At Providence nearly three weeks ago, a fan under one basket raised a sign that read, "Ewing Can't Read," and Coach John Thompson pulled his Georgetown basketball team off the court until the sign was taken down.

Nine days ago at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Villanova fans held up several similar signs. One raised bedsheet read, "Ewing Is An Ape." A fan wore a T-shirt that read, "Ewing Kant Read Dis."

And when Patrick Ewing, Georgetown's 7-foot sophomore center, ran out for pregame introductions, someone in the Palestra crowd threw a banana peel on the court.

The signs and the jeers against Ewing, one of the most dominant players in college basketball, are increasing with every Big East Conference road game. The tensions grow.

"If we're playing away, it seems Pat is always the villain," said Bill Martin, a sophomore Georgetown forward. "It has to do with the image Pat has projected of himself as an aggressive person . . . (The signs and the jeers) don't bother Pat. They only make him play harder. Nothing bothers Pat. The more people yell at him and holler at him, the better he plays."

Ewing won't say what his feelings are. He said he did not want to be interviewed for this story.

Others at Georgetown, however, want to discuss the subject. Silence, they say, will not solve the problem.

"It is cheap, racist stuff," said Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown. "No one on the face of the earth can tell me if Patrick were a 7-foot high white man that people would still carry these signs around. I'm a white man and I know it. John (Thompson) is a black man and he knows it . . . This all strikes me as dreadful."

"Sooner or later these kinds of things will cause a riot," said Thompson. "Sooner or later, I'm going to tell my players to go up and get the sign and then see what happens.

"First of all, you cannot be responsible for every idiot who jumps up in the stands and wants to do it. But I have no tolerance for administrators who don't do anything about it," Thompson said.

Thompson said that he watched one sign that, he said, read, "Ewing Can't Spell His Name" being passed through the student rollout section at the Palestra.

"They kept passing it until one little girl, a college girl, tore it up in the middle. We had administrators there who watched and did nothing," Thompson said.

Dave Gavitt, Big East commissioner, was at the Palestra that night, but said he didn't see the signs or the thrown banana peel. But Gavitt admitted a problem does exist with which the schools must deal.

"It's up to the individual schools to keep the situation as tidy as possible," Gavitt said. "I don't know how to prevent the signs from going up. It's unfortunate people choose to do it. The game administrators must keep control . . . Really, there is nothing the conference can do to control the signs in nine different buildings."

Ted Aceto, Villanova athletic director, said something was done to rectify the situation at the Palestra. Aceto said he personally took down several anti-Ewing signs before the game, including the bedsheet that read, "Ewing Is An Ape."

"We try to screen all of the banners, but you can't stop everybody from stuffing a sheet or a banner in their pocket," Aceto said. "You have to realize, those kind of signs are common in Philadelphia. You should see all of the signs at the Big Five games (games played between the five colleges located in Philadelphia). It seems like the signs are always about the other team's best player."

Healy said one cause of the anti-Ewing problem is a letter sent during the time Ewing was being recruited. The letter was sent to 150 college coaches across the country by Mike Jarvis, Ewing's coach at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin High School.

The letter noted that Ewing, who was born and lived in Jamaica until he was 13, had learning deficiencies and would require, among other things, daily tutoring, permission to use a tape recorder to tape lectures and untimed testing.

"Really, it was a case of poor journalism by the Boston newspapers," said Healy. "As long as Patrick Ewing went to one of the Boston colleges, he was fine. The Boston newspapers wanted him to stay in Boston.

"But as soon as he went to Georgetown, he became an illiterate to them. Well, if he was an illiterate, then why did the Boston papers want him to stay in Boston in the first place?

"There were a lot of rather inappropriate conditions set off in the letter. In fact, John (Thompson) told Mr. Ewing (Patrick's father), 'Don't send your son to me to be educated and then tell me how to educate him.' "

Jarvis now says, "Enough wasn't made of the letter for what it really was: a positive thing. If people will really look at it, it was a way to prevent all the nonsense. The letter was effective in doing what it was supposed to do, help a young man move to the next level, college."

There have been problems for Ewing on the court this season, too. Because he is so talented and because he is always a threat to control a game by himself, teams often double- and triple-team him. Ewing, who is averaging 16.6 points and 10 rebounds a game, is the key to the Georgetown offense. When the Hoyas are able to get the ball inside to Ewing, victory usually follows. Georgetown is 16-5.

But wars are being waged in the key.

"Patrick is definitely being beat up there sometimes," said Fred Brown, Georgetown guard.

"A lot of the stuff is blatant, too," said Martin.

Furthermore, because Ewing is so aggressive, a player of power and intimidation, he has been involved in several shoving matches and, in one game, several scuffles.

"Patrick doesn't complain," Thompson said. "He retaliates."

In the first half of a 76-67 loss to St. John's at Madison Square Garden, Ewing twice scuffled with Kevin Williams, St. John's 6-3 guard. For the rest of the game, Ewing was often jeered by the sellout crowd in New York.

Television tapes clearly show that Williams was constantly fouling Ewing, grabbing him, elbowing him.

After one collision, both players grabbed each other's jersey, Williams tried to shove Ewing away, then Ewing punched Williams in the mouth, bloodying his lip. Technical fouls were called on both players.

Several minutes later, Ewing had to be restrained from punching Williams again. This happened after Williams had jumped on Ewing's back, as Ewing drove for the basket. Another technical was charged to Williams.

After the game, Williams said, "I was just doing my job. I guess he (Ewing) was frustrated that I was helping out on rebounds, boxing him out . . . He's supposed to be the premier player in the game and he acts like a child."

Thompson told Ewing not to discuss the matter after the game. So, all Ewing said was, "Every dog has his day" and, "We'll see what happens when they come down to D.C."

After that game, Thompson said he would tell Ewing to go hardship if "he's going to be held, pushed and mauled like he was today."

It is one month and eight Georgetown games later now, St. John's plays the Hoyas tonight at 8 o'clock (WTTG-TV-5) in Capital Centre, and Thompson said the situation hasn't improved.

"I get a bunch of 5-foot people writing me telling me I'm crying about this," Thompson said. "Let them go out there, put up with what Patrick puts up with and then see what they say."

The fury over Ewing, though, now extends beyond the key.

"Back in 1968, Jackie Robinson said this is a new generation of young black people and were I a part of this generation, I am not sure if I would put up with what I put up with," said Harry Edwards, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the forces behind the Black Olympic boycott in 1968.

"But in 1983, for people to be throwing bananas on the floor, to be calling out these ugly racial epithets, I think it's unconscionable . . . These people are sick, they are not crazy . . . I hope Pat Ewing is strong enough within himself to recognize it is not a reflection on him, regardless of how much it hurts. It is a reflection on the people who are doing it."

Thompson said, "A person who holds up a sign needs to be prayed for. It's been evidenced throughout history that keeping quiet about things doesn't help the situation. People probably said that about Hitler, too. 'Keep quiet and he'll go away.'

"I won't continue to sleep in peace and ignore it . . . Patrick has been blessed with an outstanding ability to cope with these things. He is refreshingly tough-skinned about things. When I asked him before my TV show (Sunday night) if he wanted to talk about it, to give his views, he refused to talk about it. I can respect that."

Healy turned to a quote by author Stuart Hampshire, who, writing about the holocaust, noted that the ethical postulate for the late 20th century is, " 'To cry out on any cruelty or beastiality wherever they occur.'

"On a smaller terrain, I think that is what John (Thompson) is doing now. It's unfortunate, but it will take longer than our lifetime to clean up."