Ewing and I

Jose Vilson

Patrick Ewing, Arms Stretched Out

An idol.The biggest of superstars.

A warrior and a man all the same.

That sweet fade-away.

The sweat-drenched NY Knicks jersey, emblazoned with the number 33 in the back.

The custom sneakers.

The Georgetown alum with 2 gold medals, part of the historic Dream Team, 11-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year from 1985-86, sure Hall of Famer, and part of the NBA 50th anniversary’s All-Time Team.

The man who carried the most prominent franchise in one of the grandest stages in the world for over a decade.

No NBA championship rings. Thus, less respect.

Patrick Ewing is probably my favorite player from any sport ever. He symbolized everything the Knicks and NYC were for a decade and a 1/2. My thoughts turned to him after watching how he’s helped Dwight Howard develop into the monster MVP candidate he is. A little greyer and bereft of that signature flat-top with the notch in his hair, and a few pounds overweight, he still had that smile that reminded me why I became a Knicks fan to begin with. At the very least, you knew each night, he’d get up into that court and play his hardest. He helped instill that gritty, hard-nosed, defiant, me-against-the-world mentality many of us had laced into our DNA since child birth. Even in defeat, Knicks fans always felt we would have another run at another great season, and another championship run.

Yet, there are those who believe we shouldn’t be attached to celebrities and sports figures, asserting we don’t need to follow these idols. In many ways, I agree. Does Patrick Ewing care whether or not I follow him or not? Probably not. I still remember times when he would end up on the back pages of the Post (ugh!), the Times, or the Daily News, heckled on his own home floor mercilessly for his reactions to the lack of fan support. While he’s out drinking his high-priced alcohol in a big house with his plethora of stats and awards, I’m somewhere in an apartment writing about how much I love him as a sports figure.
That might be the reason why we idolize them in the first place. Kids from my neighborhood look at these Black and Latino men living their dreams out for millions to see and envision themselves doing likewise. Sports and other competitions for that matter are emblematic of the struggles the common man and woman face in real life. How interesting is it that we latch ourselves onto sports teams and players in the hopes that even as superficial and capitalist these victories seem, we too feel like we won or lost depending on the outcomes. Some of us hook ourselves onto these figures so much that they become part of our lives. Their struggles become ours. Their hardships become ours.

Even without the multimillion dollar price tag strung on these players’ ankles, we still see a little of ourselves in the players we witness so much. That’s why I write about Alex Rodriguez and expectations leveled on him, Patrick Ewing and his greatness contrasted with his shortcomings, or even The Rock’s ability to carry such braggadocio and still be considered the “People’s Champion.”

We can even extend that to the celebrities of today, from Denzel’s refined passion to Morgan Freeman’s mature wisdom. Even the recent death of Heath Ledger reminds people of the shortcomings and tragedies of a bright present and a brighter future. And I hate to say this, but I suspect that people follow Britney Spears as much to see whether she’ll get out of her misery than to witness her downfall. We cheer as much for comebacks as we do the underdog. We oscillate in adulation. People took 7-8 years to realize that Al Gore was the best choice for President (out of the 2-party system we have now), but people hated him for the same reasons they love him now, only he had 7 years to prove to everyone he was right.

The figures that certain populations decide to prop up are accurate representations of the ideas and feelings that society has about themselves. If we look at New York City in 1977, we can sum up NYC’s population with three people: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin. Reggie represented Blacks’ and Latinos’ dreams of upward mobility (for more, see The Jeffersons circa 1975 – 1985). George Steinbrenner represented the cantankerous bosses NYC became renown for. And Billy Martin represented the working class people in NYC, struggling to keep their jobs in a recessive job market.

Patrick Ewing, thus, represented so much of what I grew up knowing about NYC, but more importantly about myself. I grew emotionally attached to his victories and losses as a kid, and haven’t been quite as passionate about anyone outside my home or classroom in ages. I can still remember how shocked I was to see him traded to the Seattle Sonics, and subsequently came back to beat the Knicks with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but time had already taken a toll on his weak knees and other joints. His run down the court was then a lumpy jog in some stranger’s uni.

While I watch my Knicks go through this miserable stretch, I wonder how they lost that edge that made the rest of the league hate the Knicks and make us love them. The Knicks these days have a few scrappy players (Lee, Balkman, Robinson, Crawford), but in general suit up sleep-inducing and lackluster players who, leadership included, have no common mission. They really look like they’d prefer to be at home than actually representing NYC’s grand basketball history properly. It’s like watching million dollar zombies out there. Then I look at the city the team is now, and I see the same can be said for many of the people who inhabit it now.

Fuck that. Bring back Patrick. Kneepads, missed finger rolls and all. I’d rather be a contender and lose than to have never had the chance.

jose, gave away his authentic Patrick Ewing jersey to my younger cousin after he got too big to fit in it, but definitely has the 15th anniversary Team USA Ewing jersey ready for all occasions …