The Mean Mini-Season of Patrick Ewing?

Patrick Ewing, the veteran center of the New York Knicks, emerged from

the G.M. Building on Jan. 6 half-hidden under a brown leather hood, which

made him look even more distrustful than usual of the media that greeted

him. He had just attended a players’ vote that ratified a deal to end

the long National Basketball Association lockout–a deal he neither

made nor approved of–and they had embarrassed him by giving him a

standing ovation.

But he was proud. “I did my job,” he said. “I did

everything the guys asked me to do.” And then he said it. He resorted

to his perennial preseason wish: “Hopefully, I can get me a

championship.” (Who said there’s no “me” in team?)

But for Mr. Ewing, for the Knicks and for the N.B.A., this season is not

about championships. It’s about nothing less than the N.B.A.’s

future. Resolution of a tiresome labor dispute pitting one group of

millionaires against another has been followed by news that Michael Jordan,

the Chicago Bulls’ megastar, who has carried the game for years, will

retire. The game, then, will be left in the hands of underwhelming brats

who have become a sports marketer’s nightmare.

Even in New York, the supposed Mecca of basketball, fans have soured on

the game, and if they’re going to be seduced into caring about it

again, one of two men will have to do the seducing: Either Mr. Ewing, who

has been blamed for prolonging the lockout, or his antithesis and

counterpart on the New Jersey Nets, the charismatic Jayson Williams.

The two men are natural antagonists. Mr. Ewing is stubborn and

media-shy, part warhorse, part prima donna, always falling a little bit

short and rarely stooping to explain himself. He has never quite won the

love of New York fans. Mr. Williams is an accommodating and loquacious

cut-up–and a prominent dissenter from Mr. Ewing’s hard line

during talks with N.B.A. owners–who has capitalized on his candid-guy

shtick and his remarkable biography to put the once-lowly Nets, and

himself, on the media map.

As luck (or the N.B.A.’s suddenly savvy marketers) would have it,

Mr. Ewing and Mr. Williams will probably face each other in two exhibition

games (they’re still not confirmed) before the delayed regular season

begins next month. Designed to win back the interest and good will of

frustrated fans, these two proposed preseason scraps, one in the

Meadowlands, the other at Madison Square Garden, will preview the battle

for the soul of New York basketball. Basketball is a marketing construct as

much as it is a sport, and in this lockout-shortened season, value will be

determined more than ever not by wins or losses (or who gets them) but by

Nielsen ratings, purchases of N.B.A. merchandise and the tenor of call-ins

on sports-talk radio.

Basketball is integral to New York, but New York is not Indiana. The

city’s love for the game is not unconditional. The college game here

attracts only the purists and the nerds. But the pro game has, on a couple

of occasions, become New York’s hottest athletic commodity, and helped

define the city’s image–for better or worse. The Red Holzman

Knicks of the late 1960’s and early 70’s were ambassadors of New

York style, while the Pat Riley goon squads of the early 1990’s,

defiant in the face of nationwide scorn, were caretakers of the city’s

rough-and-tumble pride during lean times.

But the Knicks have been in decline for several years now, and they are

in danger of losing their hold on the city. Mr. Ewing, the team’s

marquee star, is 36 years old and is wearing down. The last thing his

creaky knees need is the added burden of carrying the team through another

disappointing season.

Meanwhile, a young and exciting Nets team is vying for a piece of the

New York limelight. And Mr. Williams, a 30-year-old N.B.A. All-Interview

star who positioned himself on the fan-friendly side of the lockout,

already has staked a claim to whatever affections New York fans have left

for the game.

 

During the lockout, which the N.B.A. owners imposed on July 1, Mr. Ewing

fought to maintain unity and vigilance among the league’s 430 players,

who were beginning to tire of non-paydays. But Mr. Williams, eager to play

ball and sign a deal in this, his free-agent year, flouted the party line.

In late December, he publicly criticized union leadership. (For good

measure, he also knocked the owners and their commissioner, David Stern.)

He wanted union leaders to allow all of its members to vote on the

owners’ proposal, which Mr. Ewing and his allies had deemed

unsatisfactory. Out of nowhere, Mr. Williams cast himself as the voice of

reason and compromise.

