But no doubt about it—at the head of the rookie class is the combative presence who will be trying to shake down some thunder from a Madison Square Garden gone quiet.
When William Fenton Russell played his first pro game against the St. Louis Hawks, on Dec. 22, 1956—his arrival had been delayed by his participation in the Melbourne Olympics—the Celtics had a 16-8 record. They went on to finish the season with a 44-28 overall record, the best in the NBA, and beat the Hawks in the championship series for Red Auerbach's first title. Russell was obviously the spark, but he also had a great supporting cast: Cousy, Sharman, Heinsohn, Ramsey.
When Patrick Aloysius Ewing strides out to midcourt to make his pro debut Saturday afternoon at the Garden against Philadelphia, he will look around and see such unheralded teammates as Pat Cummings, Gerald Wilkins, Rory Sparrow and Butch Carter.
"Obviously, Ewing has the determination, and he's hardnosed," says Celtic coach K.C. Jones, a teammate of Russell's. "But whether or not he can become another Russell may depend a lot on his first year. He's in a make-you-or-break-you town."
Ewing's performance in the exhibition season was up-and-down. Which is more than can be said for the all-down Knicks, who went 2-6. No one should have expected anything more—there's no hope of Bernard King coming back from his knee injury anytime soon—though many did. "Any rookie, even Patrick Ewing, has an adjustment period," said Nets coach Dave Wohl. Ewing scored 11.4 points per game, grabbed 47 rebounds and had 19 blocks. Much was made over his propensity to foul—he fouled out three times in only seven preseason games—but there is little possibility that he is the second coming of Darryl Dawkins. He is too mobile, too smart and too important to the league.
Far more interesting has been the utter refusal of Ewing to act the rookie. In his second preseason game he was ejected by referee Bennett Salvatore for saying a few magic words after he had drawn his sixth foul. In his third, he squared off with the Nets' Buck Williams, then went after Micheal Ray Richardson after Sugar did some not-so-sweet taunting. He fouled out of that game, too. And he had to be restrained from duking it out with Indiana's Steve Stipanovich Saturday after he elbowed Steve in the throat and the Pacer tackled him. Both were ejected. That gave Ewing a total of four early nights in the preseason.
Off the court, Ewing has spoken to the press, but grudgingly and certainly not revealingly. Hold off awhile on the top hat and tails for Broadway Pat. But even brief glimpses into his character reveal that a sense of humor and a level of complexity exist behind the scowl. Ewing was smiling and visibly moved by the two-minute standing ovation he received last week at his Garden preseason debut.
Not that he'll have a barrel of laughs trying to carry a team already beset with injuries. It has been reported that a teammate has suggested that Ewing should "lighten up." Ewing was asked subsequently about that comment and his response was revealing: "I don't know who said it. That's their personality. But I won't change for anybody."
I won't change for anybody. That could well be Ewing's epitaph.
The NBA loves Ewing just the way he is, thank you. And the way he is makes him a 7-foot license for the league to print money. Last year, with the acrobatics of Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' attendance shot up 87% at home and 48% on the road. Knicks season-ticket sales have made a similarly dramatic jump, from about 5,700 last season to nearly 11,000 for 1985-86.