In his life as a basketball coach, John Thompson has won one NCAA championship, been to the Final Four three times, twice represented his country in the Olympics, and been one of the most influential men in sports over the last 20 years. Last week, during a break in his talk radio show, I raised the subject of his first star pupil, Patrick Ewing, risking his professional future by playing with so many injuries. And Thompson said, "If I don't have anything else to brag about in my career as a coach, I can brag that I coached Patrick Ewing."
Part of Thompson, knowing the severity of Ewing's injuries, wanted Ewing to rest the bruised ribs, chronically sore knees, surgically repaired wrist and sore Achilles' tendon. Especially the Achilles'. But the other part of Thompson knew that to play through those maladies, to go about his work as if nothing hurt, is the definition of who Patrick Ewing is. Unbending determination and pride are the very signature of his entire career. If he sufficiently inspired his teammates, the New York Knicks just might be able to carry on for another round of these playoffs even with Ewing sidelined because of a partially torn Achilles'.
I have to steal a line from my friend and colleague Mike Lupica, who said to me Sunday, "At the risk of being blasphemous, Willis Reed limped into the Garden one night; Patrick Ewing's been limping into the Garden every night for two months."
The Knicks, even with Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby making huge contributions, are alive in these playoffs as no other eighth seed in NBA history because Ewing carried them through Game 5, on the road, against the top-seeded Miami Heat.
Now, the people who dwell on Ewing's flaws will rage louder than ever and tell you that the Knicks will be better off without Ewing, that with Chris Dudley concentrating on defense and rebounding, the new-look Knicks of Sprewell, Camby and Allan Houston will run all day and never be slowed by having to wait for Ewing to catch up, blah, blah, blah. And I won't buy it for a minute.
Yes, a big part of basketball is X's and O's, how a player fits in with his teammates and the overall system of offense and defense. And running, even if that means leaving Ewing limping behind, suits these Knicks just fine. But an even bigger part of basketball -- of any sport, really -- has to do with guts, with who is unafraid with the game on the line, with who is willing to retape a badly sprained ankle and go back out there to guard an opposing all-star. Certainly, there are better players than Ewing. But nobody ever tried harder. He never, until this twilight of his career, played alongside a great all-court player. But still the Knicks have had a chance to win virtually every game since he arrived in November 1985, even the games against Michael Jordan.
Ewing has always been wonderfully stubborn and appropriately ornery when needed. It's a short list of great athletes who played this long in modern-day New York without even once being derailed by Broadway's bright lights. Sprewell, Camby and Houston have brought the youthful athleticism, but the resourcefulness and no-nonsense stubbornness the Knicks have displayed in this postseason come straight from Ewing, the man who fixed the team's attitude a long time ago. Do you know how valuable that is at a time when young players will do anything not to practice, when they will quit and hide behind their agents at the drop of a hat? Yes, it's possible to replace the points and rebounds. But what about the want-to? What about know-how? What about the passion that burns so hot in a huddle during a timeout the other players feel singed?
If this sounds a little too much like a career obit, I apologize. I know this season-ending injury has been diagnosed as a "partial" tear and the Knicks' team physician, the respected Norman Scott, has said this is not a career-threatening injury.
But pardon me for being a little skeptical. It's not any one injury that makes me worry for Ewing's future, but the accumulation. He's 36 years old, he has two bad knees, he has a wrist that only a year ago was shattered so badly it looked as if he'd been in a car wreck. His body has been banged and rammed by the likes of Laimbeer and Mahorn, Parish and McHale, Moses, the Davis Boys, Luc Longley and Shaq. And now his leg is in a cast for six weeks. All that isn't career-threatening? I don't expect Ewing to quit, because it goes against every fiber of his being. But he's not indestructible either. Even warriors ultimately break down. How serious would his injuries have to be for his coach and mentor, Thompson, to wish he would take some days off?
I've come to admire the athletes who bring all they've got inside them to work every night, no matter how much it hurts or how much younger the opposition is, which is why when these NBA playoffs began I was rooting for Malone and Stockton, Ewing, and the Pacers. With so many teams in all sports leagues now, getting to the finals is so much more difficult than it used to be. Being born at about the same time as Michael Jordan made it even more difficult.
A week ago, at the end of a four-game sweep over Atlanta, a strange thing was happening in professional sports. The Knicks were giving us a Cinderella. The schedule for the Eastern Conference finals, which had the Knicks and Pacers playing only two games in 11 days, favored Ewing, who needed the rest. Then after New York stole Game 1 from the Pacers, it was looking like the Knicks' year, like Ewing's time had finally come. But Ewing said something to which we all should have paid closer attention.
"I just hope my teammates can get me a ring," he said. In retrospect, I think Ewing suspected it would be difficult for him to hold up physically through these playoffs. Only he, the doctors and the team trainers knew how much he went through just to make it to the gym. That he made it this far in the postseason speaks to how he feels about his team, himself and his responsibility to his profession.