Updated: September 18, 10:28 AM ET
Ewing always let them see him sweat
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
Good Lord, did the man sweat.
Not the sweat that you see under the arms of working women's silk blouses. Not even the sweat of the bus driver in rush hour, the sweat that soaks up through the T-shirt to create blotches of dampness on cotton blue work shirts. Not nervous sweat, like Albert Brooks's reporter in Broadcast News. Not even the kind of sweat that my father would have on him when he came off a 10-hour shift delivering mail during 95-degree August days in D.C.
No one sweated more than Patrick Aloysius Ewing.
You worried about his health, he sweated so bad.
Now, understand, NBA players sweat. They run and jump and collide with one another for two hours, and that builds up a lather. And in the old days, when the AC didn't work as well as it does now in these new palaces, the guys sweated a bunch. But Ewing was a different kind of sweater. His was copious, end-of-world sweat. It was the sweat of a man who worked his butt off for 17 years, chasing what everyone believed would ultimately be his: an NBA championship.
But it never worked out that way for Ewing. He had plenty of talent at his side during his prime years, the years when the Knicks were the toast of New York and the patrons of Madison Square Garden, three decades thirsty for a title, would roar like in the old days. There were Xavier McDaniel and Mark Jackson early, and John Starks and Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley in the middle, and Allan Houston and Marcus Camby late, and in the middle, there was Ewing. His low-post game was simple but effective (and, to opposing coaches, an extra step as he came across the lane always allowed by the officials). And, clearly, he was the greatest jump-shooting big man of all time, automatic from either side of and on top of the key.
He was an all-star 11 times, and an Olympian twice, and voted one of the greatest 50 players of all time. But the number Ewing never reached in the NBA was 15. As in, 15 postseason victories. The only team that wins 15 playoff games in the spring is the one that wins the title, and the closest Ewing's Knicks got was 14. They were one win short in June of '94, the month that O.J. took to the highways and that Starks took it upon himself to win Game 7 against the Rockets, hoisting brick after brick. (I asked then, as I do now: Where was Ro Blackman? Did Riles not see him on the bench?)
There were many who roasted Ewing in Gotham because his team never won its last game of the playoffs, and because he missed big shots in key situations, but of course, you have to a) make a lot of other big shots to get to big situations, and b) have the, um, guts to take big shots in big situations. And Ewing accepted the challenge.
The main reason Ewing never won a ring, of course, is Michael Jordan. In this, Ewing is one of a half-dozen superstars who got stiffed at the altar because of when they were born. Barkley, Miller, Stockton, Malone -- the whole lot of them never figured Jordan out, and neither did Ewing. The irony was that the two became fast friends over the years, to the point that Jordan allowed Ewing into his inner circle, and desired him in Washington, where Ewing will tutor Jordan's big men.
And Ewing knows from inner circles. His was impenetrable. Only family and a handful of Georgetown buddies and teammates can say they truly knew him. I know of great acts of charity and grace that Ewing has performed over the years. But to the public, he was a mask of blank stares, short answers and oddly timed "guarantees" of victory.
Ewing's reticence is obvious to anyone who knew anything about him. Painfully shy as a teenager having to deal with the kind of height that makes one anything but anonymous, Ewing was thrust into the public eye. At Georgetown, Ewing was protected by John Thompson -- not because he couldn't handle himself in front of a microphone, or in a classroom, but because he was an 18-year-old kid growing slowly into his body and into his adult life. Ewing was nonetheless subject to the nastiest kind of racism when he went on the road in the Big East -- in Boston, in large part because he spurned local BC for the Hated Hoyas, and in Syracuse, because he kicked the butts of the Orange with regularity.
Of course, few noted that Ewing not only graduated on time, but audited classes for years afterward at Georgetown -- "I was just doing it for me," he told me once -- but it was also in order to keep an eye on his money. Never think for one second that all of the Georgetown Men that have done business with David Falk over the years don't know where every penny of theirs currently resides.
I wish I had some great Pat anecdote, to give you some sense of the man, but I don't. I know that he was always polite in our non-locker room encounters, but if he had something of great personal significance to tell me, it never came up. He was, and is, a doting father and quite proud, naturally, of Patrick Ewing, Jr., who is now looking for a college.
"My son hints around now that if he has the chance, he wants to go from high school to the pros," he told me once. "I told him, nah, not as long as I'm still alive. He's going to go to college and try to get a degree and enjoy life."
I'm pretty sure that Patrick Ewing, Sr., has enjoyed his life. It has been a life of great challenges, and successes, and some failures. But all in all, he has done himself proud, and his family. And all of those people that have ever done a day's honest work, and a lifetime's work of toil, have a champion to call their own.
David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.