Ewing copes with reduced role, diminished expectations
Posted: Saturday May 22, 1999 07:08 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Patrick Ewing was a man of few words Saturday, although the one sentence the aging warrior uttered did offer a glimmer of insight into his stormy state of mind.
"Yeah, it's been a rough year," Ewing said.
It was a gloomy choice of words from a player whose spirits should be soaring. Ewing's New York Knicks are ahead 2-0 over Atlanta in the second round, have already defeated rival Miami in the first round and may have a chance to go up against their other chief antagonist from this decade, the Indiana Pacers, in the next round.
So why the long face, Patrick?
The answer is as complicated as Ewing is complex.
After 14 years with the same team and not a championship to show for it, Ewing's career of unfulfilled expectations looms large in the minds of Knicks fans -- and with Ewing himself.
"I've never met one person who doesn't care what other people think about him," coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "In general, he's more appreciated outside New York than he is within New York.
"Whenever you're around somebody for so long, you start to focus in on the one or two percent of things that are wrong instead of the 98 percent of things that are right. It can become a cycle of negativity," Van Gundy said.
The coach couldn't have summed up any better the feelings this championship-starved city holds for the franchise player who was expected to bring New York its first title since 1973.
From shaking up the front office to skewering the point guards to questioning the coaching, this has been a season of pointing out what's wrong with the Knicks -- and Ewing has not escaped the dissection.
There are those who think he still has too much of a role on offense, who overlook his defense and who shrug off the array of injuries that have slowed Ewing so much this season.
"If everyone knew his frustration with not winning, and how much he puts into winning, I think they'd see him as a beacon -- a guy who's trying to get them that opportunity," Van Gundy said. "I don't think there's anybody more frustrated with not winning than Patrick."
Even with the Knicks holding a sturdy lead over the Hawks, there's a palpable sense around New York that fans are proceeding with caution before jumping on any bandwagon.
Having seen their team come up short so many times over the past decade, Knicks fans won't be overconfident when the big fellow lumbers onto the Madison Square Garden court Sunday for Game 3 against Atlanta.
If Ewing goes to the foul line in the final minute, they'll wonder whether he'll clank the first or clunk the second as he has done so many times throughout his career?
"Here in New York, people are going to criticize you regardless of what you do, good or bad. If you do good, they don't want to focus on that. They like to focus on the negative things, and when you're down they try to keep you down," teammate Charlie Ward said.
Ewing always makes it a point to say he doesn't read the newspapers, but much of what is written and said gets back to him through conversations with teammates and his coach.
It has been clear this season that Ewing has heard some of the comments -- everything from players on other teams questioning his leadership of the union to callers on all-sports radio screaming "Cut him."
The criticism has been tempered somewhat lately by the team's late-season success. After struggling to make the playoffs, it seems to have hit its stride in the postseason.
"When you have guys like Spree, a three-time All-Star, and Larry [Johnson], a two-time All-Star, we've got guys around him who have proven themselves in the playoffs," Houston said. "Everybody on this team is capable, so I think he's in a situation where he realizes we're all going to do this together.
"Nobody is going to carry this team on his shoulders."
That's a difficult concept for Ewing to accept, given that he's always been the main man on the Knicks ever since he arrived.
Teammates say Ewing's quiet acceptance of a reduced role -- especially on offense -- is one of the most overlooked contributions he has made to the team's success.
Indeed, Ewing is averaging almost 13 shots per game in the playoffs after attempting slightly less than 15 per game during the regular season. Five years ago, he averaged 19.
"He's sacrificed a lot this year, more than any other year," Ward said. "Playing hurt, not shooting the ball as much as he did in the past, not being the offense every night."
Sprewell is New York's leading scorer in the playoffs with a 20.4 average, while Houston is second (16.0) and Ewing third (13.9).
The team has been able to run more than it did in the past, and the buzz generated in the building by Sprewell and Marcus Camby has added a layer of excitement to the Knicks that has been missing for a few years.
With the Hawks nearly on the verge of elimination and the Pacers perhaps unprepared for the energy of the newest Knicks, maybe -- as much as Knicks fans refuse to believe it -- this could be the year when Ewing finally gets the title that seems so overdue.
"Hey, Susan Lucci won an Emmy last night after 19 nominations. What if Susan Lucci would have given up when people were talking about her?" Ward said. "It's all about being patient. You never know when it's going to happen."
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