Mr. Ewing lashed back, accusing Mr. Williams of being ill-informed.

After all, Mr. Williams had not read the proposal, or participated in the

union’s conference calls, or attended any of the meetings. Mr. Ewing

also complained that Mr. Williams had aired his grievances in the media,

rather than to Mr. Ewing’s face.

But, of course, that was Mr. Williams’ point. As he later said,

after the lockout had ended, “They got the message, right?”

(Earlier in the lockout, other players who suggested a more moderate stance

were shouted down at union meetings.) What’s more, at a time when

N.B.A. players were becoming less popular by the day, Mr. Williams attached

himself to a widely held stance, especially among the fans–that is,

that both sides were being ridiculous and that they should shut up, take

their lumps and play some ball.

It was the latest step in the making of Jayson Williams, darling of the

fans and the media. He makes good local copy. He’s from the Lower East

Side and he played ball at St. John’s University in Queens. He says

things like, “But, hey, how much money does one man need?” Last

spring, he went on Late Show With David Letterman and cracked up the

audience–and himself–with mildly risqué Sinbadian

jokes.

Most appealing of all, Mr. Williams has a compelling personal story. His

early years were a horror. When he was in high school in the 1980’s,

one of his sisters died of AIDS, from a blood transfusion she was given

after being injured during a mugging. Then AIDS claimed another sister, and

her husband, too. A big kid full of rage, Mr. Williams got into scrapes

with the law, opponents and anybody else who crossed him. Early in his

N.B.A. career, while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, he went out

boozing and brawling with then-teammate Charles Barkley.

But when he came to the Nets in 1992, he began turning his life around

under the influence of coaches Chuck Daly and Butch Beard. He adopted his

sisters’ children (as well as his niece’s son, making him the

N.B.A.’s only grandfather). He built an immense house in Milford, N.J.

(doing much of the work himself), saw an alcohol counselor, and saved his

bullying ways for the backboards. Last year, his rebounding prowess earned

him a spot in the All-Star Game at the Garden and the spotlight as that

rarest of N.B.A. specimens: the late-bloomer. To the casual fan, it was his

coming-out party.

Now he has positioned himself, not unshrewdly, as a

commentator-comedian. He very likely has a career in broadcasting awaiting

him when he retires from the N.B.A. “It’s not that he

wants to have a future in broadcasting,” said his agent, Sal DiFazio. “He has a future in

broadcasting. The question is which network.”

Mr. Williams’ dissent during the lockout only increased his

visibility. Not surprisingly, cynics and supporters of Mr. Ewing and the

union’s hard-line stance saw Mr. Williams’ comments as

self-serving, and even inadvertently traitorous.

“Jayson was used completely by the N.B.A. He didn’t make

Patrick’s job easy at all,” said Spike Lee, filmmaker, Knick fan

and F.O.P. (Friend of Patrick). “Every time the media wanted to run to

a player who was against what Patrick was trying to do, they just got a

quote from Jayson Williams. It was amazing to me that he was talking all

this shit and the guy wasn’t even involved. He was running off his

mouth and dogging Patrick, and Patrick has every right to get on Jayson

Williams’ ass.”

 

Last year, as Mr. Williams was having the best season of his career,

Patrick Ewing was having his worst. He broke his wrist, spent weeks in

rehab, then returned to the team in the second round of the playoffs only

to disrupt the chemistry the team had found in his absence.

Meanwhile, as he recuperated, the public found out (thanks to an

intern’s appearance on the Howard Stern radio show, of all

places) that Mr. Ewing had been carrying on an affair with a Knicks City

Dancer. Soon thereafter, his wife of seven years divorced him, then

published a trashy novel about the indignities endured by N.B.A.

players’ wives. (“Damn. Her voluptuous ass always seemed to be

perked to attention, Steve thought.”)

Then there was the lockout. Instead of resting his wrist, Mr. Ewing

spent the summer and fall in a business suit, attending meetings, putting

on fat, struggling to hold the union’s diverse and increasingly

impatient membership together. The cancellation of the first portion of the

season wound up costing him more than $6 million, and a considerable

portion of his remaining stash of good will.

