You've shaken your man, and you're on your way to the basket. Finding an opening, you commit yourself to the air, and suddenly you're staring up into the fearsome glare of 240 pounds of face, jaw and hands. Patrick Ewing, you presume. And the next thing you know, your shot is being swatted halfway to Australia.
He is, as they say, a factor.
He has, as they say, a presence.
He doesn't just block a shot, he obliterates it. He doesn't just dunk the ball, he pile drives it. There is a line from the movie "Diner" that gives you a sense of what to expect when you go up against Ewing. The line comes from one young turk to another, and it is spoken with a calmness that chills: "I'll hit you so hard, I'll kill your whole family." Don't misunderstand -- Ewing is no dirty player. But he is one tough hombre on that court. He is fiercely and aggressively competitive, and unlike so many big men, he's got enough mean in him to, like they say in baseball, back you off the plate a little. Someone gets in his way, someone don't feel so well. Ask Chris Mullin. Against St. John's Wednesday night, Ewing put a shoulder into his Olympic teammate Mullin's cheek away from the ball, and the first thing Mullin did -- after scraping himself off the floor -- was check to make sure he still had his face. Some guys play like a veiled threat. Ewing is way beyond that. He plays like a promise.
The game he had against St. John's at Madison Square Garden proved conclusively that basketball is now, was then, and always will be a big man's game, and that while smaller men can sometimes control the action, only the big men can truly dominate it. Whether it was Ewing's best game as a collegian is irrelevant, because his best games surely are to come. But he played a great game against the top-ranked team in the nation, on the road, in an atmosphere that couldn't have been any more highly charged if it had been plugged into the main generator at Pepco. And he had that great game -- 10 for 13 from the field, nine rebounds and six blocked shots against a team with three certain first-round NBA draft picks -- at the express request of his coach, which is, when you consider the implications, scary in the extreme.
With Ewing seated at his right in the postgame interview, John Thompson recalled their pregame conversation: "I told him that we needed to win, and I said, 'I need you to play well.' That's the first time I ever said that to him. But it had gotten to the point where this game was important psychologically. It's not that it had real significance in the league; St. John's had the league title locked up. But I felt we couldn't go into the NCAA tournament feeling we couldn't beat the top teams."
Thompson put it on Ewing.
Ewing put it to St. John's.
After the body count, Lou Carnesecca shrugged and put it like this: "We just put a few more dollars in the bank for him."
Ewing was the game's fulcrum from the opening tip. His two rebounds, one steal and one forced error led directly to Georgetown's 7-0 liftoff. Throughout the game his singular range and skills on defense forced St. John's out of its usual poise, caused the Redmen to hurry, perhaps even to panic, and unlike their last meeting when he scored but nine points and appeared passive if not a conscientious objector when on offense, this time Ewing aggressively sought the ball, then showed what he could do with it. Those who have criticized Ewing for being one-dimensional offensively might look at the films of this game and study the assortment of accurate jumpers, post-ups and hooks, launched from as near as three feet and as far as 16. Ewing should type up the game, send it out as a resume, then sit back and wait for the phone to ring.
Two moves especially are worth noting. On offense, there was the little ditty that made it 55-43. Appearing to jump from directly under the net, Ewing grabbed a rebound on the left side of the rim, and without even looking -- with him actually facing the Georgetown bench and the back of his head almost grazing the iron -- tomahawked it backwards. Call it a What-I-Say-Ray-Charles special. On defense, the play that exemplified how Ewing can demoralize a team came with about eight minutes left. Bill Wennington, who stands eye to eye with Ewing, got the ball low on the left side, and turned to the middle, rolling toward the hoop. As Ewing went with him, Wennington did a curious thing: instead of challenging Ewing, going chest-to-chest with him, Wennington drifted out and threw up a pathetic, mushmelon air ball that had "I surrender" tatooed between the seams. Five of Ewing's six blocks -- to say nothing of how many times he forced them to alter the trajectory of their shots -- came against Wennington, Mullin and Walter Berry, the best the Redmen have to offer. Lunch to go, gentlemen.
It seems to me that Thompson took some big gambles against St. John's. One was wearing that Carnesecca Sweater look-alike T-shirt under his suit. Another was in directly appealing to his team's pride before the game. A third was directly appealing to Ewing.
The danger in The Sweater goof is that it might have been perceived as patronizing to Looie, who is so beloved. The danger in making an emotional appeal, generally to pride and particularly to Ewing, is that if you lose, your team may internalize the failure too profoundly to recover.
Thompson, however, won big.
The Sweater, and especially the broad way Thompson modeled it, got a huge laugh and immediately defused whatever hostility the crowd might have felt toward Thompson and Georgetown. And then Ewing and his teammates played as if magically inspired.
It's said about New York that if you make it there, you make it anywhere. With this big victory Georgetown is again where it was earlier in the year after those strafings of UNLV and De Paul -- king of the hill, top of the heap. Start spreading the news.