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Moody old man: Patrick Ewing pisses off New Yorkers, but beats the Heat.
AP/Wide World

What a difference a play makes. For once, the Knicks didn't live or die with a last-second shot by Patrick Ewing. Instead, the oft-too-deferential Allan Houston became the hero on Sunday when his last-second runner dropped in, clinching the Knicks' first-round upset of Miami. But it was Ewing who, moments earlier, had drawn a foul on a put-back of a Latrell Sprewell miss and calmly sunk two free throws to put his team in position to win. For the agonizing 40 seconds that followed, he had one token touch of the ball. He watched Sprewell nearly dribble into a turnover and held his breath with the rest of the team when Houston let fly in the lane with their collective fate.

That sequence was as definitive an answer as any to the ever-burning question of where the aging franchise center belongs on a team aflutter with youthful offensive options. Yet the debate rages on. Today Ewing is the dogged warrior with the heart of John Starks and the grit of Charles Oakley. Yesterday, before Ewing— Achilles tendon searing, knees creaking, and ribs throbbing— scored a game-high 22 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, there was talk of a trade. The Ewing era, The New York Times had declared before Sunday's game, is at a crossroads.

For as long as Knicks management has been casting about for young, athletic players to light a fire under the team's predictable post-up offense, NBA observers have been proclaiming the end of Ewing's reign as team centerpiece. Questions about his compatibility with this team only intensified when the Knicks acquired the wiry leaping ability of Marcus Camby and the fleet-footed offense of Sprewell. He is, they say, too slow to beat most anyone to the basket. With Patrick as the their go-to guy, it is said, the Knicks will never be able to take full advantage of their newfound youthful bounce. The pampered, lauded Ewing, the analysis goes, is too proud to step aside. He still wants the ball, but he's not making the plays the way he used to.

The outspoken former Knick Charles Oakley articulated the logical conclusion of that line of thinking in a conversation with the media last February. "I don't know if he needs to take less shots or what," Oakley said. "But something in his game needs to change for them to be a better team. Over the years, he's always been the main focus. Can he accept somebody else getting the spotlight? The more he can accept, the better off the team will be."

If you counted up all of the last-second fadeaways that never fell, the slow-motion ball fakes, and the passes into the post that he has bungled out of bounds, you could paint a sad picture of a washed-up franchise center. But here in the twilight of a hall-of-fame career, Ewing has been no small part of an unlikely late-season turnaround that has the Knicks with as good a shot as any team at the Eastern Conference Finals. Is that because Ewing, however bruised and battered, can still carry his team? Or have the Knicks overcome their woes because their center, weary and wounded from battle, has been forced to step ever so slightly to the side?

To a man, Ewing's teammates insist (publicly, at least) that they would rather play with him than without him, despite their high- octane scoring spurts that occur in his absence. Basketball players, unlike the reporters who cover them and the corporate bosses that sign their paychecks, live in the moment. And at the moment, Ewing is on the roster and hungrier than anyone for a championship ring.

Herb Williams wrinkles his brow at the suggestion that his good friend should focus on rebounding and shot-blocking at the expense of his offense. "It's tough for a player to change the way he plays. As long as he's here, we gotta include Patrick in the offense. His offensive role was bigger before, but now we have a couple more pieces, so we can spread it around. But he still has to rebound. And you can't take his scoring away from him."

Hubie Brown, one of umpteen men who have coached Ewing during his professional career, concurred with Williams's assessment, even after the heartbreaking Game 4 loss. "He's averaged 23 points a game, 11 rebounds. He's been on the All-NBA team seven times. He is not changing his game. In spite of a terrible injury to his Achilles, he's giving them the minutes. Most guys would not be playing. This team, with all of these guys, are not going to win anything without Patrick Ewing."

The exiled Starks, another Ewing loyalist, gave the Ewing-centric status quo a further vote of confidence in a deserted Garden corridor as the final minutes ticked down on the Knicks' Game 3 win over Miami. "Everything revolves around Patrick in the paint," Starks explained. "Allan [Houston] and Sprewell can step up offensively, but it all goes hand in hand. Patrick's still got to play well."

If there were a blueprint for future Knicks success with Patrick in the lineup, it would be Games 1 and 3 of the first-round series against Miami. Ewing made the kind of contribution in those games that the aging San Antonio center David Robinson has grown accustomed to as the Spurs' neophyte in the middle, Tim Duncan, has ratcheted up his offense this season. In his 10 NBA years, Robinson, like Ewing, has seen his dreams of a championship grow dimmer as the playoff eliminations mount and each passing season takes a heavier toll on his body. This season, Robinson has allowed his scoring average to decrease more than eight points, from 24.4 to 15.8, while holding steady with his rebounds (10 per game), assists (2.1) and blocked shots (2.43). Once Robinson accepted this lesser, but still important, role early in the season, the Spurs won 30 of their last 35 games.

In Ewing's 32 minutes on the floor during Game 1, the ball stayed out of his shooting hand enough for Sprewell and Allan Houston to log 22 points each, while the big man hovered around the basket without the ball to pull down 15 rebounds and block four shots. In Game 3, Ewing played a modest 26 minutes, rested all of the fourth quarter, and still contributed to a 32-2 scoring run in the third quarter that turned a win into a blowout for New York.

Houston, the anointed beneficiary of any decline in Ewing's offense, described the run this way, "Everybody was bringing what they were capable of bringing. Nobody was worrying about fitting-in or roles. Everybody was playing basketball and doing what they've been doing their whole lives." Chris Childs was more specific. "If we play the way we did in Game 1 and Game 3 and we don't go back to our old ways and hold the ball, we're a good team and we can be a dominating team. We can run up and down. Especially with the second unit, we can be a real good team."

That's about as close as Ewing's teammates will come to acknowledging what their recent successes have made patently obvious. Of course Ewing's role has "evolved." If not because he wanted it to, because his injuries have forced him sit on the sideline more than he would like. Yet Coach Jeff Van Gundy's impassioned defenses of his loyal player persist, and Ewing's teammates screw up their expressions in a combination of puzzlement and irritation in response to the inevitable questions about the their center's place.

Perhaps the Knicks and their coach are wiser than we think. What good would it do a team to openly acknowledge that their only franchise player can't carry the team the way he used to? Especially when Ewing, unlike Robinson, doesn't have a Duncan of his own waiting in the wings. Sprewell, Houston, and Camby have stepped up at different times this season, but none has been consistently dominant. They need Ewing as much as he needs them.

Ewing's former Georgetown coach John Thompson defies anyone to find a better example of loyalty, character, and determination than Ewing. "He wants to win before everything," Thomspon said last week. (To that end, Thompson said, Ewing recently flew a trainer from Georgetown to New York at his own expense to insure that his ankle would be in the best shape possible for the playoffs.) "Selfish? He's anything but selfish," says Thompson. "It's up to the coach to determine his role. And he hasn't cried about it. He's been loyal to the town and loyal to the organization. He could have shopped his talent in other places for more money. But he didn't."

"Be careful what you ask for," Thompson warns anyone who dares suggest that the Knicks might be better off without Ewing. "You'll miss him." More than likely, this team would be crying over game tapes were it not for a crucial rebound and a couple free throws from a guy who is trying like hell to deny the cruel truth of time. At the same time, the Knicks wouldn't be in the unlikely place they are right now if Ewing, whether consciously or through force of circumstance, hadn't opened up a little slack in the middle for his teammates to pick up.

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