Original Old School: King of New York

Earlier today, Patrick Ewing was hired as the head coach at his alma mater, Georgetown University. Arguably the greatest player to ever suit up for G’Town, Ewing returns after years of being an assistant in Charlotte, Orlando, Houston and Washington. Back in 2009, we talked to Ewing about his time at Georgetown and the influence John Thompson had on him. For anyone longing for the days when Georgetown ran college hoops, it’s a must read. — Ed.

In his playing days, Patrick Ewing was an enigma cloaked in a scowl wrapped in 47 bags of ice, more often than not dripping with ungodly amounts of sweat. He was a man of few words-his legendary three-minute postgame interviews began with “all right” and ended with “that’s it,” and if you didn’t get him then, better luck next game-who always preferred to let his play do the talking.

It spoke volumes. Growing up in Jamaica (the Caribbean, not Queens), Ewing didn’t discover the game of basketball until he moved to Cambridge, MA, as a 5-11, 12-year-old. But he learned fast. After four stellar years of high school ball at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, he moved on to Georgetown in 1981, causing disappointment in Boston and Hoya Paranoia across the land. “They wanted me to go to Boston College,” he says of the hometown fans. “But you know what? If I was gonna stay home, I would have gone to Boston University, because of [then-coach] Rick Pitino.”

The Hoya Destroya led Georgetown to three NCAA title games, winning one (in ’84) and losing the other two by a combined three points. He also played in the ’84 Olympics, teaming up with Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and a whole mess of other All-Americans on the last great collegiate Olympic team. “You know,” Ewing says, “we smashed everybody.” He’d later win gold again with the Dream Team in ’92.

NBA-wise, the allegedly fixed Draft Lottery landed Ewing with the Knicks, for whom PE would go on to play for nine coaches and with an entire media guide’s worth of
teammates. He was a model of consistency, making 11 straight All-Star teams, but he could never quite push the Knicks over the hump. They made the Finals twice, in ’94 and ’99, but were beaten both times. Not having an NBA championship may have had something to do with an old rival and close friend from North Carolina.  He can laugh about it now. “With Michael Jordan gettin’ all the damn calls, what did you expect?”

When the end came, it wasn’t in New York. He spent his last two years in Orlando and Seattle, a footnote on a stellar career that saw him pile up 24,815 points, 11,607 rebounds (for career per-game averages of 21 and 9.8) and 2,894 blocks.

“You could not have done more for an organization,” former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy once said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t win a championship. But he conducted himself like a champion and put more into trying to win a championship than anyone.”

After his retirement, Ewing served as an assistant coach for the Wizards and Rockets. Currently an NBA TV analyst, he’s destined to return to the sidelines. And perhaps one day get that elusive ring.

SLAM: It seems there’s a lot of concern from players over their own images nowadays. You, on the other hand, never seemed to really care what anyone thought.

Patrick Ewing: I was of the philosophy you’re not gonna change people’s image of you. People are gonna think what they wanna think, or just 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 and knew the real me-knew what I was, I didn’t really care what other people think about me. But the bottom line is you still have to go out there and produce, and I thought that’s what I did-I went out there and I produced.

SLAM: Going back to the beginning, you grew up in Jamaica and moved here when you were 12. You weren’t playing too much basketball there.

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. 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.

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

PE: Well, we moved to Boston, Cambridge, and 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 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 teasing 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.

SLAM: You were coached by Mike Jarvis in high school, and I read a quote from him 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 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: What influenced you to go to Georgetown?

PE: Of all six schools I visited, I could have gotten a great education at all of them. But the reason I went to Georgetown was John Thompson. 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: 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 chose what I did. And naturally I probably could have done more, but I didn’t want to. Coach Thompson was pushin’ me to do a lot more, 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 said: “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: Did you relish being the intimidator back then?

PE: I 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 great.

SLAM: Did you ever consider leaving school early?

PE: I thought about it after my junior year, but I had one more year and I wanted to finish my college career; enjoy it for one more year before entering the real world.

SLAM: And then they put the Lottery together when you did come. Do you 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: Had you actually been 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 for six games.

PE: Actually, I never played with him. When he came back, I was hurt. 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: You went from becoming “the next Bill Russell” to being the best jump-shooting center in NBA history. What inspired you to add that part?

PE: Well, 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.

But in the NBA, I mean, the offense was opened up. 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 on the 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 came up, I tried to go around ’em, use my quickness. So that’s where my game developed.

SLAM: You did have that revolving door of teammates when you were with the Knicks. What do you think your best group was?

PE: 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. 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: Do you have any regrets at all about your career?

PE: Nah. There’s some things you’d do differently, and I guess one of ’em would be to 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 you said somewhere 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 you did your best to help this team or help build this team to what it is, and if your services are not required anymore, you go to greener pastures.

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

PE: Tippin’ in that dunk and beatin’ Indiana [in the ’94 Conference Finals] to finally make it to the Finals. [Ewing finished that Game 7 with 24 points and 22 rebounds.]

SLAM: Did you feel that in ’94, if you had just one more piece…

PE: You know what? Not even one more piece, just if things were different…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 players’ lounge eatin’ breakfast or lunch, and they have this big-ass picture of John [Starks] shootin’ that shot [at the end of Game 6] and Hakeem blockin’ it, and I’m wide open, no one on me, just runnin’ down the lane. When I first got there I called up John, like, “You mother-, I’m fuckin’ wide open! And you shot!” [Laughs] No, 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 with a person like him, because you know he ain’t gonna wimp out or punk out. John’s always gonna have your back.