CHARLOTTE — Hidden behind a laptop and amid stat sheets, scouting reports and game preparation cards, a huge box of Robitussin rested on Patrick Ewing’s desk at Time Warner Cable Arena. Ewing was battling a cold one recent afternoon, and the ever-conscientious Hall of Fame center politely coughed into his shirt to avoid spreading his germs.
Staying up late, studying and breaking down an opponent; showing up before 7:30 a.m. for film sessions and strategy meetings, and then going through practices, even on the days when his head is throbbing and body probably needs a little extra rest. This is the least glamorous part of Ewing’s job.
Thirty years after graduating from Georgetown and going first overall to the New York Knicks with aspirations of winning titles at the rate of Bill Russell, Ewing is associate head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and harbors grander aspirations. Ewing is still hoping some owner or general manager will finally decide to take a chance on an all-time great who has been paying his dues on the sideline with a sharp suit and a clipboard for more than a decade.
Ewing’s pursuit of an NBA head coaching job has yielded only two interviews in 13 years, but he remains committed to chasing it — just like his long and ultimately fruitless quest for a championship ring. “I’d like the opportunity to succeed or fail like everybody else. I can’t sit around and boo-hoo, ‘They won’t give me an opportunity,’ ” Ewing said. “I just keep working and keep grinding, and whenever my name is called or somebody decides to give me that call, I just want to make sure I’m ready.”
Ewing has never carried a sense of entitlement, a quality he traces to his parents, Carl and Dorothy, who emigrated from Jamaica in the 1970s and brought each of their seven children, one by one, for a better life in Cambridge, Mass. Legendary former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. joked that Ewing spoiled him because he never caused any problems on or off the court.
“I wish he would’ve [messed] up more,” Thompson said with a laugh from his office at McDonough Gym on Georgetown’s campus. “He set really such a high tone that you almost didn’t take any [stuff] off anybody else. I have no doubt in my mind been ruined by that. I’ve told many a kid, ‘Patrick Ewing didn’t do that, no way am I going to take it from you.’ . . . I’m a bad person to ask about Patrick because I’m so partial to everything he stood for.”
Thompson fell for Ewing the player the first time he saw a then-skinny high school sophomore at a basketball tournament at the old Boston Garden. Seated with late Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach and former Georgetown assistant Bill Stein, Thompson was recruiting another player when Ewing sprinted full-court to track down a fast-break layup for a block. Thompson turned to Stein and said, “Get me him and I’ll win a national championship.”
Wearing a menacing glare and a trademark T-shirt under his jersey, Ewing would lead Georgetown to three national title games and fulfill the promise of a championship with a win over Houston in 1984.
But Ewing didn’t become the player Thompson would later use as the unattainable standard for successors Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo because he made three all-American teams or won an Olympic gold medal; Thompson is also enamored by the way Ewing treated custodians and the university president with the same respect, how he gracefully handled the heckling, hatred and racial taunts in visiting gyms without ever reacting, and how he never sought special treatment.
“Patrick didn’t come here to make us good; we were good. He just took everything, the league, Eastern basketball, everything, to a whole different level. We might’ve been on the 12th floor, he put us on the 24th. He doubled it,” Thompson said. “Because of the attention, the excitement, the flair. How he did things. Got to the point he almost made a cheerleader out of me.
“I can’t think of any situation in four years where he and I were really angry with each other,” Thompson said.
Ewing can now freely admit he twice thought about leaving Georgetown. Thompson cursed out Ewing once during his freshman year so badly that Ewing told his roommate, Michael Hancock, “Man, forget this. I’m going home.” Within a few hours, to Hancock’s surprise, Ewing and Thompson were sitting and laughing together as if nothing had ever happened.
When he lost his mother to a massive heart attack in 1983, however, Ewing was ready to quit basketball altogether. He needed his father and siblings to convince him to keep playing and complete his degree. Dorothy Ewing was so adamant about her son graduating college that she once slammed a table in anger when Thompson tried to explain how much money was at stake by him staying in school.
Ewing also felt some loyalty to Thompson and the program he was building into a national power, telling his coach, “I don’t want to leave you without a center.”
Ewing was the prize in the first NBA draft lottery, which featured a random envelope drawing for seven teams. Golden State had finished with the worst record in 1985, and Ewing’s preference was to join former Hoya teammate Eric “Sleepy” Floyd. New York wasn’t a bad alternative, though, and Knicks fans shared his giddiness.
The Knicks had their franchise player to draw the celebrities to Madison Square Garden again, but they didn’t have a prima donna who skirted his responsibilities or ran from the scrutiny of a demanding media market. Then-Knicks teammate Ernie Grunfeld recalls how veterans still made the rookie carry basketballs and the projector for film sessions — and that Ewing obliged without complaint.
