Why did it take 15 years for this to happen?
Why did Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest centers to play the game, get passed over again and again for head-coaching jobs in the NBA? This is all I could think about Wednesday as I watched Ewing being introduced as coach at Georgetown, his alma mater.
For a good chunk of the last two decades, Ewing dreamed of being a head coach. Beginning with his retirement in 2002, Ewing worked as an NBA assistant in Washington, Houston, Orlando and Charlotte. He watched the Knicks, the team he gave his heart and soul to for 15 years, hire Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek — men who had no affiliation with the franchise, and in the case of Fisher, no coaching experience. Ewing watched former teammates Doc Rivers, Monty Williams and Scott Brooks make their way up the coaching ranks.
Although Ewing’s supporters are thrilled to see him get his chance, there is something bittersweet about the way it all happened. Those who worked with Ewing, such as Jeff Van Gundy, say he deserved this shot long ago and that he deserved it in the NBA. The fact that he didn’t get it might boil down to prejudice and misunderstanding, boil down to the fact that Ewing is both African-American and 7 feet tall.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say (racism played a part),” Van Gundy said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Certainly, I think there’s some size bias involved. I think back when he played some of the things that were allowed, the signs, what was said. Even when I coached in the NBA, there were some columns written that were racially tinged in all areas. I mean, I think it’s a combination of things.”
Van Gundy, who coached Ewing in New York and had him on his staff in Houston, is not saying that people didn’t hire Ewing because he is a big black man. Rather, he is pointing out that his public persona and reputation were forged at a different time, and some of that led to misunderstandings.
The world of college basketball Ewing enters today is quite a different one than the world he entered when he signed his letter of intent to attend Georgetown in February of 1981, a day the Washington Post described as both D-Day and Christmas Eve. Ewing and his talent automatically made Georgetown the most hated team in the Big East.
He was marked from the minute he walked into an arena. Signs such as “Ewing Can’t Read This” and “Think Ewing Think” were paraded around Big East arenas. At the Carrier Dome, someone threw an orange at Ewing while he was attempting a free throw. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim grabbed a microphone and told the sellout crowd he’d forfeit the game if conduct like that ever happened again.
Van Gundy said misperceptions of Ewing continued when he came to the Knicks. For example, Ewing liked to prepare for games by wearing headphones to block out distractions.
“He would be getting ready to play in a serious-minded manner, and somehow that was taken by the media as an affront or aloofness versus someone who was serious about their job,” Van Gundy said. “I could never understand how seriousness about your job got portrayed as a negative.
“There’s a lot of stuff, and I think it led to a complete misunderstanding of what he went through as a young person to what he’s like when he played and who he’s become today. He didn’t get hired as a coach ’cause he was a great player. He got hired because he worked hard and people thought he could win. To stick with it for 15 years and show this kind of persistence and grit after being passed over time after time for opportunities he was qualified for, it speaks to his love of the game and coaching and who he is as a man.”
Ewing, 54, didn’t give up. It didn’t matter that he looked around the NBA and saw that most big men were career assistants, that the tallest coach in the league was Luke Walton at 6-8 and that the last big man hired to run a team was 6-10 Kevin McHale, by the Rockets in 2011.
Ewing believed he could be a good head coach. And now he is going to get a chance to prove it.