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Missing out on title kept Ewing from elite status

NEW YORK -- Patrick Ewing retired Tuesday without doing the one thing
he came to New York to do.

Hang a championship banner from the Garden's rafters. With Ewing, it was
always something.

Michael Jordan got in the way.

Hakeem Olajuwon got in the way.

Even a teammate, John Starks, once got in the way.

But when you examine Ewing's 15 seasons in New York, there was always
something missing:

Another elite player to help Ewing complete his mission.

"When you look at Patrick's teams in New York, he never really had that
great player to work with,'' Orlando coach Doc Rivers said last spring,
when Ewing was playing what turned out to be his final games, as a
member of the Magic. "I know, because I was his teammate and I know the
kind of talent we had in New York.''

A lot of good talent. But other than Ewing, no great talent.

And that translated into no titles. The Knicks won the lottery in 1985
and Dave DeBusschere was the team's leading executive. His reaction to
winning the rights to Ewing -- pounding the table where he sat -- spoke
volumes about what everyone projected for the great Georgetown center.
As DeBusschere later said, "I thought he was going to win us a lot of
titles.''

But Ewing failed to deliver one, which die-hard Knicks fans never have
forgotten. Some never have forgiven Ewing for that glaring hole in his
Hall of Fame resume, which might be taking things too far. Early in his
career, Knicks management never provided him with a supporting cast that
included that other perennial All-Star. Later in his career, after he
shattered his shooting wrist, he never was the same.

"He's certainly in the top three,'' the great Walt Frazier once said
when asked where Ewing ranks in Knicks' history. "The only difference is
Patrick never won a championship.''

Which is why Frazier and Willis Reed are regarded as the two top Knicks
of all-time. They've got the championship hardware to back up their
cases. Ewing doesn't.

Looking back, it's easy to see why Ewing fell short, even when he had a
Hall of Fame coach, Pat Riley, on his side.

From Trent Tucker to Starks to Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell, Ewing
never had the luxury of teaming with an ace perimeter scorer who could
take some of the pressure off and help get the Knicks a championship.
It almost happened in 1994, the closest Ewing came to winning it all.
The Knicks went out and acquired Rolando Blackman, a four-time All-Star
in Dallas, a season before. But Blackman hurt his back before ever
getting to New York and never filled that role.

"To this day,'' Blackman said later, "I thought I could have been the
difference.''

Starks tried to be that player in Houston in Games 6 and 7 of the 1994
Finals, when all the Knicks needed was one win to secure the title. But
first Starks had his game-winning try in Game 6 blocked by Olajuwon. And
in Game 7, thinking he was Isiah Thomas or somebody, he launched 18
shots and missed 16. Some people gave Riley heat for never finding a way
to get Ewing the ball. Others blamed Starks, a CBA product and one-time
bagger at a grocery store.

But looking at the bigger picture, Ewing was outplayed in that series by
another future Hall of Famer, Olajuwon, who didn't exactly have a great
player on his side, either.

After 1994, Ewing took the Knicks to only one more Finals, in 1999. But
he could not even get on the floor against the Spurs because of a leg
injury. Forlornly, he watched from the bench as David Robinson and Tim
Duncan carved up Marcus Camby and a lame Larry Johnson and easily took
the Knicks in five games.

"I'll always believe I could have made a difference in that series,'' he
said.

But without an All-Star teammate, Ewing could never make the difference
against Jordan. Five times the Knicks played Jordan's Bulls, and five
times Ewing was sent home for the summer. There was no shame in that. As
Lenny Wilkens once said about losing to Jordan, "I'm not the only guy he
did it to.''

But no player suffered more at the hands of Jordan than Ewing. It
started back in college when Jordan, a freshman, stuck in the
game-winner against Ewing's Georgetown team in the 1982 championship
game. It continued when the Bulls and Knicks had their classic showdowns
in the 90's. When Jordan left after the 1998 championship, he talked at
his retirement ceremony about what his absence would do to Ewing.

"Patrick,'' Jordan said, "he won't be able to live with himself.''

But Ewing was able to shrug of Jordan's exit, just as he shrugged off
every season-ending defeat. Invariably, he would say, "I still think
we're the better team.'' That's line drove Knicks fans crazy, especially
the ones who still remember the team's last title, 30 years ago.

Fact is, the Knicks never were the better team because Jordan was Jordan
and Ewing was what he was: An outstanding scorer who never lived up to
expectations.

Ewing got his share of rebounds as a Knick, but didn't develop into the
type of franchise center everyone expected. The Knicks thought they were
getting the second coming of Bill Russell. But Ewing never won a
rebounding title.

For all his great shooting and a marvelous touch rarely seen from a
7-footer, Ewing never won a scoring title. For all his dominance, he
never won the MVP. He made the All-Star Game 11 times, but the first-team
All-NBA team just once.

"You could not have done more for an organization,'' Jeff Van Gundy said
about his favorite player. "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.''

That's the consolation prize for all Knicks fans.

From the top, among the great centers, there's Russell and Wilt
Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Among today's players, only
Shaquille O'Neal has a chance to join those immortals, and Shaq has been
doing everything in his power the last three years to put himself in
that class.

On the next tier, you've got Moses Malone and Olajuwon. Both were
regular-season and Finals MVPs. Both won more than one rebounding
title. Both were fixtures on 1st-team All-NBA teams.

Go down another tier and that's where you'll find Patrick Ewing.
Not a bad place, but not the one New York expected.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for ESPN.com.