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Sunday, September 11, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Journey Recalls Racism For Ewing -- South Africa Trip Eye-Opener For Knicks Star

New York Daily News

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - It was one of those days that makes places like Malibu a sort of heaven-on-Earth refuge. The sun was brilliant, but not overwhelming. The waves from the Atlantic Ocean caressed the beach's white sand so innocently. It was peaceful and beautiful, and from behind dark sunglasses in a restaurant across the street, Patrick Ewing took in this picture-postcard scenario and basked in its serenity.

Only this wasn't Malibu.

"You don't think you're in Africa," Ewing said while in Cape Town last month. "It reminds me of Monte Carlo."

The fact that Patrick Ewing has spent four days on the 1994 NBA South Africa Tour with cronies Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning says a lot about how far he's come as a man since Dave DeBusschere pounded the table in ecstasy at the NBA's first draft lottery.

No longer the credulous, wet-behind-the-ears rookie obviously hesitant to assert himself, Patrick Ewing finally is openly asserting himself as a man. A black man.

But do not think Ewing came to Africa and suddenly discovered his blackness.

"I'm from Jamaica; that'll never change," Ewing said. "But I'm proud to be a black man. I'm very proud of that. Coming to Africa doesn't prove that. It's an eye-opening experience, definitely, to be in the motherland. But I always have been the same. I just never really talked about it in the media before. But I know who I am."

Actually, Ewing says he understood who he was when he was just 12, not long after his family moved from Jamaica to the United States. Asked when he first experienced racism, Ewing managed a smile and said: "Hell, when I first came to Boston. No question about that. Racism is everywhere, whether it's whites against blacks or Jews versus Catholics. It's in Jamaica. Everywhere. ... It's sad. After all these years, it's still there and something everyone still has to work on."

They called Patrick Ewing names when he was a youth. The "N" word. They prevented him from going into certain neighborhoods. As a star at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, he was a city hero whose team bus frequently was rocked by opposing schools when his club came to play.

When it was time to decide on a college, in a packed room with fans who wanted him to stay in New England at Boston College or Boston University, Ewing announced that he would attend Georgetown, coached by John Thompson - an educated, imposing black man. The room emptied.

When Patrick Ewing played at Georgetown, purportedly educated people - white college students - chanted nasty, racist discourse at him, such as, "Ewing can't read."

"Yeah, I remember all that," he said.

If Ewing's personal brushes with racism were not enough, he saw dramatic evidence of the evils of racism during his visits last month to poor black townships outside Cape Town and Johannesburg, where the effects of recently disbanded apartheid persist.

While whites live in the cosmopolitan cities, black South Africans make their homes in disease-infested communities that make anything you've seen in the South Bronx or Harlem look mild. Many homes are made of tin. They are about the size of an average apartment kitchen. Most have no electricity or plumbing.

"I have to walk a long way to go to the toilet," said one man, who was pleased with Ewing's and the other players' appearance in their township.

Ewing digested the sadness around him and shook his head. He didn't have the words. But he did have it in his heart to donate $10,000 to build basketball courts in South Africa.

But then, Ewing has always exhibited an inner determination, a certain fortitude, that he's seldom gotten credit for possessing. He faced all kinds of pressure when he went to the Knicks at age 23, yet he never succumbed.

Since then, Ewing has married, had a child, experienced significant personal success and earned millions. Through it all, he emerged as something above the 1990s spoiled athlete. The docile Ewing who was seldom seen and never heard has grown into, really, a man of grace.

No less than NBA commissioner David Stern has watched this gradual metamorphosis. "When he came into the league, he was very much trying to find himself, improve his skills and develop as a person," Stern said. "He's done all of that, but I think he's begun to accept a leadership role. Not only for his team, but as a spokesperson for the league and for athletes. And that is what brought him to Africa. Patrick Ewing has a sense of responsibility.

"He had to deal with an extraordinary burden when he came to New York, which was to single-handedly transform the Knicks and the league. His coming was trumpeted. He was on the cover of Business Week. There were expectations that were impossible for anyone to fulfill. So, he spent a lot of time trying to become comfortable with himself.

"So," Stern added, "it's extremely gratifying to see him become, not only an extraordinary basketball player, but also a terrific man who is aware socially and who is comfortable with himself."

It's been nine years since DeBusschere pounded the table. Nine years. The reward for winning the NBA's first draft lottery was a shy young center who was, by most accounts, supposed to be enough to transform the Knicks from pitiable to championship material.

So DeBusschere let the table have it when it was clear that the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft belonged to the Knicks.

Nine years later, and Ewing has exactly zero championships to show for himself, for New York. Only recently have the expectations of nine years ago seemed reasonable. Magic Johnson had Kareem, Worthy, Nixon, Wilkes, Scott and so forth. Larry Bird had McHale, Parish, Dennis Johnson, Ainge, Walton. Isiah Thomas had Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Laimbeer, Aguirre. Michael Jordan had Pippen, Grant, Paxson, Cartwright.

Ewing had the likes of Edmond Sherrod, Ken Bannister and Chris McNealy early in his career.

"I'm only human," Ewing said. "Even Michael, until he got Scottie and Horace and other guys, didn't win it. Until the Knicks got me some comparable help, good things didn't start to happen. But we haven't won it, so I'm not content. It's not just good enough to get to the finals. We have to win it."

Ewing, 32, is not comfortable with the idea of retirement without a championship. In fact, he's not comfortable with the idea of not playing in the NBA at all. There are three years left on his contract, and he talks of playing beyond that.

"I'm still young," he said at the Cape Town restaurant, repeating what he said before the 1990 season. "I want to be like the Chief (Charlotte's 41-year-old Robert Parish). As long as I can have fun and help a team win, I want to play. Right now, I'm still getting better. There are parts of my game that are refined. I just have to keep doing what I've been doing."

Ewing averages about 24 points and 11 rebounds, but while those numbers are impressive, it would help the Knicks if more of those points came at the end of key games. Against Houston in the NBA Finals in June, Ewing scored exactly four points in the combined fourth quarters of Games 6 and 7. For a star, that's not acceptable.

"I have a big heart," Ewing said. "I believe in myself. I know everybody criticizes me for shooting too many jumpers. But I never worry about that. I just play my game, work hard."

No outside pressures concern him. "I never worried about saving the Knicks when I was a rookie," he said. "Because I never said anything, people thought I was going to have ulcers. I don't."

But he did seem to have a regret about last season. The Knicks finished the regular season one game behind Houston, which gave the Rockets the home-court advantage in the championship series. Ewing missed a game in the final week in Philadelphia because he didn't feel well, and the Knicks lost.

"It's funny, but you look back to that game against Philly when I didn't play, and it might have really made the difference in the championship," Ewing said. "Game 7 would have been in New York."

He didn't finish the thought, but you understand.

The same right knee that was operated on near the end of his rookie season was operated on again this summer. "Nothing major," Ewing said.

But he has taken more time off this offseason than ever in his career. Yes, he's out of shape, a little overweight. Yes, the knee is not completely healed from the arthroscopic procedure. But there is no doubt that, come training camp in October, Ewing will be primed for another grueling run at the one goal he has not reached.

"Can I go through another long season?" Ewing said, repeating the question. "Hell, yeah. I'll be ready. September is my month. I'm through traveling. September is my month to get ready for the season. In basketball, 50 percent of it is physical, 50 percent mental. My mind is focused. I've had a great career. But there's just one thing missing, and I'll be ready to go after it again."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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