Patrick Ewing is one of basketball’s most recognizable figures, having first grabbed the spotlight in the early 1980s as a talented Georgetown 7-footer who would play in three Final Fours and win the 1984 national championship. Ewing went on to an all-star career with the New York Knicks and made basketball’s hall of fame. Over 17 NBA seasons, he averaged an astounding 21 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Ewing, 53, now serves as the Charlotte Hornets’ associate head coach. He has worked for the Hornets under head coach Steve Clifford since 2013. In our recent interview, I asked Ewing about the Hornets, his old friend and rival Michael Jordan and how he would have fit into today’s NBA. His answers are lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. The Hornets are right in the middle of the playoff race. What has gone right and who is playing particularly well?
A. The team has definitely come together. Even though we’ve had injuries and ups and downs, the guys have stepped up. Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams have been our two most consistent contributors the whole year. Every now and then there’s been a setback, but we’ve been able to regroup.
Q. What’s the best part about your current job?
A. I enjoy the people I work with. Coach Clifford and I have been together a lot of years, starting in Houston (where the two were assistant coaches together). We have a great working relationship, not just a friendship.
You hear coaching horror stories about people stabbing other people in the back, trying to get different jobs. We don’t have anything like that here. Our staff is working toward a common goal.
Q. What were some of the best experiences of your playing career?
A. I can’t narrow it to just one. But winning a championship at Georgetown, beating Indiana to get to the NBA Finals (in 1994 with the Knicks) and winning gold in the Olympics – that would be three of them.
Q. Your son, Patrick Ewing Jr., has followed you into coaching. He is now director of basketball operations at Georgetown, the school you both played for in college. Did you warn him away from coaching or embrace the idea?
A. I embraced it. I told him: ‘You know what? You are 31 years old. How much longer are you going to play? It’s not like you are me, where you are going to have a great, long career.’
He was a journeyman in the pros. Most of his playing career has been in Europe. So it was time for him to start his second career. This was a great opportunity and a great fit. Unfortunately Georgetown is not doing very well this year, though.
Q. Do you follow March Madness?
A. Only when Georgetown is in it.
Q. You said when you were first introduced as a Hornets assistant coach in 2013 that you believed former big men have fewer opportunities to become NBA head coaches than former point guards. Do you still feel that way?
A. Yes. Shoot, I’m still trying to fight to get a head job. Nothing has happened. I’ve had a few interviews, but no bites.
Most people think that small people are the only ones who can think. The point guards are leading the offense, yes. But you still have centers who can lead the offense and lead the defense, too. I was able to do all of that when I played.
Q. I know in the early 1980s you took a recruiting visit to UNC on the same weekend that Michael Jordan – your old NBA rival and friend and now the Hornets’ owner – was on a visit, too. How close did you come to going to Chapel Hill?
A. I did go on a visit and Michael was there at the same time. That was the first time I met him. Michael talked trash that day and he still hasn’t stopped.
UNC was one of the six schools that I considered. But when I was there, I remember Dean Smith telling me: ‘If you don’t come here, I think you should go to Georgetown.’
Georgetown was my first choice. UCLA was my second choice. If I had come to North Carolina, though, can you imagine? Me, James Worthy and Sam Perkins on the front line and Michael in the backcourt?! Dominant.
Q. Roy Williams told me a story once about that same recruiting visit to UNC that involved you and Jordan getting into a trash-talking pickup game on the spur of the moment at a campus gym. Is that true? And if so, who won?
A. It is true. We played in street clothes because Michael just kept trash-talking. I don’t even remember who won, but I do remember dunking on him.
Q. If you and Michael played one-on-one right now, who would win?
A. He would. Right now I think he’s in a little bit better shape than I am. He has been on a mission lately trying to get his weight down, and he’s succeeding. Meanwhile my knees are bothering me and I haven’t been able to do the same thing.
Q. What’s the biggest regret of your playing career?
A. The only regret I would have is I should have ended my career in New York. I left at the end of my career (playing one year each in Seattle and Orlando). I should have just stayed and finished in New York.
Q. If you were a head coach with your own franchise and you somehow could choose between LeBron James and Steph Curry to start a new team, who would you pick?
A. To me, LeBron is the best player. But Steph is right there as a close second. They are different types of players.
LeBron is more of a facilitator – pass first, score second, defend multiple positions. Steph is a shotmaker and a playmaker. But he’s just so valuable right now the way the game is going, with the three-point line being so important.
So you know what? The way the game is played now, I’d take Steph.
Q. How would a big man like you have done in this era?
A. It would have been great. I spent my whole career going against double teams. If I had had shooters who could space the floor, I’d have had one-on-one coverage in the post. And I would have had a field day.