Ewing's hot and cold relationship with Knicks fans

A couple of years ago when Larry Brown was ruining my beloved Knicks, I wrote an article longing for the days of John Starks and Charles Oakley and, way back to before I can remember, Walt Frazier. I was yearning for a team that played with heart, a team that would battle or at least compete for more than, uh, a half.

However, I neglected to mention Patrick Ewing, who will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday and who so happens to be my favorite Knick of all time. It wasn't because I was selling out the Big Fella, or because I didn't believe Ewing possessed those New York qualities of hard work and hustle. Sadly, it was because I knew his name wouldn't resonate with Knicks fans in the same way.

Fans of the early-'90s Knicks will conjure up good memories of Starks and Oak well before getting to Ewing's contributions. X and Mase might even get a mention before the Knicks' all-time leader in points, rebounds, steals and blocks.

Of course, that's not how it should be. But it is.

Because when the conversation turns to Ewing, the mood quickly changes from love to lament. There are deep breaths and headshakes and mumblings about couldas, shouldas and wouldas gone by. Especially the infamous finger roll in Game 7 of the 1995 East semis -- when Ewing, with the game on the line and a clear path to the basket, could've simply dunked the ball against the Pacers, but chose to softly lay it in. It hit back iron and the Knicks fell short.

That one still hurts.

But don't misinterpret the pain. More than anything, the hurt is for Ewing. Amid the hot/cold relationship between Ewing and Knicks fans, there's a whole lot of respect for No. 33. Respect for how he brought it day in and day out, with pools of sweat exuded and giant ice packs for his knees his reward.

As a collective, we just wanted him to reach his potential, to exceed the enormous expectations set for him once Dave DeBusschere did his little fist pump at the 1985 draft lottery. We wanted to be able to defend him against his many critics when debating the greatest centers of all time.

To get that ring.

When I was younger, I had the fortune of meeting him. I was in junior high school, ball boy for a day, and I was looking forward to telling him how one day I'd help him win a few championships. Alas, our conversation lasted only three words (and I never developed any ballhandling skills).

"Excuse me," he said as I stood between him and a pregame spread full of fruit.

"Sorry," I replied, quickly moving out of his way.

Apparently that was the theme of his career -- there was always someone standing in the way of the goods. And unfortunately for him, whoever was standing in the way during his career wasn't as kind or as intimidated as I was that day.

Michael Jordan's Bulls time and time and time again. Reggie Miller's Pacers. And Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets, delivering the most crushing blow in the 1994 Finals (a blow Ewing will cruelly be reminded of today as The Dream is inducted into the Hall alongside him).

Through it all, Ewing never made excuses. He could've pointed to Starks' 2-for-18 in Game 7 of the '94 Finals. Or the ridiculous suspension for walking off the bench during a brawl. Or Andrew Lang. Or a partially torn Achilles tendon. Or his lack of a great Robin to his Batman. Or, yes, Charles Smith again and again, and ugh, again and again.

But he didn't.

Watch any YouTube clip of the Knicks returning to the bench after the opposing team called a timeout, and he'd be chest-bumping and high-fiving something fierce. You could tell he believed in them. He would go to battle with them any day. And that's why you'll hear many refer to him as the ultimate warrior during his Hall of Fame induction.

And rightly so.

I was at the Garden when the Knicks retired Ewing's number -- a night that ranks right up with LJ's 4-point play. And when it finally came time to watch No. 33's jersey being raised to the rafters, the music from the movie "Gladiator" played in the background. Strength and honor. Ewing delivered on both.

He may not have won a championship, but he was great. Never more than when he stood on top of the scorer's table at the Garden after leading the Knicks to the Finals in '94 with 24 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocks in Game 7 against the Pacers, arms outstretched as if embracing all of New York.

As MJ once said of his good friend, Ewing has the heart of a champion, something the Knicks have been missing for years. And for that we can be extremely proud to long for the days of Pa-trick Ew-ing.

Well, except for the finger roll.

Matt Wong is an NBA editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at matthew.wong@espn3.com.