After intercepting an outlet pass thrown by David Greenwood of the San Antonio Spurs, Patrick Ewing is on the left wing of a two-on-one fast break. The New York Knicks center passes to Darrell Walker, who, harassed by Greenwood, misses a layup.
Ewing, moving through what rapidly has become a thicket of players, misses a tip-in but is able to bat the basketball into the hands of another teammate -- who has the ball stripped away. Moments later, the Spurs on are their way down court, but not before Greenwood has pushed Ewing to the Madison Square Garden floor.
More often than not, the morass that has entangled the Knicks -- 8-19, the worst record in the NBA -- has made such efforts by Ewing almost imperceptible. The only tangible result is the wear and tear on his body of the nightly bump and grind.
Mike Saunders, the Knicks' trainer, says he looks forward to seeing the former Georgetown center each day, that he "enjoys the kibitzing." And there surely is much for the pair to discuss.
There is the left elbow, an injury that has lingered since a preseason altercation with Steve Stipanovich of the Indiana Pacers. There is the left ankle that he twisted in his regular-season debut against Philadelphia and sprained on Nov. 19 against the Washington Bullets just 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
The ankle injury caused him to miss the remainder of that game as well as the next two games, one of which would have been his first trip back to the Washington area. Instead, Ewing's homecoming will occur tonight at 6 o'clock, when the Knicks visit Capital Centre.
In compensating for the ankle, Ewing has put stress on his knees. As if that weren't enough, he must use drops for an eye infection and medicated cream for his legs.
Both legs got a workout two nights before the San Antonio game, when the Knicks suffered a 108-85 blowout loss to the New Jersey Nets. In that game, Ewing was four of 13 from the field but still managed to tie his career high of 20 rebounds.
Afterward, one of the Knicks' ball boys tells Ewing excitedly that he had played 43 of the game's 48 minutes.
Ewing, straining to push himself up from his locker stall and into the showers, doesn't have to be reminded. He smiles and says, "It sure feels like I did, too."
Patrick Ewing, the first rookie chosen in the June draft and the man who came into the league touted as a franchise-saver, has played in eight exhibition games and 25 of the Knicks' 27 regular-season contests -- nearly an entire collegiate season crammed into three months of violent collisions.
During the regular season, he has averaged 36.4 minutes per game, which ranks near the top of the league's statistics, up among such behemoths as Philadelphia's Moses Malone and Washington's now-injured center, Jeff Ruland.
He is the team leader in scoring (19.2 points) and blocked shots (2.14) and is second in rebounds (9.7).
According to New York assistant coach Bob Hill, Ewing is "the first or second option on almost every play we call.
"He's hurt and tired now, but we go to him a lot and are asking him to carry this team," Hill says. "There aren't a lot of positive things to say about what it's doing to him, except maybe in the future. But right now, it can't be much fun for him."
At least the Knicks haven't made him carry the bags and basketballs on the road, traditionally one of the chores of a rookie. Then again, that may be just one more area in which Ewing is being cheated. Part of the joy that comes from being in the NBA -- besides the money, of course -- is the camaraderie of the road. Away from New York, however, the Knicks are 1-10, which makes for some pretty somber plane and bus rides.
This wasn't quite the scenario envisioned by the Knicks when they drafted and signed Ewing. The team's media guide has drawings of Ewing in uniform along with forward Bernard King and center Bill Cartwright, both of whom have missed the season with injuries, prompting one New York writer to comment that all the sketch needed for total accuracy was a drawing of Coach Hubie Brown lying in bed dreaming of all three on the court at the same time.
Bill Stricland, one of Ewing's advisers at ProServ, the management firm that represents him, says the almost nightmarish early-season experience will be helpful to Ewing if Cartwright and King return. In the meantime, Ewing says he's doing just fine, anyway.
"I get away from it all every time I go home at night," says Ewing.
Ewing says that during the ride to his home in New Jersey, he thinks about the just-completed game, about what he did and didn't accomplish, about the NBA. While at Georgetown, he enjoyed painting, but so far this season, "I just haven't had the time," Ewing says quietly.
"I'm still getting adjusted to the lifestyle, all the traveling. Friends told me about it, but until I started to go through it, I couldn't understand it."
Perhaps if Ewing created a turbulent landscape, dark with lightning flashing across the sky, that would represent the Knicks' season up to now.
"If they didn't play him so much, he could dominate games more at certain times," says New Jersey Coach Dave Wohl. "When he first came in, he was trying to find out what he could and couldn't do. He wanted to establish dominance right away, not give ground or back away from anyone. That's what led to his fights early. Now he knows when and where he can apply pressure, but there are other things to learn."
Recently, opponents have begun double-teaming Ewing in the low post. According to Wohl, the traps can come immediately or with a slight delay, from different areas of the court and for varying amounts of time.
The idea is to foster a sense of uncertainty in Ewing, to make him think instead of just reacting naturally.
In the game against the Nets, the ploy worked beautifully. Ewing, often appearing unsure of whom to pass to, had seven turnovers, frequently holding the ball too long, killing the shot clock and strangling what continuity the Knicks (who score an average of just 94 points per game) had. When he did kick the ball out, the perimeter players, out of rhythm, missed the shot more often than not.
At one point, Ewing decided to take things into his own hands, grabbing a rebound and trying to go the length of the floor. The ball was stolen about three-quarters of the way.
After the game, Ewing received a rare dose of criticism from Brown for failing to react to the double-teaming.
"This is a new dimension for him. In that regard, he has to start over," says Hill. "Not only does he have to learn to pitch the ball out, but once he does, he has to start reposting outside the lane. That's big. I'm afraid of what he'll do then. He's just a damn rookie, and right now, other teams run to double-team him when he's getting ready to shoot a jump shot."
Ewing responds with the work ethic that has endeared him to his coaches and engendered respect throughout the NBA.
"There's definitely more double- and triple-teaming than there was earlier in the year," he says. "I've got to make quicker moves against it than I've been doing. I'm just frustrated with myself right now."
Like trainer Saunders, Ewing's teammates consider him a delight to be around, despite the fact that the Knicks already have lost as many games as the Hoyas did in Ewing's four-year collegiate career.
"He's definitely one of the guys," says guard Rory Sparrow. "He has this thing he does with his fingers. I guess it's his cool way of saying, 'I'm cool.' I don't know, maybe it's just some Hoya Paranoia stuff."
It's hard to describe the motion, except to say that each finger on his right hand seems to snap simultaneously. When asked where it comes from or how it's done, Ewing just smiles. "I just picked it up. It doesn't really mean anything, but you have to be from the islands to do it."
But, on this evening at least, memories of Ewing's native Jamaica are secondary to the Knicks' victory over the Spurs. Ewing scored 10 points in the first quarter but then was taken out of the picture.
That is, until the final moments of the game. With the score tied at 98, the center takes a charge from San Antonio forward Mike Mitchell, then hits a turnaround jump shot to give the Knicks the lead. After a Spurs miss, New York works the shot clock down to a panic before Ewing bails the team out with a jump hook from about 14 feet out on the right base line.
San Antonio now is in need of a three-point field goal. One such attempt is missed, but Greenwood rebounds. His follow is rejected by Ewing and recovered by a teammate. At the end of the subsequent fast break, who should stuff the ball through the hoop for the clinching basket but Ewing?
The Knicks win, 108-98, and after the game, Ewing (after returning from treatment) is asked if he's glad his diligence paid off on this occasion.
"I always try to work hard," he says. "Everyone's been working hard before; we just haven't won. This is how it should be."
Once again, Patrick Ewing smiles.