A gigantic young basketball star, like Georgetown recruit Pat Ewing, is perhaps the easiest athlete in all of sports to misjudge, burden and ultimately damage with unreasonable demands. Something in the words "7 feet tall" seems to dull judgment, as though we assume life and sports ought to become easier above some magical frost line.
"Did you see that?" John Thompson crowed excitely last week as he watched Ewing play. "Patrick caught the lob pass, bobbled it in midair, then dunked it so hard on the way down that it took one bounce into the bleachers."
If anyone should know better than to drool over young dunkers, it's Thompson. After an all-America career at Providence, he discovered that, as a pro, all he was good for was to help Bill Russell work up a sweat in practice. "I'm sorry I said that," mumbled Thompson after the euphoria of Ewing's jam had abated. "As a coach, there's such a temptation to see only talent. I'm going to write down on a piece of paper, '18 years old,' and put it in my pocket so I can remind myself that Patrick Ewing is still somebody's child."
Thompson may follow his own advice, but it's unlikely others will. Ewing's high school coach, who wishes him only good, has already helped set the trap by saying repeatedly that Ewing is "part Jabbar, part Walton, a lot of Bill Russell and even more Patrick Ewing."
A jittery silence has fallen over Georgetown this week. Hoya brass have made a nervous comedy out of never mentioning Ewing's name, citing their interpretation of an NCAA rule about not discussing recruits until they have actually enrolled. What GU really fears, and wisely so, is the enormous bloating of expectations that follows a coup.
The truth is that, often as not, the No. 1 schoolboy of any particular season turns out to be a fizzle. At the least, those publicized "franchises" are usually disappointments as freshmen.
Last year's giant with unmatched "potential" was Earl Jones. Now, Jones' reputation is so tarnished by his UDC team's defeats at the hands of Division II nonentities that he's in danger of disappearing from the hoop pond without a ripple. Even Virginia's 7-4 Ralph Sampson was, a year ago at this time, looked upon as overrated and underdeveloped. UVA is No. 1 now, but Sampson won't forget the freshman year when he went from phenom to flop as the Cavs lost nine games in 40 days.
A quick trip through NBA rosters shows how commonplace the 7-footer has become. How many have heard of Jawann Oldham, Paul Mokeski, Steve Hawes, James Edwards, Ralph Drollinnger, Richard Smith, Rich Kelley, Brett Vroman and Carl Bailey?
Before Ewing is canonized, he'd better prove he is as good as Wayne Rollins, Elmore Smith, Caldwell Jones, Marvin Webster, Bill Cartwright, Joe Barry Carroll, Robert Parish and Artis Gilmore. These fellows are all bigger than Ewing, and none of them ever played on a NCAA Division I championship team. Only Gilmore and Carroll got to the final four.
The point is clear. Ewing can be very good and still not raise the Hoyas higher than they were a year ago when they reached the Eastern Regional finals.
Even if Ewing proves to be a better player than any of those mentioned, he'd still have to prove that he belongs with Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed and George Mikan. Ewing has only proved he is tall, coordinated, enthusiastic and graceful. Those gifts are hardly the rarity they seemed a quarter century ago when Wilt Chamberlain arrived.
Despite this, Ewing's name already has been linked with those of Russell, Chamberlain and Jabbar -- the only players with five or more NBA most valuable player awards. Sadly, that's no surprise. Every year some poor child has to suffer these invidious comparisons. As a consequence, one of two things often happens. Either the player believes his clippings and thinks he's a Hall of Famer before he's even become a player, or the years of hard labor to become a great player are undervalued since stupendous accolades have been bestowed gratuitously.
The irony of Ewing's signing at GU is that the winner is probably Ewing more than Georgetown.
The odds are that Ewing will -- either for part or all of his career -- have to tolerate hearing himself described as a flop. In picking a college, the wise child of the year ought not pick the place where it would be most glorious to be a success, but the place where it would be least traumatic to fail.
That, by accident, is what Ewing has done.
Georgetown's gym seats 5,000, not 20,000. The Hoyas play in the Big East, not the Big Ten. Only GU fans might prove a problem, since they're already talking final four. Even so, compared to other strong teams, GU is, thus far, easily satisfied.
Thompson, too, should not be impossible to please. After spending years transforming limited 6-11 Tommy Scates and 7-foot Mike Frazier into competent part-time centers, Thompson should find Ewing a joy.
Most important, Thompson is one of the few coaches in any sport who can look at a great talent and see a person first, a line in a box score second.
"Patrick will be in a difficult situation," Thompson said last week. "Most 18-year-olds are told that they should be 'seen and not heard.' He will constantly be told that people want to hear him speak as well as see him.
"The one thing I try to impress on my players is that they are the ones responsible for their education, not me. They have to understand that they're in college to grow into people who can face a world where the scales don't always balance. You can't go through life expecting things to be fair.
"I tell my players that if somebody else is driving the car, you never pay close enough attention to where you're going, so you don't remember the way. When they put you out, you're lost."
For those enormous children who, at 18, are deceived into believing that a world lies at their feet, no message could be more tonic.
To Ewing's credit, he says, "I want to find out if I am as good as people tell me I am." Fortunately for him, he has not yet fallen into the snare of believing that he is already great.
If Ewing proves to be as good as his billing, then both he and Georgetown will be winners. If he is not, then Ewing may still come out ahead.
And that would be rare indeed.