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Patrick Ewing seems to be outfitted for rollerball as his long, no-nonsense strides carry him toward the midcourt circle at Madison Square Garden. Around both knees he wears large, black supports over which conventional white kneepads are fitted. A pair of white elastic compression tights extend from below his New York Knicks shorts almost to the knee supports. Nasty-looking scratches dot his upper arms—"battle scars," Ewing calls them.
He is 255 pounds of muscle hardened by five-times-a-week weight-training sessions, even during the season. He is seven feet tall, a huge man, a presence every bit as imposing as the Utah Jazz's Mr. America candidate, Karl Malone. To most of his teammates Ewing is known as Boomer, in recognition of his booming one-handed dunks that finish many a Knick fast break. To family, friends and acquaintances he is invariably Patrick, never Pat. This man couldn't be a Pat.
Affixed to Ewing's face is a scowl, which—like his pads—is securely in place whenever he takes the court. The whole effect is that of a man prepared for combat rather than basketball. And doesn't that jibe with the first image we had of Ewing, back in 1981, when he strode defiantly onto the court as a Georgetown freshman and began claiming much of the air space around Washington, D.C.? "Patrick's a warrior," Hoya coach John Thompson said of him, and to one degree or another, that's what most observers still expect to see when Patrick Aloysius Ewing takes—nay, takes over—the floor.
But what the NBA is seeing these days, and is likely to be seeing through a good bit of the next decade, is much, much more. Some of the old images of Ewing are dated. He has buried them under an avalanche of soft, turnaround jump shots. "The book on him always was, Make him shoot over you, make him earn it," says Boston's backup center, Joe Kleine. "Well, now he's earning it." The power, the intimidation, the fearlessness are still there, but so are grace and finesse and economy of movement, terms previously associated with Houston's Akeem Olajuwon, Ewing's yardstick through most of the '80s, and San Antonio rookie David Robinson, the only other NBA center currently mentioned in the same breath with Ewing and Olajuwon.
The old off-the-court images of Ewing must be sent to the trash compactor, too. Oh, he still has a knack for keeping the curious at arm's length, much as he has learned to hold off his opponent in the pivot with one hand, while calling for the ball with the other. But he's a genuinely likable man, quick to joke and smile, and, most significantly, he's a teammate. He is clearly the only superstar among the talented Knicks, but in his mind at least, there is no difference between him and everyone else. Padding around the team practice facility at the State University of New York at Purchase in his slippers recently, Ewing greeted 12th man Greg Butler—"Yo, Big But!"—with the same enthusiasm with which he would greet a starter. He has a fierce sense of loyalty to his teammates, and if that loyalty at one time translated into Hoya Paranoia, it now comes across as plain friendliness.
There's no doubt that Ewing's steady, egalitarian leadership is a big reason that the Knicks (25-10) had the third-best record in the NBA behind the Lakers (25-8) and the Spurs (23-9).
Ewing's play has been an even more important component of New York's success. "He might be the best in the game right now," Los Angeles's Mychal Thompson told the New York Daily News after Ewing scored 29 points in a 115-104 loss on Dec. 3. "He and Magic [Johnson] are shoulder to shoulder."
NBA observers started talking about Ewing in those terms last season, when he finished fourth in the MVP balloting behind Johnson, Michael Jordan and Malone, though such talk was as much for his indomitable presence at the back of Rick Pitino's full-court press as anything else. (Not that that role was insignificant.) It wasn't until Pitino left for Kentucky—taking with him his concepts of democratic ball distribution and quick-trigger three-point shooting—and was replaced by Stu Jackson, a man of more orthodox views, that the NBA finally discovered exactly what Ewing is capable of when he has the ball.
"We made a conscious decision to make Patrick the focal point of the offense," says Jackson. "We wanted to get him the ball more often and in better spots on the floor. But, frankly, we didn't know what to expect any more than anyone else."
What they got was a scoring machine that, as of Sunday, was averaging 27.5 points, third in the NBA behind Jordan and Malone. That's 4.8 points a game more than Ewing scored in his best NBA season (last year's 22.7), and—need it be mentioned?—9.8 more than he averaged in his most prolific season at Georgetown (17.7 as a sophomore in 1982-83). Ewing is attempting four more shots per game (20) than last season and is still shooting .531 from the floor, which puts him among the top 15 in the league.