NEW YORK -- Patrick Ewing was struggling with his tie knot in the bathroom, wishing aloud he had access to a bigger mirror and acting a bit like a nervous teen getting ready for the prom Wednesday night when asked about the biggest regret of his ring-free career.
Ewing was preparing for his debut as a postgame analyst on the MSG Network when a familiar face wondered what might've been had the franchise player been supplied a second star the likes of Carmelo Anthony.
The Big Fella laughed, stared into that little man's mirror, and fidgeted with his tie. "It's all wishful thinking," he said. "All wishful thinking.
Ewing paused, and played some more with his knot. "But they still weren't Carmelo Anthony," he said.
Ewing had been sitting alone at midcourt in the first quarter of the Knicks' 106-94 victory over Orlando, taking in a this-is-your-life scene. It hardly mattered on this night that Anthony, back from his bum knee, was surrounded by lesser lights in the Garden, not when the 50-loss Magic were making a strong case for relegation to the D-League.
In a championship-or-bust context, Ewing could see a franchise player who didn't have enough of a franchise around him, or, better yet, a leading man in dire need of a best supporting actor. Yes, Ewing had seen this movie before. Just as Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Ewing didn't, LeBron James has Dwyane Wade (and Chris Bosh) and Anthony most certainly does not.
"I don't think anybody's good enough to beat Miami," Ewing told ESPNNewYork.com. "Miami's on a roll, you've got three bona fide superstars on that team who are used to playing with each other, who are playing at a very high level. I don't think anybody right now can challenge Miami in the East. I don't really think anyone can challenge them in the West, either."
Just as Ewing wasn't blessed with a Melo, Melo wasn't blessed with a Ewing. So be it. In early January, after the Knicks pummeled the San Antonio Spurs into submission, it appeared the winning team might just have a roster to compensate for the lack of a second true star.
The Knicks moved to 4-0 against the Spurs and Miami Heat that night, and Jason Kidd stood outside the locker room and explained that his team might be deeper than the one-star Dirks in Dallas that beat the Heat in 2011.
Kidd said the Knicks were "a very close reminder" of the Mavericks, built around another high-scoring, finesse power forward, Dirk Nowitzki. "We had injuries that season, too," he added, "and nobody was thinking about a championship. We were just trying to figure out how to win a game without Dirk."
I listened to Kidd, listened to Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan rave about Mike Woodson's team, praise their attention to detail and defense, and decided the Knicks had a legitimate shot to win it all the way Dallas had. But they have since fallen apart physically, succumbing to their advanced age. The staggering injuries have reduced their legitimate shot at a ring to a puncher's chance, if that.
Wednesday night, for once, it wasn't one of the old guys who put a scare into everyone in the Garden. Iman Shumpert, who blew out his knee in the first-round playoff loss to Miami, heard a pop in his knee as he tried to explode to the rim. "Last time I felt it pop," he said, "I was out eight months. I was nervous and more scared than anything."
Shumpert said he's OK, and the Knicks are left to hope and pray for the best. As for Anthony's injured knee, the one that needed to be drained, Melo said he felt no pain on his way to 21 points and 8 rebounds in 33 minutes. He admitted he was "worried" about the mystery swelling and called the return to the court "a big relief for me, especially mentally, emotionally ... "
Anthony said he needed stability in his legs to honor his responsibilities. "So I can be able to take over games when that time comes," he said, "make plays when that time comes. If I'm not healthy, then it puts a lot of strain on myself and on the team as well."
Like Ewing before him, Anthony doesn't have a transcendent talent at his side to ease that strain. Kidd could've been that player in a different life; he turns 40 on Saturday. Tyson Chandler is a pro's pro and relentless defender, but he's too limited offensively to qualify. Amar'e Stoudemire?
Once upon a time, Ewing thought Stoudemire would be the answer.
"When I looked at that team on paper, the duo of Amar'e and Melo, I liked it a lot as an inside-outside punch," Ewing said. "Even though they were both similar in a lot of ways where they both need the ball, I thought you could post Amar'e up, you could run pick-and-roll, you could hit him on the dive. And Melo can shoot the long ball, put it on the floor, and you could also post him up.
"I thought it was good, but then it's about the pieces you put around them. I like the team. It's just unfortunate that Amar'e got hurt, and then when you're playing in New York everything is put under a microscope."
Now the league's oldest roster is under the microscope, as are the men (Glen Grunwald and Woodson) who pieced it together. Woodson insisted he wouldn't change a thing if offered a do-over, and two nights after the Knicks relied on a 40-year-old guy with a broken foot to help them win in Utah, the coach actually said it with a straight face.
Anthony needed a relatively healthy supporting cast around him to win a title, just as Nowitzki did. Short of that, he would need an everybody's all-American type, a Chris Paul, rather than Chandler, the sidelined workhorse hired in his place.
Ewing understands this truth all too well. In the second quarter Wednesday night, before Ewing headed off to do the MSG postgame with Al Trautwig and Alan Hahn, John Starks, now a team official, plunked down in the empty seat next to his former teammate. Starks had been introduced to the crowd as a "Knicks legend" before he was shown on the Garden video board with Ewing, side by side, the two of them smiling and waving for the camera.
Ewing needed more help than Starks could give him back in the day, and all these years later Anthony might be in the same unstable boat. As one never afraid to guarantee playoff victories and titles in the past, Ewing is only declaring now that the 2012-13 Knicks surely won't beat the Heat, winners of 24 straight after their epic comeback in Cleveland. LeBron's Heat of today look like Jordan's Bulls of yesterday.
So yes, the Big Fella would've loved to have played with what he called "another bona fide superstar" in New York. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Carmelo Anthony might be ready to say the same.