The Step Back: Ewing some, you lose some

For this installment, let’s head back to 1985: the year Back to the Future hit cinemas; LL Cool J’s debut album, Radio, became Def Jam’s first full release; and Nintendo trialled its first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, in New York.

The NES wasn’t the only thing New York got that year though, as the city’s beloved Knicks won the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery on this day in 1985, all but guaranteeing them the services of one of the most coveted college players of all time, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing. The big man was a three-time consensus first-team All-American, two-time Big East Player of Year, a national champion in 1984, and the 1985 national college player of the year. Whatsmore, he seemed tailor made for the NBA’s biggest market, which prompted conspiracy theories galore when the ping pong balls (which, back then, were in fact giant, white envelopes) bounced New York’s way.

To this day, people still believe that then-Commissioner David Stern rigged that first draft lottery to create some much-needed buzz around a league that had been heavily embroiled in a drug scandal for much of the 1980s. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, there were major benefits to pairing Ewing and the Knicks, for both the sport and the franchise, as Sam Goldpaper of The New York Times pointed out:

“Ewing is expected to generate millions of dollars in additional box office, television and radio revenues for his team and the league,” he wrote. “His defensive skills, including a shot-blocking prowess, almost guarantee a change of fortunes for the team that gets him, too… There is a strong feeling among league officials and television advertising executives that the NBA will benefit most if he [Ewing] winds up in a Knicks uniform… In addition to having the potential to turn a franchise around, he may have an effect on the negotiations to replace the four-year, $88 million television contract with CBS that expires after next season.”

As he also pointed out, the Knicks were coming off a 24-win season, their worst since 1962-63. Injuries (to their best players at the time, Bill Cartwright and Bernard King no less) and poor performances had meant that Madison Square Garden, basketball’s so called ‘Mecca’, was often half empty.

Perhaps David Stern believed that the key to getting people to focus on the sport was ensuring that the league’s most marketable franchise had a potential superstar on its roster. Meanwhile, the Knicks were no doubt hoping that Ewing would have a positive impact on the club on and off the court, much like one Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who transformed the fortunes (and the finances) of the Milwaukee Bucks when they drafted him after winning a coin toss to decide the 1969 NBA Draft.

Conspiracy theories aside, the Knicks did get to pick first and, to no-one’s surprise, chose Ewing over Wayman Tisdale (who the Indiana Pacers chose second overall) and Benoit Benjamin (who the Los Angeles Clippers took third). While these names may not be particularly memorable to modern day NBA fans, the ‘85 Draft Class did feature Chris Mullin (taken seventh overall), Detlef Schrempf (eighth), and Charles Oakley (ninth). Outside the top ten, the Utah Jazz picked up Karl Malone with the thirteenth pick, the Dallas Mavericks took Bill Wennington with the sixteenth pick, and the Detroit Pistons snagged Joe Dumars with the eighteenth pick. A.C. Green, Terry Porter, Sam Mitchell and Mario Elie also went in the later rounds.

While all of those players would go on to make waves in the NBA, it was Ewing who unsurprisingly attracted the most media attention. Thanks to his college career with the Georgetown Hoyas, he was a star long before he entered the NBA. And his success at the college level translated to the NBA too, as he averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in his rookie year, becoming the first Knick to win the Rookie of the Year award since Willis Reed in 1964-65, despite missing 32 games and the All-Star game with a knee injury.

Within a few seasons the Knicks were an NBA powerhouse once more and returned to the playoffs in 1987-88 after a three-year hiatus. This would launch a fourteen-season long postseason run that would see them ride Ewing’s well-rounded game to the NBA Finals in both 1994 and again in 1999.

That first trip came when Michael Jordan was playing baseball, which is significant because the Chicago Bulls had ousted the Knicks at various stages of the postseason for the past three years. Finally free of their tormentor, New York beat the Indiana Pacers in an epic seven game Eastern Conference Finals showdown to make it to the Finals, before losing to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in seven games. They then waited for Jordan to retire for a second time before returning to the Finals again in ‘99, this time losing in five games to the San Antonio Spurs.

A year later, at the end of the 1999-2000 season, Ewing, who was unable to agree on a contract extension with the Knicks, was traded to the Seattle Supersonics, thus ending the dream and the franchise’s playoff hopes (they’ve only made four postseason appearances since). His final season in the NBA was played out in Orlando in 2002, giving the Garden faithful one last chance see their former hero in action:

After retiring, Ewing worked as an NBA assistant coach with the Washington Wizards (2003-04), the Rockets (2004-06), the Orlando Magic (2007-12) and the Charlotte Hornets (2012-17), before becoming head coach of his alma matter in 2017.

To many, Ewing will be remembered as the guy who failed to win a title for the Knicks. In reality, he should be remembered as a giant of 90s basketball – one who helped change the culture of one of the NBA’s biggest franchises, while racking up an enviable number of individual achievements along the way. Fittingly, the Knicks retired his No. 33 jersey at Madison Square Garden in February 2003, before he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.