Two notes on the tourney itself before we get to the winner: shout out to John Starks, the only Ewing opponent who didn’t get absolutely steamrolled in the voting. There’s something perfect about that — Starks heading into a seemingly impossible match-up and doing better than logic or numbers suggested he would. John’s career with the Knicks started when he, knowing he was going to get cut, tried to dunk over Ewing at the end of training camp and injured himself in the process. Seems an appropriate bookend for Starks to once again try and fail to top Ewing, and earn himself more love for so doing.
Also, a lot of people asked why the tournament didn’t extend further back before the early 1980s. There were multiple reasons for that, many of which I touched on in earlier tournament posts. But another reason I didn’t mention yet: there’s no line in the sand that feels fair to me. If we include the great Knicks of the 1970s, we have to include the great Knicks of the 1960s, too, right? If Willis Reed deserves a spot, so does Richie Guerin; if Guerin’s included, there has to be Carl Braun, Kenny Sears, Harry Gallatin, etc. It wouldn’t be right to not open the voting up to all Knicks, ever.
But we already know the pre-Red Holzman Knicks wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans in a contest like this. Most Knicks fans have never heard of Johnny Green, much less know anything about him. Ever heard of Toby Knight? I hadn’t, until I started researching for another piece, and that dude played in the ‘80s. It’s the inherent bias of a vote like this — most of the people who know enough about the old-time Knicks to cast an intelligent ballot either aren’t around or are doing other things with their lives than voting in P&T polls.
As for the winner: after thousands of readers and five rounds of voting involving 32 candidates, the most-loved Knick ever (“ever” meaning the last 40 years) is Patrick Ewing. That may seem the most obvious conclusion in the history of conclusions, but for those who lived through that era hindsight is extremely 20/20. Ewing’s relationship was strained at times with coaches, different front offices and even the fans, partly why he ended his career in an Orlando Magic jersey straight out of a Ben-Gay commercial.
New York landed Ewing after winning the 1985 draft lottery, an event so eagerly and anxiously hoped for when general manager Dave DeBusschere realized they won he looked like he’d died and been told he was going to heaven.
Early in his second season Ewing, miscast as a power forward while Bill Cartwright resumed center duties after years of injuries, was open about his discomfort in the role. Here’s what his coach, Hubie Brown, said in response after the Knicks, behind a good game from Ewing, won for just the second time in their first eight games:
“Some great names in basketball—Bob Thornton, [Chris] McNealy, James Bailey, [Ken] Bannister, Eddie Wilkins and Ron Cavenall—have been able to play both positions. So I don’t want to hear that crap. It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of.... If it’s so hard, how come these Einsteins could do it?...I don’t want to hear that [Ewing’s] out of position.”
”That’s the first time this year he’s played like that. This is Game 8. When the big guy can play without pain, then we’ll jell. I don’t know when that will be. Ask him.” Brown pointed toward Ewing as the former center padded by.
Many marriages have early troubles; that’s where the word “honeymoon” stems from — the early days of wine and roses turn to snoring and body fat. Two years and two coaches after Hubie’s fire and brimstone, the Knicks won over 50 games and were two wins from the conference finals; the next year they came back from an 0-2 deficit to win their first round best-of-5 against the Celtics, closing it out in Boston. All’s well that ends well, right?
Nope. A year later, Ewing went to arbitration to argue a clause in his contract allowed him to become a free agent; he was ready to jump to Golden State. The Knicks offered him to Miami in exchange for Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas and the Heat’s 1st round pick in 1991. Both sides had eyes on a life free of the other. Then the Knicks landed Pat Riley, who convinced Ewing to stay, and for four years the Knicks won the second-most games in the league and came within one win of a championship. The team was better than it’d ever been during Ewing’s career. Everybody must be cool now, right? Time to let the love shine in. Here was the love shining in during the 1996 season, when the Big Fella called out the fans.
‘’They’re annoying me,’’ Ewing said, talking calmly but firmly about Knicks fans after the game. ‘’If they’re going to act the way they act, they might as well stay home. If they’re going to support us, then support us. If you go other places, when the team is playing bad, the fans still support them. Here, they support you one minute, then if something goes wrong, they jump off the bandwagon. I’m just tired of it. It has been like that for 12 years. I’m fed up with it.’’
A year later, seemingly less fed up, Ewing re-upped with the Knicks on a four-year deal that made him the second-highest paid center in the league behind Shaquille O’Neal. It felt like a second wedding, with both sides gushing about Ewing finishing his career as a Knick. As the man himself said, ‘’We have some unfinished business we need to take care of. I’m happy to be here in New York. I’m going to be here until the end of my career.’’ Three years into the deal:
Still, time heals all wounds, and in 2003 Ewing’s #33 was raised to the rafters, where his spirit and his legacy were forever revered and remembered, and......come again? Just last year he returned to MSG as the head coach of his alma mater, Georgetown, and was stopped by arena security? Oh boy. Ewing’s response: “Everybody in this building should know who the hell I am, and I’m getting stopped. I can’t move around this building. I was like, ‘What the hell? Is this Madison Square Garden?’”
Love is a great many things. One that it’s not is linear. You can love someone today more than you ever have before, but that usually doesn’t follow an uninterrupted incline. Mike Krzyzewski’s wife once said in marriage love isn’t there every day, but commitment is. Despite Ewing’s tiffs with every aspect of the Knick organization, his commitment was legendary. His knees started to go in his 20s, but he was always laced up and ready to go: from 1987-97, he missed an average of two games a year; from 1988-97, he averaged no fewer than 36 minutes a game.
In the dozen seasons between the Knicks’ 1973 championship and drafting Ewing, the franchise won one best-of-7 series. In the 21 seasons since trading him, they’ve won one. In Ewing’s 15 years in New York, they won six. So, to repeat: the past 33 seasons without #33, the Knicks have won two best-of-7s, versus six with him. Expand it to best-of-3s and -5s and the numbers grow even more stark: 1974-85, four series won; 2001-2021, one series won; 1986-2000, 17 series won. Without the Ewing era, the Knicks are a half-century of the Detroit Lions, the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Generals all rolled into one.
He is loved better now than while he was here; time and distance will do that. He tried his best, was the victim of systemic failures beyond his control, and nevertheless he persisted. That is the very definition of a warrior, a New Yorker, and anyone who wakes up every day and gives it another go despite virus strains and climate change and all the noise and endless eroding exposure of the world today.
When I started following the Knicks, I was in seventh grade. My other heroes at the time were Darryl Strawberry, Mike Gartner, Al Toon and Lawrence Taylor. When the Knicks traded Ewing, I was entering my last year of college; my heroes were Charles Haynie, Ralph Nader, Tori Amos and the weed man. And Ewing.
Love is commitment, even when the love isn’t there. Too often with Ewing, there wasn’t, from all sides. It’s the right of children to not know what they have until it’s gone. It’s the responsibility of fully grown people to remember and keep it close in their hearts, keep it better after it’s gone than they did when it was there. Patrick Ewing is the most-loved Knick today, here, now. As he should be.