"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Big Fella

David Halberstam was not a sports writer but he wrote about sports often. He was rarely vicious though, which makes this Page 2 column on Patrick Ewing stand out:

Well, how great a player was Patrick Ewing?

First, let me stipulate one critical ground rule: I do not believe that you have to win a championship to be a great player. There are — especially from the days before free agency, when a player had less control over his career — great players who never had the right players around them, and therefore did not win rings. Jerry West was a great player, and near the end of his career he finally and deservedly won a championship. But if Wilt Chamberlain had not leveraged his muscle into forcing a trade to Los Angeles, West might easily have finished his career kingless.

Still, I most emphatically do not think Ewing was a great player. His statistics are awesome, he will surely make the Hall of Fame, and I know for a fact that he is listed among the league’s 50 all-time best players included in the book published by the league itself on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. After all, I wrote the forward.

Is he a very good player? I guess so. The Knicks in the years of his prime were always going to be respectable, though they were never going to surprise anyone. In the end, I came to hate watching them play: It was all so heavy and slow and predictable. I find him the most puzzling of players, talented, hard-working and, in the end, limited.

Ewing was a great player in college and if he wasn’t a great pro, he was damn close, flaws and all. Anyhow, read the entire piece. Sure to provoke a reaction.


1 Jon DeRosa   ~  Mar 13, 2012 1:24 pm


"That Portland would turn away from drafting Michael Jordan because it already had Clyde Drexler, who played the same position, and take Sam Bowie instead because Bowie was a classic center, seems less likely to happen today -- the people running the team would know there was room for both Drexler and Jordan in the same lineup, as there was room for Jordan and Scottie Pippen."

Portland also took Oden over Durant in 2007! And though the situation was slightly different, the result isn't. They probably left about 53,500 points on the table with those too disaster picks.

I don't have a lot of knowledge about Ewing or those old Knicks, but Halberstam's opinion, right or wrong, seems fundamentally a critique of style over substance. The Knicks won a ton of games, Ewing was the center of it all offensively and defensively.

Was he great to watch? I have no idea. He may have been slow and boring like Halberstam said, but by baseketball-reference's defenisve win shares, Ewing was the 9th greatest defensive player ever. And he amassed the 37th highest combined win shares of all players.

This article seems pointless. Ewing was obviously great, as any decent metric would tell you. But he wasn't as great as some of the others. If this dude wants to throw around the word like a medicine ball, up to him, but seems like a silly thing to waste so many words on.

2 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 1:41 pm

I think Ewing was borderline great as a pro - much better than "very good" but somehow not transcendent. It's a bit of a semantics game - the numbers tell us he was "great" but you'd never put him in the elite group with Jordan, Chamberlain, Russell, Robertson, Bird, Erving, et al. He had remarkable touch for a big man.

In college he really *was* that great.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Mar 13, 2012 1:58 pm

[2] Halberstam mentioned that the game changed on Ewing during his pro career. It actually bent towards Patrick as a pro. Points per game went down over his career, defense mattered more, as it was the core of the Pistons and Bulls titles.

But the real change was going from John Thompson and pre-shot clock and pre-3 pointers to the NBA 24 second clock and threes. That's why Patrick was one of the greatest college forces ever, and simply a star in the NBA.

4 Sliced Bread   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:19 pm

Ewing was a great player by any measure.. I'll take it a step further and say he was an awesome player: blocking shots, jamming over monsters, hittimg unconsciious fade aways. He was sick in his prime. Even before his knees broke down Idiots like Halberstam were foolishly trying to run Patrick out of town. I wanted to punch them in the head then, and this little snippet of stupidity makes me want to punch Halberstam in the head. All I can say is go back and watch Ewing, and decide for yourself. This nonsense just infuriates me.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:23 pm

He was a force. Didn't play with many great players, either.

6 Sliced Bread   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:29 pm

2) yeah but Patrick could roll with Malone, Barkley, any of the great big men of the 90s.
Was he an all-time great, ok, that's debatable, but was he great? Unquestionably yes

7 Jon DeRosa   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:34 pm

Jordan dwarfs everyone in the 90s. And then below Jordan by a lot is Hakeem. And then I think, below Hakeem by some margin are the rest of the 90s HOFers.

