I was watching the Orlando Magic on television sometime in the middle of last season, shaking my head at how good Tracy McGrady had become.
He was sinking unbelievable jumpers with defenders’ hands in his face and dunking hard on 7-footers. But the Magic — as it did the whole season — failed to capitalize on McGrady’s instant offense, and was struggling to stay in the game because it had absolutely no inside presence.
Thinking it would rejuvenate his team, Magic coach Doc Rivers sent Patrick Ewing onto the court, knowing Ewing could inspire the youth, but more practically hoping the big man still had some juice to actually put some desperately needed points on the board.
For a few possessions, the plan seemed to be working. Ewing grabbed a few monster rebounds on the defensive end before lugging his legs down court to score a couple buckets off classic post-moves. He hit his trademark, awkward-looking, one-handed fadeaway jumper from the baseline. He backed down his man for a nifty scoop shot right under the basket.
But then Ewing ran into the I-have-40-year-old-surgically-repaired-legs-and-can-no-longer-move-laterally wall.
The opposing team decided to call Rivers’ bluff and directed its offense at Ewing, who stumbled around trying to keep up with the agile slashers coming his way. When Ewing got the ball down low again, they quickly double-teamed him, knowing he no longer had the quickness to draw the foul, nor the sharpness to find the open man.
And in one telling moment, Ewing threw his massive arms up to pull in a rebound, came down with nothing, then — hunched over like an old man — aimlessly searched for where the ball had gone, clueless that it had rolled right through his legs.
I knew then what Ewing finally figured out on Tuesday: it was time to go. After 2,894 rejections, 11,607 rebounds, 24,815 points and 17 seasons in the NBA, Patrick Ewing has retired. It’s about time, Patrick.
Thank you for going out the way you did. No hoopla, no farewell tour around the league, no emotional ceremony, and — I hope — no Patrick Ewing marathon on ESPN Classic. It wouldn’t have been right to honor Ewing like that because that’s how you honor true legends of the game and Ewing, I’m sorry to say, isn’t one of those.
That’s not to say Ewing isn’t a likable player. I like Patrick Ewing. He works hard, he doesn’t give up, and he’s entertaining on the floor, whether he’s emphatically high-five-ing the courtside fans at Madison Square Garden or getting into the annual postseason tussle with the Miami Heat.
But Ewing never transcended the realm of really good basketball players into that select circle of great basketball players. It’s not just that he never won a championship.
Patrick Ewing just never made me jump out of my seat. Ewing doesn’t wow crowds or many other players, for that matter. Even with the extra step the officials let him have, he couldn’t really take over a game and never had that look on his face that said, “You’re going down.”
He is a warrior, but the type of warrior who tirelessly takes hits without ever charging to attack. Had Michael Jordan not knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs five times, Ewing might have his ring, but I’d still argue he was missing that intangible character which makes good players great.
It doesn’t help that he never found a way to take advantage of the Bulls’ mediocre centers, or that he missed that impossibly easy, series-losing layup against the Pacers.
As always, Ewing isn’t giving up. He’s heading out to Washington, where he’ll be Jordan’s assistant coach in an effort to be part of something great, what with the arrival of Jerry Stackhouse in the nation’s capital.
But even if the Wizards make an incredible run to the finals, Ewing will again and forever take a back seat to the man we all know is the epitome of basketball greatness.