Ewing, Patrick Aloysius

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EWING, Patrick Aloysius

(b. 5 August 1962 in Kingston, Jamaica), basketball player who was a three-time All-American at Georgetown University before becoming the New York Knicks all-time leading scorer and one of the top pure-shooting centers in National Basketball Association history.

Ewing, the fifth of seven children born to Carl and Dorothy Ewing, played cricket and soccer as a child in Jamaica. With assistance from relatives in New York City, Dorothy Ewing left Jamaica for the United States in 1971 and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked in the cafeteria at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her husband, a heavy-duty mechanic in Jamaica, joined her two years later and found a job at a rubber company. The Ewing children followed, one or two at a time, with Patrick arriving in January 1975.

A six-foot, one-inch tall seventh grader, Ewing began his organized basketball career at the Achievement School, a remedial center for junior high school students in Cambridge. By eighth grade, he had grown to six feet, six inches, and was recruited by Head Coach Mike Jarvis to play at Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge. Playing center, Ewing led the school to a 74–1 record over four years, including three state championships. The high schooler spoke with a heavy Jamaican accent and was often the target of racially motivated ridicule from opposing fans. The taunting did not affect Ewing's play, however. The center was so impressive, he was invited to the Olympic trials in the summer after his junior year, the first such invitation ever extended to a high school player. In his senior year, Ewing grew to seven feet and became the most heavily sought-after player in the nation. He chose Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., because he liked its coach, John Thompson.

At Georgetown, Ewing continued to be the target of racism. That hostility, along with his mother's death in 1983 and public criticism when he fathered a son out of wedlock in 1984, turned Ewing into an intensely private person. Sheltered by Thompson, Ewing rarely spoke with the media. But his actions on the court needed no explanation. He dominated defensively, becoming Georgetown's all-time leader in rebounding and blocked shots, earning the nickname Hoya Destroya. Ewing was the anchor of the Hoya Paranoia defense, so-called after its intimidating, relentless style of play that pressured opponents into turnovers.

As a freshman, Ewing led the Hoyas to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship game, where they lost to Michael Jordan's North Carolina Tar Heels, 63–62. In the 1983–1984 season, during Ewing's junior year, he was elected the tournament's Most Valuable Player when the Hoyas won their first-ever national title, beating Hakeem Olajuwon's University of Houston Cougars 84–75. That summer, Ewing played for the U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in Los Angeles. In his senior year, Ewing won the National Player of the Year award and the Hoyas reached the NCAA title game for the third time in four years; Villanova upset them 66–64. The three-time All-American finished his collegiate career as the Big East Conference's then all-time leading rebounder.

With Ewing the consensus first pick in the 1985 draft, the National Basketball Association (NBA) switched from a coin toss between the worst team in each conference to a lottery where the worst seven teams overall would have an equal chance to gain the first selection and land the superstar center. The Knicks won the sweepstakes, and on 18 June, as expected, selected Ewing with the first pick. He signed a ten-year contract worth $30 million, the most money ever given to an NBA rookie.

Knicks fans looked to Ewing as the savior of a franchise that had finished the previous season 24–58, third worst in the league. He arrived in New York, the pressure of rebuilding a team with a storied tradition placed squarely on his shoulders. Renowned for his intimidating defense in college, Ewing displayed a surprising offensive potency during his rookie season, averaging twenty points per game. He was an All-Star and earned Rookie of the Year honors, but the Knicks missed out on the playoffs in his first two years. In the 1987–1988 season, under new head coach Rick Pitino, the Knicks employed the pressing, trapping style of play that was the trademark of Ewing's Georgetown team, and the center got his first taste of playoff basketball in an opening round loss to the Boston Celtics.

In 1991 Pat Riley took over as head coach of the Knicks, ushering in a string of successes for the team. Ewing averaged twenty-four points and eleven rebounds per game over three years, culminating in a trip to the NBA Finals in 1994. But New York again came up short. In fact, Ewing's entire Knicks career was marred by the team's failure to win a championship. Because of Ewing's solid play, many Knicks teams had chances to win NBA titles. But each year, injuries, missteps, or more talented teams got in the way.