8 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:35 pm

[6] Agreed, I just meant it depends on how you define "great." To me, he was a great player, but if you put the cut-off for "great" with those super-elite players like the ones I mentioned, he doesn't make it.

Like I said - great, not transcendent. That was really the problem wasn't it? In NY, we expected him to be the second coming and bring us title after title. As Alex points out in [5], he never played with fellow greats. Jordan didn't win without Pippen, Robertson didn't win without Jabbar, etc.

9 RagingTartabull   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:37 pm

Patrick was a great center, there is no way around it in my opinion. What he WASN'T, and what people desperately wanted him to be, was Bill Russell. But shit man, who is? If Starks shot at the buzzer in Game 6 in Houston goes in I think we ALL think of Patrick and his legacy differently.

Patrick was great, and at times transcendent, but I think the perfect term is "star crossed."

10 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:37 pm

[7] Fair point. I think of the star hierarchy of the era like that as well, except maybe Barkley belongs on that tier with Hakeem.

11 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:40 pm

Yeah, I'm not sure I'd put Sir Charles with Hakeem. But we're talking degrees here.

I don't know if Patrick's rep as a great player would be much different in my eyes if he'd won a ring or not.

Shit, if only the Knicks had gotten Mitch Richmond--the man Jordan said guarded him tougher than anyone in the league--when Riley was around.

12 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:40 pm

And I don't know what Halberstam means when he says, "The Knicks in the years of his prime were always going to be respectable, though they were never going to surprise anyone." Nonsense. If Ewing hadn't been there, the team would have been a cellar dweller for many of those post-Bernard years.

13 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:41 pm

[11] Well, Hakeem WON, and Charles didn't, but he was a helluva ballplayer.

14 RagingTartabull   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:44 pm

[12] Agreed, a big reason that they were at a BARE MINIMUM respectable for many of those years was Patrick. That team won 50+ games 6 times between 1989 and 1997, they just couldn't beat Jordan. And frankly, show me the team in the East in those years that could.

15 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:50 pm

Patrick was badly outplayed by Hakeem in the Finals. And Hakeem is one of the 10 best centers ever to play the game. I'd put him in the top five. Wilt, Kareem, Russell, and I'd put the Dream ahead of Shaq Fu.

For what it is worth, those Knicks teams, flawed as hell, played the Bulls tougher than any team in the east or west in 91-92/92-93.

16 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:58 pm

[15] Can't disagree. I was a big Olajuwon fan, going back to Phi Slamma Jamma. And those Knicks-Bulls series were always great. Ugh. Charles Smith.

17 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 2:59 pm

[15] What that Knicks team lacked in skill and finesse, they made up for in conditioning and sheer guts. They could just keep coming at you when other teams would wilt.

18 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:05 pm

Poor Charles Smith. I saw him sitting on a bench in the Village one time after he retired. And I said hello. He was a super nice guy and I figured most people heckled him when they saw him.

It wasn't all Charles' fault either. They were just a flawed team. Tough, dumb, artless, and altogether lovable.

19 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:08 pm

[18] Yeah, for it all to come down to Charles "Mr. Softee" Smith not making a layup or drawing a foul, it means plenty else went wrong that night. He's stuck as being the image we all carried around after that series. It still hurts!

I just looked up Olajuwon's and Barkley's numbers. Man, those guys could play.

20 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:20 pm

We haven't even mentioned John Stockton.

21 RagingTartabull   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:21 pm

(20) ya know John Stockton perfected what one would call "thug ball" and yet no one ever used that term when discussing him. Funny how that works.

22 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:23 pm

[20] Stockton had Malone, too. Not that he wasn't a great player on his own.

23 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 3:34 pm

There were a lot of rugged players at that time. Just the way they let the game be played. Stockton was always considered dirty even if he got a pass because he was a short white guy.

24 RIYank   ~  Mar 13, 2012 6:01 pm

Hey, I missed this discussion.

I'll just say that Ewing was the only thing that I really loved about the Knicks after Clyde and Willis. Sure, Starks was fun, and Bernard, but only Ewing made me feel pride.

25 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 6:13 pm

Bernard was my favorite but in such a different way. He was like a comet with the Knicks. Pride is a good word for Patrick. He was a cranky bitch but had a certain nobility too.

