Commentary

The Book of Basketball

Originally Published: October 27, 2009
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Bill Simmons' new book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books.

This excerpt is from a section called "The Hall of Fame Pyramid," where I blow up the Basketball Hall of Fame and recreate it as an Egyptian pyramid with levels (five in all). I ranked Ewing at No. 39, as a Level Two guy. Here's why.

Why Patrick Ewing Was the 39th Best Player Ever

    Resume: 17 years, 11 quality, 12 All-Stars … '86 Rookie of the Year … top 5 MVP ('90), top 10 ('88, '89, '91, '92, '93, '97) … best player on 1 runnerup ('94 Knicks) … 2- year peak: 28-11, 3.6 BPG, 53% FG … '90 Playoffs: 29-11 (10 G) … '94, '95 playoffs: 2011, 2.8 BPG, 45% FG (36 G) … member of '92 Dream Team … 20K- 10K Club

Knicks fans did their damnedest to talk themselves into the Patrick Ewing era.97 Everyone believed Ewing was the Evolutionary Russell, a destructive defensive force who would own the league someday. Only it didn't happen … and it didn't happen … and then it seemed like it was happening, only it turned out to be a tease … and it didn't happen … and at some point everyone except for the delusional Knicks fans realized that it was never going to happen. You know those movie scenes where a male character dies in a hospital bed and his wife stands over him talking like he didn't die, and everyone else in the room feels awkward, and then finally someone comes over and says, "Honey, he's gone" and tries to pull her away, so she starts screaming, "Nooooooo! Nooooo, he's fine! He's gonna wake up!" and then she collapses and has a crying seizure? That was every Knicks fan from 1995 to 1999. When Hakeem turned Ewing into ground beef in the '94 Finals, Ewing dropped dead in a "This guy's carrying us to a title someday" sense. But the Knicks fans kept standing there over the hospital bed waiting for him to wake up.

Eventually they decided that Ewing's career was either "frustrating" (the glass-half-full take) or "phenomenally disappointing" (the glass-half-empty take). He peaked during the '90 season, averaging a 29-11 with 4 blocks and 55 percent shooting for a 45-win Knicks team, saving the Knicks with a 44-13 in a must-win Game 4 against Boston, then leading them to a shocking upset in the decisive fifth game (31 points). Sitting in the Garden as Ewing took over and swished an improbable backbreaking three, I remember thinking, "He's putting it all together; we're in serious trouble." But Detroit easily dispatched them in the second round and Ewing was never that good again. Why? Because of his knees. College Ewing prowled the paint like a tiger, jumped around like House of Pain and contested every shot within fifteen feet of the rim. NBA veteran Ewing picked his spots, jogged with huge strides and crouched before every jump. Never a great rebounder98 or passer, never someone with a treasure chest of low-post moves, that subtle erosion of athleticism turned him into an elite center who did everything well and nothing great. Actually, it was a little sad. Poor Ewing perfected his "intense" game face, bellowed at the MSG crowd, pounded his chest after big plays, played up the whole "I'm a warrior!" angle in interviews and even made a clumsy effort to become an intimidating enforcer. All of it kind of worked … but not really. The sophisticated Knicks fans saw right through him, endlessly debating his virtues and repeatedly coming back to the same conclusion: As long as this is our best guy, we probably can't win the title.

That's when Pat Riley nearly salvaged Ewing's superstardom, remaking the Knicks into Bad Boys II, adopting thugball tactics to exact as much as he could from his secretly limited center (and nearly ruining basketball in the process). They lost back-to-back slugfests to Chicago before catching a break with Jordan's "baseball sabbatical," reaching the Finals behind a monster effort from Ewing in Game 7 (22-20-7 with 5 blocks and the winning tip against Indiana) before squandering a disheartening Finals. The following year, Reggie Miller ripped out their hearts in the Eastern Semis, with Ewing missing a series-deciding 6-foot bunny. And just like that the Ewing window had closed, although it took a few more years for everyone to realize it.99 Before the 2001 season, the Knicks finally cut the cord (and inadvertently destroyed their future) by turning Ewing's expiring deal into a slew of horrendous contracts; then we watched Ewing slog through the "fifteen-year-old poodle with cataracts who starts going to the bathroom in the house and needs to be put to sleep" stage. Did we ever figure out why centers age in dog years once they hit their late thirties? They always have one final season where they gain 20 pounds, lose all hand-eye coordination, run in slow motion, and jump like their shoes are loaded with razor blades; all they have left is their turnaround jumper. It's like an automobile being completely stripped except for the radio, which is left behind for some reason. That's the turnaround jumper. For Ewing, that season happened twice, in Seattle and Orlando. And then he was done.

