, I gotta go.

SLAM: You did have that revolving door of teammates on the Knicks—what did you think your best group was?

PE: It was probably the same core of guys, but I thought the best chance we had at a championship was the year when we got in the fight. The year we got in the fight with Miami—’97. But we were just clickin’ at the right time, everything was goin well for us, thought we would have beaten the Bulls that year and would have beaten Utah. But we got in that fight and [laughs] we all got suspended.

SLAM: So you felt for Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw when that happened this year.

PE: Oh yeah. It’s funny, when that happened I was sitting home watching it. And I’m sayin’ it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Because I see Amare RUNNIN out onto the court, and me, I just got up, and I walked out, and I looked, and I went back and sat down. And I got suspended. So I woulda been angry if no one got suspended.

SLAM: Do you have any regrets about your career?

PE: Nah—there’s some things you’d do differently, and I guess one of ‘em would be I guess open up more to the fans and the media. But that’s it. I thought I had a great career, a great life in New York, and I probably should have ended my career in New York instead of going elsewhere.

SLAM: I saw somewhere where you said you kind of felt like you were being marginalized.

PE: Well, I asked to be traded. I just got tired of hearing all the rumblings that ‘the team is better off without him,’ ‘he’s holdin’ ‘em back,’ after hearing that for 15 years, at some point you get tired of it. You feel like hey, you did your best to help this team or help build this team to what it is, and if your services is not required anymore, you go to greener pastures.

SLAM: And it did get brutal there towards the end…

PE: [Laughs]

SLAM: I mean, you were used to tuning stuff out since college, but I guess there’s only so much you can take.

PE: Yeah, I just got tired of it. I just got tired of it and thought it was time to go. I’d been dealing with that sort of stuff since high school. Since high school. People talkin’ stuff, yellin’ racial slurs or whatever. You go to different suburbs of Boston and playin’ all these teams, and because you’re better than everybody, the fans doin all they can do to disrupt you, but you learn at a young age to tune stuff out and just go out and go about your job.
It was crazy. It was crazy.

SLAM: And then college—who was the worst?

PE: I don’t even remember. But people do some strange things. Boston College, Syracuse. They throwin’ oranges at you or bananas or whatever the hell it is—I remember runnin’ out to play Seton Hall, runnin’ down the court, somebody threw a roll of toilet paper at my head.

SLAM: Do you have a single best memory as a Knick?

PE: Beatin’ Indiana [in 1994]. Tippin’ in that dunk and beatin’ Indiana to finally make it to the Finals.

SLAM: ’99 was hard because you got hurt. But do you feel ‘94—if you had just one more piece…

PE: Well you know what, not even one more piece, just if things were different or…it’s like, I stopped playing, I coached in Washington for a year, then I go to Houston with Jeff [Van Gundy]. And every day for three years I’m sittin’ in the player’s lounge eatin’ breakfast or eatin’ lunch, and they have this big-ass picture of John [Starks] goin’ up shootin’ that shot [at the end of Game Six] and Hakeem blockin’ it, and I’m WIDE OPEN, no one on me, just runnin’ down the lane, and when I first got there I called up John, I’m like, “You mother—, I’m fuckin’ wide open! And you shot!” [Laughs] No, but, you know, I just joke with him, because I loved playing with John, I love the man. He’s a warrior. You know, people always call me a warrior, but John, you always know he’s gonna have your back, he’s a person when you’re going to war you want to go to war with a person like him because you know he ain’t gonna wimp out, punk out, he’s always gonna have your back.

SLAM: That seemed to be a theme with you guys for a while—LJ, Oak.

PE: Yeah, we had some fierce competitors on that team, some fierce competitors.

SLAM: But no one was able to convince you to do the playoff beard or shave your head.

PE: No. I had a beard back then—I had a goatee or a mustache—but they wanted me to shave my head. I was like, you know what? Mmmmm, I don’t think I would look good with a shaved head, so that I’m gonna pass on.

SLAM: You had to go against guys from Kareem to Shaq. Who was the toughest center you had to play against?

PE: The toughest center I had to play against was Hakeem Olajuwon. He was strong, he was quick. Mobile. He could shoot it inside, he could shoot it outside. He was just a fierce competitor.

SLAM: Was the Heat the toughest team you had to go against?

PE: The Bulls. The Bulls. With Michael Jordan gettin’ all the damn calls, what did you expect? [Laughs]