I did love that horse's ass Rod Strickland. Man, they made a mistake letting him go.

26 glennstout   ~  Mar 13, 2012 6:48 pm

As much as anything, I think DH is complaining as much about the style of the game the Knicks played, and the game Ewing had to play in that context, as much as he is about Ewing itself. Halberstam preferred a more fluid, fastbreak style, and they weren't that.

27 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 7:54 pm

26) So true. It started with the Pistons and then the Knicks perfected that Brute Squad Style of ball.

28 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 13, 2012 8:02 pm

[26] To that I'd have to say, "get over it." Unlike the present variation, the Knicks of the 90's won games, and were it not for some bad breaks and Jordan and Hakeem in their elite state, they could win championships with their game. Ewing was only dominated by elites, and there were few who could take on the Knicks as a whole by themselves. Save the pretty for the Los Angeles fLakers...

29 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 8:03 pm

[27] The Pistons were much more successful than the Knicks, so I don't know how you can say the Knicks perfected anything.

30 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 8:06 pm

[26] I recall a lot of older fans and writers making those complaints at the time. The Knicks were plodding and violent and clumsy in their views, and they wanted Frazier and Monroe back. I thought Riley did a great job getting a lot out of the talent he had and to me it did become a fun team. Sure, I'd rather watch a fluid, fastbreak team lead by a brainy, elegant point guard, but they didn't have those types of players.

31 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 13, 2012 8:49 pm

29) They perfected thug ball, not winning games, Finster. The Knicks were the Pistons without the rings which left muscle, heart and a whole lot of stupid.

32 jorgie juiced one   ~  Mar 13, 2012 9:41 pm

Ewing was a great player, who was amazing to watch, especially beginning in 88-89 and 89-90. His 88-89 numbers were kept down by the Pitino system. He had a great year statistically in 89-90. He remained great well into the 90s. Though by the mid-90s, it was clear he was declining athletically. I think his shot block numbers reflect that.

Ewing came very close to winning a title when the next best players on his teams were Starks, Mason and Oakley. Sure that's a credit to Riley. But it also speaks to Ewing's dominance - maybe even making him underrated. I was a huge John Starks fan. And I certainly loved me some Mase in Yo' Face and the Oak Man, but come on...Still, man, those were great teams to root for. What fun - though it felt like life and death at the time.

Interestingly, the two times the Knicks came oh so close to winning, it was Jordan stopping Charles Smith (I was at that game. A great sporting event. The silence that came over the Garden at the buzzer was eerie. You could hear one guy yelling out to Bulls fan Bill Murray, "Murray, you suck.") and Hakeem stopping Starks that prevented them. Hakeem's block of Starks was an incredible play both instinctively and athletically.

33 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Mar 13, 2012 11:02 pm

Dissapointing article from the great Halbertam. Ewing was a great, franchise center. No shame being a step below The Dream and Shazzam.

[15] Ooohhh...that's a GREAT discussion. Hakeem in his prime vs Shaq-Fu...The Dream was so good, so complete. But I remember watching Shaq in the Lakers three-peat years and man..no in the history of basketball could have stopped him. Totally unguardable..

34 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 13, 2012 11:49 pm

[31] If you say so, Chumley, but I don't agree. Wouldn't the team that used it to win back to back titles be the team that perfected it? (They also had Thomas & Dumars, of course.) I would say the Knicks took their template but just couldn't quite measure up. Man, I did love those teams though.

35 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 14, 2012 6:19 am

I don't see it that way. The Pistons were known as the bad boys but they were also very good. The Knicks were despised because they were seen as thugs and thugs alone. They took what the Pistons started and distilled it even further, not in terms of succes but physicality. They didn't have the talent so they resorted to being punks. Those Piston teams started it but the Knicks were the essence of what many people didn't like about the league in the '90s.

Man, remember the Doc Rivers vs KJ fight with Greg Anthony throwing punches wearing street clothes.

36 Matt Blankman   ~  Mar 14, 2012 7:42 am

[35] I understand what you're getting at. I think you explained it better here. Maybe I just objected to the word "perfected."

You know who was a good player who played with Ewing? Mark Jackson.

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