If he weren't so racked with pain, Patrick Ewing might have viewed his sorry state as comical. Can't you just see this on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update? Colin Quinn makes a crack about the ancient New York Knicks' center enduring the physical play of the Indiana Pacers, while in the background there's a photo of Ewing, who is so completely packed in ice that he resembles a giant specimen from an Antarctic archaeological dig.
But it was no joke to see Ewing sitting at his locker on Sunday night, 20 minutes after New York's gritty 93-90 win at Indianapolis in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, wincing as his left shoulder was iced and wrapped, looking like some flamethrowing southpaw who had just hurled a complete game. There was another ice pack strapped to his surgically repaired right wrist, which stiffened so badly earlier this season that he doubted it would ever mend. Of course, both knees, chronically creaky and arthritic, were swathed in bags of ice. The ice pack on his right hip? That was to treat a bruise he had sustained hours earlier. As a last immobilizing touch, Ewing had both feet jammed into a trash pail of icy water to relieve his aching left Achilles tendon, which leaves him gimpy even on his best days and keeps him in street clothes on his worst.
This litany of ailments is why Ewing was so often left for dead this season. That was a mistake, just as it was to dismiss the Knicks, who are in the throes of a revival more riveting than any on Broadway. Not only did the Ice Man cometh to play on Sunday; he also stole home court advantage from the Pacers by controlling the game in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, something Ewing's numerous detractors claimed was no longer possible. "I'm all banged up," Ewing said with a feeble smile after scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 40 minutes. "It's the Achilles that's giving me the most trouble. There's nothing I can do about it right now. They think I might have torn a muscle or something down there. What I need is to rest it for about eight weeks. I told them I'll do that later."
Just two months ago the notion that Ewing and the Knicks would be busy with anything but their golf games when June arrived seemed ludicrous. They were the bickering, dysfunctional band of malcontents who were teetering on the brink of lottery land, dragged down by a bloated payroll of self-involved stars who couldn't—or wouldn't—share the basketball. They were stuck in a rut the size of the Grand Canyon, pounding the ball into Ewing, then standing around murmuring disapproval while he clanged enough jumpers to wind up shooting a career-low 43.5%. As the cries to de-emphasize Ewing's role grew louder, coach Jeff Van Gundy stubbornly left the ball in the hands of his battered warrior, knowing full well it could cost him his job.
Then nature intervened. Ewing, in agony from the jolting pain in his heel, was forced to miss a total of 12 games in March and April. Out of necessity, Van Gundy opted to go up-tempo, relying on a younger, more athletic unit that featured 6'6" Latrell Sprewell creating baskets in the open court, forward Marcus Camby igniting the fast break with his shot blocking, and shooting guard Allan Houston providing the finishing touch from the outside. It was the lineup that former general manager Ernie Grunfeld had envisioned in the off-season when he acquired Sprewell from the Golden State Warriors and Camby from the Toronto Raptors, in trades for two of the most popular Knicks, John Starks and Charles Oakley, respectively. By mid-April, when those deals still had shown no signs of paying off, Grunfeld was demoted. More heads were scheduled to roll—up next was Van Gundy's—as soon as the underachieving team was bounced from the playoffs.
Still, Van Gundy held doggedly to his beliefs, among them that Sprewell best served New York as a sixth man. Spree is no happier coming off the bench now than he was in March, when his agent griped to the press about Sprewell's status, but he's come to understand that those are matters to be settled when this improbable run is over. Teammates confide that Sprewell's relationship with Van Gundy remains strained but workable, which should surprise no one. There's nothing harmonious about these Knicks. Yet when they share a goal-like winning—their differences have a way of dissipating. Forward Larry Johnson, the team's leader in the locker room, hasn't complained at all about his reduced role, which includes defending everyone from shooting guards to power forwards, making rapid-fire decisions out of the double team and coming off the floor six minutes into every game for Sprewell. "At first I didn't like coming out," says LJ, "but when I saw the lift Spree gave us, I realized it was worth it. He's a hell of a weapon."
"It's all about fighting through adversity, and that's something we've done all year," Sprewell says. "I've been through a lot the last couple of years. It kind of prepared me for what we're going through now."
Even when Sprewell's unwillingness to pass was a problem, his most ardent foes acknowledged that he gave the team an electricity that didn't exist when New York was dumping the ball into a laboring Ewing on the block. Sprewell's presence proved to be, at times, overwhelming for players like Houston, who clearly deferred to his infamous backcourtmate when the two were on the floor together. Houston, the son of a coach, was the anti-Spree: controlled, conservative, respectful of the game. Choking a coach? Unimaginable. Van Gundy assured Houston that he could thrive with Sprewell on the floor, but that was a realization Houston had to come to on his own.
"The thing about Spree is, he's going to come in and play his game, and he's not going to change for anybody or any situation," says Houston. "The way I've always played was not to force things. I let the game come to me. But my role is to put the ball in the hole, and I need the ball to make mat happen, so I stopped waiting for someone to give it to me. I became more selfish in an unselfish way."
By the time Ewing returned from his Achilles injury, on May 8, Sprewell and Houston were accentuating each other's strengths instead of exposing each other's weaknesses. In turn, Camby, who also thrives in an up-tempo pace, was playing with confidence, as if he finally belonged. In this new scheme Ewing knew that he, too, would have to adapt. He could still establish the inside presence that is so critical to postseason success, yet he also needed to be satisfied with a secondary role when the young Knicks pushed the ball. "Now Patrick realizes he doesn't have to battle for post position every time down," Houston says. "Spree can penetrate. I can penetrate. Patrick can have easy 10-foot shots. He realizes there are different ways he can be effective."