It would seem, at first glance, that they mixed up the jerseys somewhere along the line. There is no one more Broadway, more Fifth Avenue, more Trump Tower than the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan, the NBA's ripest and reddest big apple. At the same time, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks seems typical of Chicago, all shoulders and beef, and, in the respect department, strictly Second City. But at this crucial stage in the NBA postseason, they are absolutely right for their respective teams: Jordan the embodiment of the sunny and successful defending-champion Bulls, Ewing the symbol of the hungry and glowering Knicks. And whichever superstar is able to impose his will on the Eastern Conference final, which began in Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon, will pull his team into the NBA Finals.
Game 1 went to Ewing and the Knicks, who succeeded in binding and gagging Jordan in the second half of a 98-90 victory. Jordan scored a game-high 27 points, but he missed 10 of his last 12 shots and looked generally mortal, at least by his standards. MTV might've called it Michael Unplugged.
Ewing, meanwhile, stood on the hill and, one by one, knocked off every one of the four Chicago centers who lumbered at him. Bill Cartwright, who started, didn't have a field goal, as Ewing repeatedly outwrestled him in that down-and-dirty low-block area Cartwright calls "my doghouse." He was followed by Will Perdue, who logged all of three minutes. Stacey King, next in line, was so obsessed with not being embarrassed by Ewing that he frequently face-guarded him, thereby permitting other Knicks unchallenged access to the lane. And the normally hyperactive Scott Williams was conspicuously inactive with four points and four rebounds. Ewing played 44 minutes, including the entire second half, and finished with a rock-steady 25 points and 17 rebounds. He blocked two shots, executed the pick-and-roll to set up a few of guard John Starks's five three-pointers and even found time to make a clever, un-Ewing-like touch pass to forward Charles Smith for a dunk.
Ewing, a seven-time All-Star, is far too established to call this series his coming-out party, but it does represent his deepest foray into the playoffs during his eight-year career. If the Knicks prevail, Ewing will go a long way toward validating a career that has had deep valleys along with the peaks. And, as usual these days, the road to the top must pass through Michael Jordan.
Now, the 1993 version of Pat and Mike does not conjure images of Tracy and Hepburn, and, as intriguing basketball subplots go, it probably does not match Michael versus Clyde ('92 Finals, Bulls against the Portland Trail Blazers), Michael versus Magic ('91 Finals, against the Los Angeles Lakers), or Michael versus the Bad Boys (various Bull-Detroit Piston wars, '88 to '91). Ewing and Jordan play different positions, possess vastly different dispositions and, in fact, seem more like polar opposites than competitive foils. But that is just what makes them interesting. One is a very private person who wants to be more public, the other a very public person who wants to be more private.
Pat and Mike have a history. They met for the first time in the spring of 1981, when North Carolina coach Dean Smith made sure that their recruiting visits to Chapel Hill coincided. Less than one year later they were together again, on opposing sides of the '82 NCAA championship game in New Orleans: Ewing, the menacing Georgetown hulk from Jamaica, impudently swatting one Tar Heel shot after another into the cheap seats, versus Jordan, the slender homegrown shooter, coolly hitting the winning jumper in a 63-62 Carolina victory. They would later choose the same agent, David Falk, and even pool their resources in a few real estate ventures—"profitable ones," according to Jordan. They played raucous card games out of coach Bobby Knight's earshot as members of the '84 Olympic team and again as Dream Teammates last summer, and they still reserve some of their best trash-talking lines for each other.
But their careers have taken different paths. Jordan was first, Patrick was second, or third, or worse. Jordan's endorsement portfolio took off into the stratosphere, but who even knew Ewing had an agent hustling for him? And sure, Jordan had his basketball frustrations until the Bulls won their first championship in 1991, but they were nothing like the night-marcs Ewing had to endure in Gotham (five coaching changes, three general manager changes, all those performances of Cats). One night during the '86-87 season, Ewing's second in the NBA, the Knicks gave away as a promotion a life-sized poster of Ewing. But he and the Knicks played poorly that evening, which prompted several fans to tear the poster to shreds and deposit the remains on the Garden floor. Jordan has never had a remotely similar experience in Chicago, where fans all but bow before him and chant, "We are not worthy."
