Sunday changed everything. The NBA conducted a lottery offering seven teams hope, handing one salvation. From that moment on, for all intents and purposes, Patrick Ewing was a professional athlete.
Monday was the first day of the rest of his life.
Sitting between his college coach and his agent, Ewing appeared at a press conference and answered questions about the roads he'd taken and the ones that might await him. Although his comments were typically brief and unexpansive, he seemed relaxed and cheerful and quite willing to stay until everyone was either satisfied or done. He stayed almost an hour. He left because everyone was done. Then thanked them for coming. It wasn't so much what he said as the way that he said it. Even if you remembered none of his words, you remembered how often and how broadly he smiled. This was not the Ewing that most reporters were used to. He didn't glower. He wasn't disdainful. He wasn't trying to get done with it as quickly as possible, treating both the question and the questioner as crumbs to be brushed from his clothing.
Life's full of surprises.
Where was this patient, affable side of Ewing before?
Probably it was there all along and we missed it. And probably he didn't choose to let us see it.
I suspect we'll see more of this side of Ewing. I think the decision to lift the curtain on it reflects his recognition -- and surely that of his coach, John Thompson, and his agent, David Falk -- that a professional athlete has a different obligation to the press than a college athlete, if for no other reason than the money involved. His salary obligates him to the team to foster good public relations. In turn, a positive public image can increase his nonsalaried income. It's good business all the way around.
Which is not to say that he will suddenly become America's Guest.
"I don't think it will be open house on him," Thompson said yesterday. "It would be foolish for him to do that. I think he did this because he felt it was the right thing to do . . . I don't think he feels the need to explain himself. He's a guarded person. Most people with intelligence are."
But there's a difference between a guarded mindset and a guard-dog mindset. I think the ease with which Ewing dealt with the large group of reporters would help him reach a comfort zone in his relationship with the press, which -- believe it or not -- is a significant part of the transition he will make into the pro game.
No one questions his ability on the court. Not since Bill Walton joined Portland in 1974 have we seen as great a player as obviously enthusiastic about playing the game. And, like Walton, Ewing is the kind of player whose basketball instinct and intelligence automatically make his teammates better.
But like Walton's, Ewing's entrance into the pros is clouded with questions about his personality. Walton, who wore a ponytail and had demonstrated against the Vietnam war, was generally perceived as a political radical who might be a dangerous influence on a team, the game and perhaps even the nation. Before his spectacular third season, when he led Portland to the title, he was often injured. Stories were done suggesting he was not really hurt, but merely faking injury, either to get out of his contract, or because it was such an antiestablishment action. I always thought part of the reason that his relationship with the press was so stormy in those years was because of his unwillingness to deal gracefully with reporters, and another part was because of John Wooden's policy at UCLA that aggressively shielded Walton from reporters.
Outside the Beltway, Ewing is generally perceived as an awesome but villainous player, the Darth Vader of college basketball. I suspect that a part of that perception comes from Ewing's aggressive style of play, and a part of it comes from the often mutually inhospitable relationship between the Georgetown basketball program and the press. To be fair, my particular interest group is the press, and Thompson's is Georgetown basketball. I think he ought to give higher educational priority to encouraging greater dialogue between his players and my peers. He has his list of educational priorities; he admits "the press isn't one of them." We could argue this forever.
In any case, it is clear to me there will be a conscious alteration of the public face Ewing chose to show to the world while he was a player at Georgetown. Whatever strategy was used for the betterment of the basketball group at Georgetown -- and I suspect it was mostly that, a limited strategy rather than an axiomatic commitment -- would no longer be germane outside the group.
"When you're a professional, you act as a professional," Thompson has said. "When you're a student, you act as a student."
Ewing is a professional now. It's time for him to leave the nest. He knows it, and he appears confident and eager to spread his wings. And having done all he could, Thompson is ready to see Ewing go, ready to do the toughest thing of all, to push him out of the nest.
From now on, basketball will be Ewing's business as well as his pleasure. He will study and work at it as never before, often to the exclusion of everything else. And after each game, at each stop, the press will be there. We will be there for more time, and in greater numbers than we ever were in the Georgetown locker room, and he will have to find a way to deal with us, just as we will with him.
There are many who think that the New York City spotlight is too harsh, too unforgiving. They think New York is the absolute worst place for Ewing to play; his life will be miserable there; the city will chew him up.
I disagree. There isn't a city in this country more indulgent of greatness than New York. As hard as Ewing works, as honest and enthusiastic an effort as he gives, he can't miss there. They'll love him as much as he lets them.