The Mean Mini-Season Patrick Ewing?

010906 article classics The Mean Mini Season 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 bewilderment hardened 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, advisor 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.”