NEW YORK -- Patrick Ewing sat in front of his locker, both feet submerged up to his ankles in a tub of cold water, two large bags of ice taped to his knees, his face a portrait of exhaustion. He'd just logged 35 fatiguing minutes against the wunderkind Shaquille O'Neal, and he was bone tired.
The conversation around him was about Shaquille. How big he is. How strong. How fast. How special.
"He's only 20 years old," someone said, clucking his tongue.
Ewing smiled and held the bags tightly to his knees.
At 30, Ewing has put his knees to the NBA grindstone for eight seasons now. Icing down is a nightly ritual of aftercare.
"I can't remember being 20," Ewing said.
Did you feel it was you against Shaq out there, someone asked Ewing.
"You guys always make it into that," Ewing said. "It's me against Hakeem. Or me against David. Now, it's me against Shaquille."
Ewing smiled again, this time disapprovingly, like a teacher. "I get tired of hearing who it's me against," he said. "It's not me against Shaquille. It's a team game. It's New York against Orlando."
By that measure the battle wasn't close, because New York beat Orlando, 92-77, Saturday night. O'Neal had gaudier statistics. He outscored Ewing, 18-15, and outrebounded him, 17-9. Five of his baskets came on the kind of shattering, one-handed, gangster dunks pro basketball hasn't seen since Wilt Chamberlain defiantly threw the ball down 25 years ago. But O'Neal had seven turnovers, far beyond the acceptable amount. He did not impede Ewing's dependable jump shot, and he couldn't impose his will on the outcome. Still, O'Neal certainly chiseled his imprint on the game, and perhaps the entire sport.
"He's just so strong. I mean, he is so strong," said Pat Riley, the Knicks coach, who gleaned his knowledge of great centers firsthand by playing with Chamberlain in Los Angeles and coaching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ewing. "You've got to get him out of the paint. Any time he gets the ball with his head under the rim . . . " Riley said, shrugging. "Well, you saw what happened."
Regardless of Ewing's broad view, most people came to Madison Square Garden narrowly focused on the individual matchup at center. This was O'Neal's first NBA game against a dominant big man, and the historical ramifications made it a hot ticket. Scalpers were working Seventh Avenue, and finding buyers as far up as 38th Street. Inside, the glitterati hunkered down in the plush seats at courtside: Spike Lee, his cap pulled low on his forehead, Terry Bradshaw, Ed Bradley from "60 Minutes," Earl Monroe, actor Peter Falk, John McEnroe, even Wilt himself. Last season the Knicks couldn't fill the house with Orlando if they had given the seats away. Last season, though, when you talked about a shack, most people in New York thought of a fifth-floor walk-up studio on the lower West Side. Now they know a Shaq is a different kind of building.
There was a sense of extravagant anticipation you don't often see in jaded old New York. Fans wanted to see what Shaquille could do against Ewing. They hunched forward in their seats, wide-eyed, the way they were in 1969 when Milwaukee's rookie Goliath, Lew Alcindor, came in to play Willis Reed. Sure, O'Neal came in with big numbers -- No. 1 in the league in rebounding, No. 4 in scoring -- but whom did he get those numbers against? Let's see him do it in the Big Apple. If he can make it there, he'll make it a-ny-where, it's up to you, New York, and blah-blah-blah.
Riley was prepared. He double-teamed O'Neal as soon as he touched the ball, running Ewing and muscular Charles Oakley at him early. In the second quarter O'Neal once found himself surrounded by Ewing, at 7 feet and 240 pounds; Oakley, 6-9 and 245; and Charles Smith, 6-11 and 260. O'Neal is huge -- "7-foot-1 and 305 pounds of no fat, brother," Bullets assistant coach Bill Blair likes to say -- but there's no safe step in that forest. They leaned on O'Neal, pushing him off the low blocks. Occasionally, O'Neal got frustrated, and rushed a shot, flat and homely like a melon that's been in the bin too long. Ewing even blocked one. O'Neal got back by blocking a couple of Ewing's, slapping one into the seats -- you could hear the Garden crowd go "Ooooohh," and it sounded like the whoosh of a tire deflating. But then, in his haste to make a spectacular play, O'Neal would travel, or lower his shoulder and gruffly charge into Ewing. And the next time down O'Neal would stay low and watch helplessly as Ewing hit nothing but net with a soft perimeter jumper.
It was never really one-on-one with Ewing; the Knicks were too smart for that. And most of O'Neal's showcase dunks came off other players, such as Smith and Herb Williams and Eric Anderson. O'Neal's 18 points were nine below his average, and his unsettledness showed at the foul line where he was four of 11. Still, the Knicks' Tony Campbell saw enough to be wowed, and Campbell is no tourist, having played with Abdul-Jabbar and Ewing. "With his strength and zeal, he'll definitely be in that class," Campbell said. "If not now, then soon." Campbell shook his head in wonder. "He's doing this on raw talent. I'd hate to see him when he learns how to play this game."
Over in the Orlando locker room O'Neal was reviewing his performance much as the Knicks were doing 50 feet down the hall. "Guys are trying to punk me, but they're not going to back me down. I think I held my own," he said.
Wave upon wave of reporters came at O'Neal, pushing the angle of Shaq vs. Patrick, and he was already too savvy to discourage them. "I tried to come in with the attitude that this was just another game," he said with a grin. "But I know the fans wanted to see a great center and a pretty good center."
And which, someone asked, was the great center?
"Patrick," O'Neal said warmly.
"Patrick Ewing, of course."
There is the local notion that if you haven't played basketball in Madison Square Garden, you haven't played basketball. Saturday was O'Neal's first time playing there. But when he was a boy, O'Neal's family lived in Newark, not 10 miles from New York City, and he often made the trip to the Garden to watch basketball games. "I used to get popcorn and hot dogs," he recalled. "I had a good time."
So I guess this was a fantasy for you, someone suggested.
And Shaquille O'Neal raised himself to his full, huge height and smiled, as bright as the lights on Broadway. "Yeah," he said. "Dreams come true."