“All the years I was with him, he was never late. He always practiced hard,” said Grunfeld, who later ran the Knicks before becoming president of the Washington Wizards. “Even though he was making more money than the rest of the team put together, he still never acted big-time.”
At his first practice as head coach of the Knicks in 1991, Pat Riley wanted to make sure his players were in top condition while establishing a hard-nose culture. Riley held a three-hour practice that crescendoed when a huge fight broke out. He finally called his players in after feeling he had exhausted them. Ewing walked up to his new coach — a self-described “hard ass” — and said, “Is that all you got?”
“He was serious,” Riley said. “And I laughed. Because he wanted to go longer. That’s who I had for four years in New York.”
Ewing had no trouble dealing with Riley’s demanding ways because his offseason workouts were just as intense. Recognizing the potential in Mutombo, Ewing invited the raw, 7-foot-2 center from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to train with him during the summer in Washington. That meant an early-morning breakfast, followed by three hours in the gym, a light lunch, rest, and three or four more hours in the gym. Tardiness or skipping out wasn’t tolerated, and Ewing never let up on Mutombo as they ran, lifted weights and worked on their low-post games.
“People always say, ‘How did you get better?’ ” Mutombo said. “Coach Thompson was not there in the summertime, but there was Patrick Ewing. . . . He’s going to be in my speech, the day I make Hall of Fame. That’s the guy I’m going to thank so much.”
Despite his dedication to getting better, a work ethic that forced him to often play hurt and sweat through his uniform, Ewing retired in 2002 as one of the greatest players to never win an NBA title, joining contemporary rivals cursed with playing in the Jordan era — Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton — and other luminaries like Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Dave Bing and Nate Thurmond.
“I was disappointed for him, but it wasn’t something that I harped on,” Thompson said of Ewing’s inability to capture an NBA title. “Bill Russell was exceptional. There is no question about it. Anytime a man has 11 rings and you only have 10 fingers, you can’t say nothing. But Bill Russell also played with a lot better teammates. . . . I got two NBA rings. I didn’t get off the bench. Does that mean I’m a better player than Patrick? That’s ridiculous.”
Riley, now president of the Miami Heat, won five championships as a coach and two more as an executive but feels his résumé is somewhat incomplete because of what he was unable to accomplish in New York with Ewing. “He obviously was one of the greatest players I ever coached, and to this day it’s probably one of the biggest disappointments in my life in basketball when I wasn’t able to do something a little bit different, maybe in Houston in Game 6, to help him win a championship” in 1994, Riley said in a telephone interview. “I always regret that.”
Jordan offered Ewing an opportunity to stay close to the game when he asked his former rival to be an assistant for Doug Collins with the Wizards immediately after retiring. Ewing could have easily transitioned into broadcasting, private business or faded from the limelight altogether but instead chose to pass along what he has learned to the next generation of players. He’s taking those late-night flights and arriving at hotels at the early-morning hours, shagging rebounds in one-on-one workouts and teaching post moves to the likes of third-team all-NBA center Al Jefferson. Having worked with Hornets Coach Steve Clifford in both Houston and Orlando, Ewing can have candid exchanges with a boss who respects his opinions.
Ewing has been tasked with working with big men and had success while helping Yao Ming, Dwight Howard and Jefferson enjoy the most success of their careers, but he resents being deemed a specialist.
“That’s one thing I didn’t want to be, is to be pigeonholed into being a big man’s coach. I’m a coach,” Ewing said. “Even though the center position is the position that I played, I know I lot about it, but this is not brain surgery. It’s basketball. Talking to a guard or forward or center and telling them what I see, that’s what I do.”
Only 18 players 6-foot-9 or taller have been given the chance to become NBA coaches, with Houston’s Kevin McHale the only active big man pacing the sidelines. In the past two offseasons, Ewing has seen guards Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher go directly from their playing careers to high-profile coaching jobs in Brooklyn and New York, respectively, and Steve Kerr get the Golden State job after working in the broadcast booth.
“He’s a smart player. He’s a great leader. But you very seldom hear intelligence associated with height in the NBA or in college. Therefore, they think that the people who are thinking on the floor all the time are guards. Patrick is suffering from that,” Thompson said. “You know what I respect most of all about him? He didn’t just expect you to just bring him in. He deserves an opportunity to coach. It wasn’t like he took the lazy approach, because my name is so-and-so.”
Ewing won’t begrudge anyone for getting an opportunity, but he will continue to grind until he gets one. “I’m still working. I’m still involved in the game. It’s just like playing without being out there scoring, rebounding and blocking shots,” Ewing said. “I’m trying to get better at my craft. For whatever reason it is, be it that I’m a big man, or whatever it is, they feel that a guard is more capable of leading a team. . . . My goal right now is to help the Hornets make the playoffs and, one day, be good enough to win a championship.”