During the dispute, he played the part of valiant warrior on behalf of

his fellow workers, but he was often a clumsy spokesman. His comment that

he and his fellow millionaires were “fighting for their

livelihood” was met with nearly universal ridicule; he also was

derided for leaving Red Holzman’s funeral while holding a cell phone

to his ear. As the lockout wore on, and the players showed resolve, Mr.

Ewing became the scapegoat for the game’s labor problems. Though not

necessarily by design, he sacrificed his own public image for the stake

future players will have in the N.B.A.

“He stood up to an incredible amount of public ridicule and scorn,

which has been completely misplaced,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the

union’s lead outside lawyer. “Patrick had nothing to gain from

this negotiation. All he did was lose more money than any other player in

the N.B.A.”

Mr. Ewing has never been adept at or interested in acquainting the

public with his warm side. Because of his reticence, which sometimes

borders on the surly, sportswriters don’t like him much. The fans feel

cheated: Here is a man who has been so well rewarded, who seems dignified,

who is described by friends as charming, generous and full of integrity,

yet he won’t share any of it with the fans. There is nothing for fans

to hold onto, except the image of the silent warrior.

And so he never has capitalized on the fact that he is a future Hall of

Famer, the leader on what was and may still be a blue-chip team in the

media capital of the world. He kept the fans at arm’s length, and they

did the same to him.

There are reasons, of course, for his distrust of the public and the

media. He has been taunted by fans as far back as his days as an oversize

high school star in Massachusetts. In high school and college, people

pelted him and his team’s bus with banana peels and held up signs

insulting his intelligence. His bewildermenthardened into armor.

He is a fiercely proud man. His role in the lockout battle was a big

chance for him to show everyone, from the goons to his peers in the league,

that he is an intelligent man.

But now, according to people who know him, he is emotionally drained. He

rarely seemed to tire as a player, accumulating a heroic number of minutes,

but during the lockout, he poured himself into the task, as though he had

something to prove.

“Patrick was much more involved in the details of the negotiation,

much more than Buck [Williams, the previous union president] ever

was,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the union’s lawyer. “Even in

1996, when this last deal was being finalized, and Patrick was just the

vice president, Patrick was the one player who sat with the lawyers until 2

in the morning, sometimes going through every detail in the agreement. And

I’m talking about the fine print. He has this incredible intensity and

pride in whatever he does.”

Nothing hurt him more, perhaps, than the accusation that he was the

puppet of his agent, David Falk, the most powerful agent in basketball and

the force behind skyrocketing salaries and the fight to preserve them. The

fact that their interests coincided, and that Mr. Ewing learned most of

what he knows about the business of basketball and the politics of labor

relations from Mr. Falk, was enough to convince Mr. Ewing’s detractors

that Mr. Falk was pulling all the strings.

But the F.O.P.’s disagree. “Patrick doesn’t do anything

because somebody else wants him to do it,” said Mike Jarvis, head

coach at St. John’s University and coach of Mr. Ewing’s

championship teams in high school in Cambridge, Mass. “That’s why

Patrick has become the great player he has: because he doesn’t listen

to other people.”

“I think it’s insulting to a human being to say that he is

being manipulated by another person,” Mr. Falk said. “It enrages

Patrick. People do that to athletes to put them in a weakened position.

When Bill Clinton goes in to testify before the grand jury, not only does

he bring his lawyers into the room, but the lawyer tells him which

questions to answer and which not to answer. Yet no one says it undermines

his prestige. No one says that David Kendall is the puppeteer and Bill

Clinton is the puppet. Do they? Has anyone ever said that?

“People don’t like athletes to be educated because they

question,” he went on. “My role as Patrick’s attorney,

adviser and friend is to help educate him. When he came to Georgetown,

people held up signs saying ‘Ewing Can’t Read’ and now

he’s leading a union in a $2 billion negotiation.”

Ultimately, though, he was forced to give in. Mr. Ewing had to yield to

good sense and to those, like Jayson Williams, who spoke up for it. And as

with his many doomed championship runs with the Knicks, his best effort,

for reasons largely beyond his control, was not good enough.

“Patrick polarizes,” said one basketball executive. “His

public persona can be an irritant. Jayson is warm and fuzzy. But the

irritant is more challenging.”