Had it been April 1, we would have assumed Patrick Ewing was playing a joke: "Don't be surprised if you see me in a Washington Bullets uniform after next season." But it was December, and he said it more than once. "It's possible you could see me in a Bullet uniform." So when did the Bullets start living under a lucky star? Bernard King has the comeback to top all comebacks, Harvey Grant is turning into James Worthy, and Patrick Ewing says he might want to leave the Big Apple for Capital Centre.
So how ridiculous is my fantasy that Ewing will wind up as a Bullet? Before he's 40? No more so than Wilt leaving the Philadelphia Warriors or Kareem orchestrating his way out of Milwaukee. After this season, Ewing is scheduled to be a free agent, meaning the Knicks could match any offer. Before the 1992 season, he's due to be an unrestricted free agent, meaning he could work a deal with whomever he pleases. In two years, the going rate for a franchise player in the NBA will be $6 million a season, at least. If Clyde Drexler's upcoming $8 million-for-one-season is any indication, a six-year deal will soon cost more than $50 million. The Knicks have balked at paying Ewing that much. And just as important to Ewing, Knicks management has not demonstrated in six years that it can acquire the players who can help him win a championship.
Only a few teams will have enough room under the salary cap to afford him, and one of those teams figures to be the Bullets. If all things are relatively equal among Orlando, Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota, the Nets, Sacramento, the Bullets and the Knicks, where do you think Ewing would rather play?
He considers Washington, not New York or Boston, home. He owns a house in Potomac, a 30-minute drive from Capital Centre, where he played all but a couple of his college home games. His offseason workouts are often conducted at Georgetown's McDonough Arena. He is still very close to John Thompson. Wife Rita, a native Washingtonian and Howard University alum, is working on a combination law-business postgraduate degree at Georgetown. Even his high school coach, Mike Jarvis, is in town now, coaching George Washington.
If it's basketball you're talking, few if any of the teams likely to be bidding for Ewing's services can offer the likes of King, the emerging Grant, Darrell Walker and Coach Wes Unseld.
Of course, the Celtics and Lakers didn't get to be who they are by letting these chances of a lifetime slide by. If Ewing becomes available, Jerry West and Red Auerbach/Dave Gavitt can be counted on to push a few people out of a moving plane if necessary to clear room under the salary cap. Note from Lakers' Jerry Buss to anyone not named Earvin: "Thanks for the memories; I know some real estate people in Charlotte who might help in your relocation."
The Bullets, unless they land a high lottery pick after this season, won't have to go to such lengths. Ewing's also the one player to whom owner Abe Pollin couldn't close his purse. At minimum, Ewing brings in 3,000 extra customers a game. At $35 a head (tickets, parking, food) over a 41-game home schedule, that's more than $4 million a year, and that doesn't include playoff revenue, increases in radio and TV deals, etc. Ewing, like Canseco and Jordan, pays for himself. Even at Capital Centre.
The question is, will the Knicks let him go? They might have no choice if it comes to him playing next year for $5.8 million, then becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Ewing doesn't run off at the mouth. If he says you might see him in a Bullets uniform, you might want to listen. There are indications he feels it's very telling that the Knicks have not signed him to a long-term contract.
Certainly it's possible that Al Bianchi, Knicks GM, won't last beyond this season; some say he won't even finish it. If so, Madison Square Garden CEO Richard Evans and club president Jack Diller could come down and say, "Okay, Patrick, you're dealing directly with us now. How much moolah do you want?" And since the team that has a player can pay him whatever it wants without considering the salary cap, the Knicks could set the price so high nobody else could come close. Someone familiar with Ewing's position and the Knicks' posture says: "It would be a dramatic position for the Knicks, to let him go. But it's a tough decision. How much do you pay him? And do you pay him so much you restrict your ability to get the kind of players you need to win a title?"
Even with Ewing, the Knicks haven't come within shouting distance of a title. "The Knicks could change administrations," another person familiar with the situation said, "but it's difficult to imagine him signing with the Knicks again in the current environment."
If the Knicks feel they won't get him signed, they could go into this summer thinking trade, trying to get something in return. In that scenario, only the teams that think they can sign him after that one rent-a-season will attempt to trade. A Bullets team that missed the playoffs and had a high lottery pick might be able to put together a package to interest the Knicks. For now, there's nothing much for Bullets officials to say publicly; it's too much of a pipe dream, and any comment could violate the league's rule on tampering. Ewing and David Falk, his representative, have reiterated their position and now have to wait.
It may be too soon for the Bullets or Ewing to move, but it's not too soon for those of us who rarely venture to Capital Centre to dream of a season when a Bullet game is an event, as games are in Portland and Detroit, Chicago and Utah, Boston and L.A. Few players are capable of changing the future so swiftly, so dramatically as the man in the middle.