He hasn't endured for a few reasons. Ewing lacked charisma and may have been the most uncomfortable postmerger interview other than Moses Malone.100 He had some legitimate weaknesses -- horrendous hands, shaky at crunch time, dubious rebounder, awful passer out of double-teams, couldn't make his teammates better -- and he lacked a fanfriendly game that wouldn't exactly be remembered fondly. Even Ewing's shining moment (the '94 Finals) turned into a train wreck: Ewing averaged 18.9 points and shot 36 percent, while Hakeem averaged a 27-9 with 3.9 blocks and 50 percent shooting. And it wasn't even THAT close. Ewing ranks this highly because you could build a contender around him in his prime, and because he absolutely could have won the '94 championship playing with Richmond, Rice, Miller, or really any good two-guard other than John Starks. Much like fellow Dream Team players Drexler, Robinson and Malone, we'll remember Ewing as a second banana masquerading as a first banana, even if Knicks fans never wanted to admit it at the time. Now they do.101

One last Ewing thought: When I was writing for my old website, a reader named Dave Cirilli sent in his elaborate Ewing Theory, which centered around the inexplicable phenomenon that both the Hoyas and Knicks seemed to play better every time Ewing was sitting on the bench. After tinkering with it and finding various examples,102 Dave emailed me and we honed the language over the next few weeks, eventually deciding that two crucial elements were needed for any situation to qualify for Ewing status: a star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, yet his teams never win anything substantial with him; and that same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency, or retirement) and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the near future (for either the rest of the season or the following season). I wrote about the theory and had some fun with it.103 A few months later, Ewing tore an Achilles tendon during Game 2 of the '99 Eastern Finals. The heavily favored Pacers seemed like a mortal lock … only with Ewing himself involved, suddenly this had become the ultimate test of the Ewing Theory. Heading into Game 3, Dave was oozing with confidence and predicting in no uncertain terms, "Ewing's injury is the best thing that ever could have happened to the Knicks; they're definitely making the Finals now." Incredibly, the Knicks won three of the next four and advanced to the Finals as I was playing up Dave's Ewing theory prediction on my website! My three thousand readers at the time couldn't have been more impressed. From there, Ewing Theory instances kept happening -- Mo Vaughn ('99 Red Sox), Barry Sanders ('99 Lions), Trent Green ('99 Rams), Griffey and A-Rod ('00 and '01 Mariners), Dan Marino ('00 Dolphins) -- and I finally unveiled Dave's Ewing Theory to a national audience on ESPN.com in 2001, predicting that Drew Bledsoe was the single most logical Ewing Theory candidate for the future. Only a few months later, Bledsoe went down, the '02 Patriots won their first Super Bowl without him and I looked like Nostrasimbo. You have to admit, that was amazing. Since then, we've had some other classics (Nomar and the '04 Red Sox and Tiki and the '07 Giants being the best ones), but none could have happened without the great Patrick Ewing.

Here's my point: If your prime inspired a sports theory that hypothesized why your teams played better without you, you probably shouldn't crack the top thirty-five of a Hall of Fame Pyramid.


FOOTNOTES

97. I have multiple New York friends who swear that Knicks fans were subconsciously predisposed to root against Ewing because so many Knicks fans love St. John's and that was the height of the Johnnies-Hoyas Big East rivalry back then.

98. Ewing never cracked the top three in rebounding and currently has the 57th-highest career rebounding average, just ahead of Jack Sikma (60th), Bill Laimbeer (61st) and Rony Seikaly (70th).

99. Notice how I avoided any mention of the excruciating Knicks-Heat playoff battles? I always wanted a Bizarro ESPN Classic channel that featured programming like NBA's Greatest Games: Miami 65, New York 56; SportsCentury and Beyond: Rusty Hilger; The Very Best of the Magic Hour; Games That Ended Prematurely Because Somebody Died; Actors Who Threw Like Women (hosted by Tim Robbins); Best Magic Johnson Comebacks; Inside Schwartz; and NHL Instant Classic: Columbus at Minnesota.

100. When Ewing became head of the Players Association, it was like finding out that Flavor Flav had been named the president of Viacom.

101. My favorite Ewing moment: When an Atlanta strip joint (Gold Club) was busted for drugs and prostitution, a number of celebs were revealed as pay-for-play customers in the ensuing trial, including Ewing, who made the following testimony: "The girls danced, started fondling me, I got aroused, they performed oral sex. I hung around a little bit and talked to them, then I left." As Marv Albert would say, yes!

102. His original examples: Donyell Marshall ('95 UConn), Peyton Manning ('98 Tennessee), Keith Van Horn ('98 Utah), Don Mattingly ('96 Yankees), Bret Hart ('97 WWF).

103. Some enjoyable pop culture examples: Shannen Doherty (90210), David Lee Roth (Van Halen), Shelley Long (Cheers), David Caruso (NYPD Blue), Sonny Corleone (the Corleones), Craig Kilborn (Daily Show).

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.