The 1989 Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Chicago Bulls marked the beginning of a heated rivalry between the two teams that would bring great disappointment to Ewing. Over eight years, the Knicks and the Bulls played six playoff series, with Chicago winning five times. The only New York win came in the 1993–1994 season, when the legendary Chicago guard Michael Jordan was playing baseball. Jordan's Chicago Bulls stopped the Knicks in the playoffs from 1991 through 1993. In the 1992–1993 season, the Knicks won 60 games, were seeded first in the Eastern Conference and appeared set to knock off two-time defending champion Chicago. But Charles Smith's missed lay-ups in the final moments of game five of the conference finals doomed Ewing's team as it squandered a 2–0 series lead.

A year later, when the Knicks finally reached the NBA Finals, Hakeem Olajuwon blocked John Starks's potential series winning shot at the buzzer in game six. Despite Ewing's record-breaking 30 blocked shots in the series, Houston won when Starks shot 0–11 from three-point range in the final game. In 1995–1996, Ewing's finger roll at the buzzer hit the back of the rim and bounded away as the Knicks fell to the Pacers in seven games in the conference semifinals. Perhaps Ewing's greatest disappointment came when he was suspended, along with four other teammates, after leaving the bench during an altercation in game five of the 1996–1997 conference semifinals against the Miami Heat. That year, management had finally surrounded Ewing with other capable scorers, signing Allan Houston away from the Detroit Pistons and trading with the Charlotte Hornets for Larry Johnson. But with five key veterans excluded from play over two games, the Knicks blew a 3–1 series lead.

With his professional life marked by frustration at his team's failure to gain the elusive NBA championship that would cap his career, Ewing's personal life fell on hard times as well. He had married Rita Williams, whom he met while interning on Capitol Hill during his Georgetown years, in July 1990. They had two children together, but a 1998 affair, allegedly with a Knicks' City Dancer, resulted in divorce. Ewing's Knicks career also came to an end. Unwilling to give the aging center the two-year contract he desired, the Knicks traded him to the Seattle Supersonics in a three-team deal in July 2000. After a subpar season in Seattle, Ewing signed a free agent contract with the Orlando Magic in July 2001.

Hard work, an eternal optimism, and an inability to accept defeat marked Ewing's career. He annually proclaimed, "This is our year," backing up his predictions with supreme, warrior-like effort. Ewing parlayed that tirelesswork ethic into eleven All-Star appearances, a 1992 gold medal as part of the "Dream Team," and selection as one of the NBA's fifty greatest players ever. A defensive stopper in college, Ewing's fifteen-foot jump shot became virtually unstoppable in his years with the Knicks.

He left New York as the team's all-time leader in many statistical categories, including games played, points, rebounds, steals, and blocks. But, surrounded by inadequate talent early in his career and thwarted by injuries and bizarre mishaps in his later years, Ewing's championship predictions never came true. Although his career is often defined by the Knicks' inability to win a title, it was Ewing who put his team and its fans in position to believe that each year was going to be the year.

An interview with filmmaker Spike Lee, in Interview (May 1990), touches on Ewing's childhood in Cambridge. Ewing's peers offer their perceptions of the superstar in Michael Arace, "It's Easy to Understand Ewing's No. 1 Career Goal," The Hartford Courant (5 Nov. 1993). Jackie MacMullan, "Life Has Tried, but Failed to Make Ewing Lose His Hidden Smile," Boston Globe (2 May 1993), analyzes the impact of Ewing's harsh experiences growing up. Curtis Bunn, "Journey Recalls Racism for Ewing," Daily News (11 Sept. 1994), follows Ewing on a trip to South Africa, where he recounts the racism he faced in Cambridge and at Georgetown. An entertaining source of biographical information on Ewing, from childhood to NBA stardom, is NBA Entertainment's video "Standing Tall" (1994).

Danny Massey