Twenty-nine years ago come December, Bill Russell arrived in Boston. Hello. Bill. Goodbye, NBA, as it then existed.
"He changed the game," says Pete Newell, Golden State's director of player personnel. "He was the first to bring into focus what a shot blocker could do." Russell was a one-man revolution. In his 13-year career the Celtics won 11 NBA titles; Russell retired in 1969 with a reputation as the ultimate winner, the yardstick against which all team players would have to be measured.
As the new season opens, another shot-blocking franchise may be with us in the 7-foot, evenly muscled, 240-pound person of Patrick Ewing, the first pick in the rich 1985 draft. The comparisons with Russell are inevitable. Ewing is special in many of the same ways that Russell was. His offense is still undeveloped—certainly Akeem Olajuwon was more advanced as an offensive player when he came into the league last year. It is because of Ewing's defense, as was the case with Russell, that his presence is so commanding. Ewing is a greyhound getting up and down the floor, just as Russell, an outstanding track and field athlete, was. Ewing is intimidating, intense and tough, qualities epitomized by Russell. And like Russell, he is a proud and enigmatic man.
By contrast, Wayman Tisdale, the draft's estimable consolation prize, picked second behind Ewing, is the happy warrior. Unreasonable expectations hover around the top two like storm clouds. Each is being pressured to lift ailing franchises—Ewing the Knicks, Tisdale the Pacers. The only certain thing is that, in the process of trying, the former will wear his characteristic scowl and the latter his warm Okie smile.
The pressure on some of the rookies drafted behind Ewing and Tisdale is no less weighty, only less publicized. Don't forget that the NBA has become a two-franchise elite—the Lakers and the Celtics—and everybody else needs help. If not right now, rook, then how about an hour from now? For all the obligatory preseason platitudes about "breaking in our rookies slowly," quite a few are expected to contribute right away.
The Clippers, in selecting Benoit Benjamin third, were saying that they couldn't make it to the top with their incumbent center, James Donaldson. The SuperSonics, in making Xavier McDaniel the fourth pick, were advertising their need to give Jack Sikma some help up front. The Hawks already had two centers with a lot of minutes when they drafted fifth-pick Jon Koncak, but they clearly foresee that Koncak will become a franchise lifter—not a Tree Rollins.
The Sacramento Kings went chasing after the Knicks' veteran free-agent center, Bill Cartwright, and couldn't land him. Hey, sixth-pick Joe Kleine, can you fill the bill in the middle? And the Warriors project the No. 7 choice, Chris Mullin, as their starting shooting guard. As of Sunday, though, Mullin still had not signed with Golden State.
Not surprisingly, the rookies in the most comfortable position are the Celtic and Laker choices picked toward the bottom of the first round: guard Sam Vincent (20th by the Celtics) and handyman A.C. Green (23rd by the Lakers). Vincent and Green can afford to take their time, learn from the best, supply a few quality minutes and go to bed at night dreaming of championship rings. Meanwhile, Ewing will play about 40 minutes a game, score, rebound, run the floor, play protector in Hubie Brown's trapping defense and go to bed hearing the exhortations of those banner-starved fans in Madison Square Garden.
This year's draft has been compared to 1981's, which yielded such frontline players as Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Buck Williams, Larry Nance, Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka and Albert King. Says Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo, "I look at this draft and see a number of players who can make an immediate impact, maybe one through 11. That's unusual."
Equally unusual is the international flavor of this year's rookies, beginning with the Jamaican-born Ewing. Three other foreign-born players were drafted in the first round—Detlef Schrempf and Uwe Blab from West Germany and Bill Wennington from Canada. All are with the Mavericks. Among the second-round overseas picks to stick is that 7'7" curio from the Sudan, Manute Bol, with the Bullets, and the muscular Haitian Yvon Joseph, a New Jersey Net. And as of Sunday the Phoenix Suns were still negotiating with the Bulgarian Basketball Federation to pry loose their seventh-round pick, power forward Georgi Glouckov.
But no doubt about it—at the head of the rookie class is the combative presence who will be trying to shake down some thunder from a Madison Square Garden gone quiet.
When William Fenton Russell played his first pro game against the St. Louis Hawks, on Dec. 22, 1956—his arrival had been delayed by his participation in the Melbourne Olympics—the Celtics had a 16-8 record. They went on to finish the season with a 44-28 overall record, the best in the NBA, and beat the Hawks in the championship series for Red Auerbach's first title. Russell was obviously the spark, but he also had a great supporting cast: Cousy, Sharman, Heinsohn, Ramsey.
When Patrick Aloysius Ewing strides out to midcourt to make his pro debut Saturday afternoon at the Garden against Philadelphia, he will look around and see such unheralded teammates as Pat Cummings, Gerald Wilkins, Rory Sparrow and Butch Carter.
"Obviously, Ewing has the determination, and he's hardnosed," says Celtic coach K.C. Jones, a teammate of Russell's. "But whether or not he can become another Russell may depend a lot on his first year. He's in a make-you-or-break-you town."
Ewing's performance in the exhibition season was up-and-down. Which is more than can be said for the all-down Knicks, who went 2-6. No one should have expected anything more—there's no hope of Bernard King coming back from his knee injury anytime soon—though many did. "Any rookie, even Patrick Ewing, has an adjustment period," said Nets coach Dave Wohl. Ewing scored 11.4 points per game, grabbed 47 rebounds and had 19 blocks. Much was made over his propensity to foul—he fouled out three times in only seven preseason games—but there is little possibility that he is the second coming of Darryl Dawkins. He is too mobile, too smart and too important to the league.
Far more interesting has been the utter refusal of Ewing to act the rookie. In his second preseason game he was ejected by referee Bennett Salvatore for saying a few magic words after he had drawn his sixth foul. In his third, he squared off with the Nets' Buck Williams, then went after Micheal Ray Richardson after Sugar did some not-so-sweet taunting. He fouled out of that game, too. And he had to be restrained from duking it out with Indiana's Steve Stipanovich Saturday after he elbowed Steve in the throat and the Pacer tackled him. Both were ejected. That gave Ewing a total of four early nights in the preseason.
Off the court, Ewing has spoken to the press, but grudgingly and certainly not revealingly. Hold off awhile on the top hat and tails for Broadway Pat. But even brief glimpses into his character reveal that a sense of humor and a level of complexity exist behind the scowl. Ewing was smiling and visibly moved by the two-minute standing ovation he received last week at his Garden preseason debut.
Not that he'll have a barrel of laughs trying to carry a team already beset with injuries. It has been reported that a teammate has suggested that Ewing should "lighten up." Ewing was asked subsequently about that comment and his response was revealing: "I don't know who said it. That's their personality. But I won't change for anybody."
I won't change for anybody. That could well be Ewing's epitaph.
The NBA loves Ewing just the way he is, thank you. And the way he is makes him a 7-foot license for the league to print money. Last year, with the acrobatics of Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' attendance shot up 87% at home and 48% on the road. Knicks season-ticket sales have made a similarly dramatic jump, from about 5,700 last season to nearly 11,000 for 1985-86.
The league is sensitive to the Ewingin-the-Big-Apple phenomenon. "I'm ambivalent, frankly, on how to approach it," says commissioner David Stern. "On the one hand, when the Knicks are doing well it's of obvious advantage. It's easier to sell the league when New York teams do well. On the other hand, we've just finished the greatest year in our history. Clearly, there was an NBA before Patrick Ewing."
And just as clearly, it's going to be a far more exciting league with Ewing in it.