Patrick Ewing Didn’t Need A Ring To Prove His Greatness: The Legacy
The last great Knick left New York in the Fall of 2001. Ewing’s trade to the Supersonics marked the beginning of an era defined by constant quick-fixes, poor contracts, trading away assets, missed draft picks, and a spectacular commitment to bypassing a true rebuild. The franchise no longer had a Hall of Fame player to carry them to the playoffs season after season. There was a gaping hole in the city that only grew larger.
For the generation who had the privilege of growing up in the light of Patrick Ewing’s greatness, it’s undeniable that he is one of the legends who isn’t talked about enough. What he achieved in New York is unfathomable, considering that much of his supporting cast didn’t belong in the playoffs without him. He anchored a formidable team that brought thirteen long years of meaningful basketball to the city. As a big man known for elite defense, he worked tirelessly on his offensive game and revolutionized the center position. Joel Embiid? Karl-Anthony Towns? Patrick Ewing was wet from eighteen feet first, and his touch was the prettiest.
Numbers don't support the narratives around Patrick Ewing’s legacy, like the unfair label that he’s “choker.” The idea that he's a playoff failure largely hinges on the missed finger roll in the 1995 Eastern Semifinals. The finger roll erased his impressive stat line that night, in which he went for 29 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. In the infamous game five against Chicago when Charles Smith missed four chances to put the Knicks on top, Ewing put up 33 points, nine rebounds, and three assists. Forgotten often is his Willis Reed performance on a severely sprained ankle, where he put up 27 points with 8 rebounds to force Chicago to a game seven. Ultimately, he played nine career game sevens and averaged 24.4 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.2 blocks. Rather than being a playoff failure, Ewing was typically the only guy who could get his own bucket and was single-handedly the reason the Knicks were even in the position to clinch a series at all.
Similarly, the Scottie Pippen poster from the 1994 Eastern Conference finals is synonymous with the legacy of Patrick Ewing — though it's typically not common knowledge that the Knicks won that series. This play is still indicative of the kind of warrior Patrick Ewing was; he never backed down from a contest, he didn’t care about getting posterized, he met everyone at the rim with the same ferocity every time.
Everything Patrick Ewing touched was better because of him, and his lack of a championship shouldn't overshadow his impact. At Georgetown, he was a symbol of hope and pride. He breathed life into the Big East tournament and helped catapult college basketball from regional communities to a national stage. As a university, Georgetown experienced a shift in identity on the back of the success of Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas. Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning both wore number 33 in honor of their childhood idol. His impact on college basketball, the center position, and of course, the Knicks, still runs deep.
In New York, Patrick Ewing was the Knicks — hard-nosed, mean, tough basketball. That’s what it meant to be a New Yorker, and he set the tone from his rookie year. There was nothing that could make Patrick Ewing back down. Regardless of the pain and injuries, if Ewing could stand up, he was on the floor, even if he had to limp down it. He came to the city and surpassed every expectation. He endured scrutiny, blame, attacks from fans and the media, an inept front office, and went toe-to-toe with the Chicago dynasty while carrying a mediocre supporting cast year after year. Basketball returned to New York because of Ewing, and his teams were not playoff caliber without him.
There are many ways to determine greatness in basketball, and nobody will ever agree on what the final measuring stick should be. It’s fair to say, though, that despite how underrated he is, Ewing has the evidence that he’s an all-time great. Aside from the accolades, he made his teammates better, he revolutionized the game of basketball and achieved so much more than any other superstar with much less support. Basketball thrived in New York City for fifteen years because of Ewing, and the last twenty years revealed that that's no simple task.
Had the Knicks adjusted their 1986 draft pick, invested in Strickland or Jackson, or committed to finding a reliable second scoring option, Ewing might historically be on the same tier as Hakeem Olajuwon. As much as the debate begs for players to stand alone in their greatness — their legacies are deeply tied up in their organizations, their supporting cast, and their coaches. For Ewing, adding context reveals that he's still wildly underappreciated for everything he was able to accomplish in New York.
Patrick Ewing and his baseline fadeaway birthed a whole generation of orange-and-blue fans in New York. Many of them are still loyal to the team because of him. Peel back the identity of the New York Knicks, and there is the tireless spirit of Ewing, the superstar who altered the soul of the franchise that gave him so little in return. For anyone who grew up to witness his dominance, there are three undeniable truths — his game was timeless, his jumper was automatic, and he didn't need a championship to solidify his greatness.