Sure, Jordan has soared, but Ewing has endured, and that is no mean feat. It was only two seasons ago, after all, that he went to arbitration in an effort to become a free agent and perhaps escape from New York. And it was only a few months ago that some observers were making the case that Ewing was no better than the NBA's fifth-best center, behind the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Brad Daugherty and even the Orlando Magic's rookie, Shaquille O'Neal. (A few might've even thrown Charlotte Hornet newcomer Alonzo Mourning into the mix, placing Ewing sixth.) "Patrick is not a guy who cares what the media says about him," says Jordan, "but I know he cares deeply about getting the respect of his peers, of the other great centers in the game. And when he thought that he wasn't getting it this year, when Shaquille beat him out [as the starting Eastern Conference center] for the All-Star team, I know that it was driving him and is still driving him. He may not admit it, but it is."
Whatever the motivation, Ewing is, right now, unquestionably the best pivot-man in the business. For one, he's the only one of the elite big men with his sneakers still laced up. Indeed, the Knicks are trying to do something that has become a rarity—win an NBA title with a center-dominated team. The last one? Arguably the 1977 Trail Blazers, with Bill Walton."
The scouting report on the off-court Ewing says that he has come out of his self-imposed shell over the last couple of years. "I think when he came out of college, Patrick felt a little overwhelmed, a little hesitant about his surroundings," Jordan says. "He's an intelligent guy, a great guy, but he's shy, and he didn't wan to appear backward or dumb in inter views. He only made himself open to people that he felt comfortable with, and that meant he often didn't sign autographs or smile for the cameras. I think that's changed over the years."
Jordan feels—as do most of the Knicks—that as Ewing came out of his shell as a person, he did the same as a player. "Before, I think he wouldn't exert himself to the point where he really became a dominant force," says Jordan. "I don't mean he didn't play hard, because he always played hard. But now he has made himself practically unstoppable. I used to be able to slip behind him and get his shot from behind, for example, but ii doesn't happen anymore, because Patrick will not let it happen."
Ewing has also turned himself into a much more vocal leader, partly because he feels ready for it, partly because Knick coach Pat Riley asked him to do it. Riley says every coach needs "two or three al lies, two or three guys who say yea to everything the coach says, even if, deep in side, they're thinking nay. Clearly, Patrick and Oak [Charles Oakley] are our yes guys."
Exhibit A: During the Knicks' first-round series against the Indiana Pacers both of the yea guys, but especially Ewing, jumped all over Starks after his infamous head butt of Pacer guard Reggie Miller got him tossed out of Game 3. "That surprised me when I saw it on TV," says Chicago guard Trent Tucker, a Knick teammate of Ewing's for six sea- sons and still a close friend. "Pat's instinct is to lead by example, but there comes a time when a leader has to become visible and vocal. For a lot of years in New York the team tried to get Patrick to do it, but I think it's only lately that he's accepted it."
Ewing expresses disinterest in the notion that he has ever been anything but the Knicks' leader and doesn't want to hear about how his leadership style has changed over the years. Ask him to analyze the past or himself or his real estate partner Jordan or the weather conditions outside Madison Square Garden, for that matter, and you might as well ask him to break dance in midtown traffic. He is still wary of intrusions on his time, yet he doggedly, if colorlessly, gives his time to reporters after games, and as far as he's concerned, that's touching all the bases. One might logically conclude that Ewing's reticence with the media is at least part of the reason that beyond a local McDonald's ad and a few other minor deals (Ewing Athletics, Voit and SkyBox), he is not a commercial animal. Logical but wrong.
"Every athlete wants endorsements," says Ewing, "and I'm no different."
But you don't actively seek them, right, Patrick?
"That's what I pay David Falk for," he answers.
Falk confirms that Ewing would love to be a prime-time endorser, but he says that the Knicks' front-office turmoil and failures as a team since Ewing's arrival in 1985 have hurt Ewing's commercial appeal. "I think things will turn around for him endorsementwise now that the franchise has legitimacy," Falk says.
Well, maybe. But the idea that Ewing will ever be a commercial smash rings about as true as the notion that Jordan wants to decrease his exposure. ("What if my name wasn't in lights?" he asks in a new Nike ad. "What if I was just a basketball player? Could you imagine it? I can.") Jordan gravitates to the spotlight as naturally as a lizard gravitates to sunlight. But he insists, more and more, that he's going to do less and less. He says he will terminate his relationship with McDonald's, partly, he says, because it demands too much of his time. And, he says, he will not take on any new deals (he now endorses, among others, Nike, Gatorade, Wilson Sporting Goods, Upper Deck, Hanes, Ball Park franks and Wheaties).
"I also try to restrict my interviews, take a day off here and there," says Jordan. "But I'm not going to disappear."
Neither will Ewing, if he continues his solid play and if the Knicks continue to find a way to corral Jordan. Maybe then the underappreciated superstar will even find the spotlight trained squarely on him. It will be interesting to see if Pat finds the glare too hot—or just right, as his friend Mike always has.