As an old basketball player who in the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s spent several hours every day playing basketball – the confirmation that we would get to sit down with legendary NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing almost scares you.
Patrick Ewing was part of one of the greatest college basketball teams in history and won the NCAA title in 1984, a two time Olympic Champion, 11-time NBA All-Star and a Basketball Hall of Fame member.
And he is the only NBA player to successfully have his own brand. No wonder I felt a bit nervous about doing this interview.
Patrick: So you’re from Sweden?
Erik: Yes, we came all this way to see you. Guess the timing could have been better (this was day 3 after Hurricane Sandy hit New York/New Jersey)
P: Well, it is what it is. I will have to try to get gas after this.
E: You think they will move you into the line?
P: No, they don’t care who you are these days. If they would move you into the line, the people would go crazy.
E: So you live in this area (New Jersey) too? Did your house also got damaged?
P: Yes, I live close by. But no, I just lost power. Thank god I have a generator to keep a few things alive at home.
E: Yes, it is kind of weird. We had to move hotel from Soho to Times Square, and coming into the city you drive past all these damaged areas – but once you’re in town it’s like nothing happened.
P: Times Square is not that close to the water.
E: I know, but it’s still kind of weird to sit in your hotel room where everything is fine, and knowing that 10 blocks down it is a disaster area.
P: Yeah, the FDR said the streets were like the river.
E: I know – it is hard to imagine. But ok, let’s get started.
P: Yes, let’s roll.
E: You were born in Jamaica right? And from what I read you were a pretty good soccer player and a pretty good cricket player?
P: I played soccer, and I played cricket. I mean, I was just 12 when I left Jamaica so “pretty good” – who knows. I was just a kid playing.
E: But when did you decide to start playing basketball?
P: I started play when we moved to America, so around 12 years old.
E: How come you moved?
P: Well, you know. Most people move to America for a better life. Jamaica is a third world country. My mother moved here for a better life for all of us.
E: Where did you move?
P: Cambridge, Massachusetts
E: How much of your family moved with you?
P: My mom came first. She worked as a maid, saved all her money and sent for my dad and my sister, who is above me, because she was going into high school. And then they sent for the rest of us. We came over two at the time, or three at the time until everyone was here.
E: How many are you in your family
P: I have 5 sisters and 1 brother.
E: And everybody is still living in the US?
P: Yes, everybody is still here.
E: So you started to play basketball at the age of 12, and you ended up in Georgetown at the age of 18. So in just 6 years you managed to become good enough to go to Georgetown on a basketball scholarship? That is some improvement
P: Yes, at 12 when I started I was terrible, ha-ha. But I kept getting better and better to the point that when I was at my last year in high school I was the most sought after senior. And Georgetown was the school that I choose to attend.
E: Why Georgetown?
P: I liked the school, but Coach Thompson was the main reason. He used to play the center position and I thought that he could teach me. He played with the great Bill Russell when he played for the Celtics. And he was very well spoken, very well educated. And I admired that.
E: It is interesting. We don’t have college in that sense in Sweden as far as in the US, if you go to Georgetown – you are a Hoya for life. You are a part of, and you give back to that community for the rest of your career. And reading about the story where you offered Alonzo Mourning your kidney when he got ill. He was a Hoya as well, is that how you got to know each other? He is a bit younger than you, so you didn’t go to school together?
P: No, he is younger than I am, like you said. So we didn’t go to school together. But he looked up to me when he grew up and Coach Thompson told me when they tried to recruit him that he looked up to me and asked me to make sure that Alonzo saw me on campus. I wasn’t allowed to speak to him, but Coach just wanted to make sure that Alonzo saw me. So I drove up to where they had their basketball camp and just made sure that he saw me. And that was the ticket for Alonzo to go to Georgetown (giggles)
E: Those rules are pretty strict; you are not allowed to affect his choice. But that must happen anyway occasionally?
P: I’m sure that it happens, but I just made sure that he saw me. That was enough. That was in Princeton, so I rode up from here to Princeton for that. But once he attended to Georgetown we got to be very good friends. Me, him and Dikembe Mutombo. Because I used to go back to work out with those guys. So a lot of the things that I learnt being in the NBA, I would teach them when I went back.
E: So coach Thompson had that “power” over your still, after you left Georgetown? He could just call you up and tell you to show face somewhere?
P: That is what giving back to your school is all about.
E: Do you still hang out with your Georgetown crew?
P: Yes, a lot of my friends from college live here in the city. So we still hang out. I spoke to one of my old teammates Ralph Dalton on the phone on my way over here. Ron Blaylock lives here. I still talk to Sleepy Floyd, Alonzo, Dikembe we still talk. Mike Hancock who I played with, he and I opened a construction company in D.C. So yeah, we still keep in touch and still keep close.
E: It is still your extended family?
E: Where there any player at Georgetown that you looked up to when you decided to go there?
P: Coach Thompson was the main reason. All the schools that I looked at before going were great schools. I would have gotten a great education at all of them. But the person that kicked it over the top was Coach Thompson. Just, you know, as a young black man – seeing another black person who spoke as well as he spoke, and carried himself as well as he carried himself. That was something that I strived to be like.
E: I grew up playing basketball in Sweden. And in a sense I created my own extended family through that world of basketball in Sweden. Now I have two kids, and of course I want them to play basketball, but more importantly I want them to play some sort of team sport. Because that gave me a lesson in life, to act like a team, play your part in a team and achieve things as a team. I know you have a son who plays basketball, and I know you have other kids as well. Did you ever have to “force “ him to play?
P: I never forced him to play.
E: Well, force is a pretty strong word I guess.
P: No, no – I know what you mean. But I still didn’t have to force any of them to play. I had my first son when I was young. I was a junior in College when I had him. So every time I went to the gym, he was with me. So that’s what he would grow up seeing me do. If I was at the gym working out on one side of the court, I lowered the basket on the other side of the court and gave him a smaller basketball. So whatever he saw me do, he would try to do it down at the other end. Trying to dunk the ball as a 2 year old.
My daughters, they at first didn’t want to play any sports because they didn’t want to be compared to me. But now they play. My oldest daughter played both basketball and volleyball in high school. And she got a scholarship at Fordham University playing volleyball.
My middle daughter plays volleyball and basketball in high school. And then I have two younger kids and who knows what they are going to play. They are still young, but their mom was a professional volleyball player, and I played basketball. So their genes are very athletic (laughing).
E: But would you say it is important to you that they do attend some sort of sport?
P: Yes, I think it’s great. I mean, as you said, playing a team sport – being able to relate to people, make decisions and all that stuff. Of course it is all great. Even individual sports where you learn how to take care of your body, getting in shape, getting the proper rest and all that stuff that comes along with being a great athlete.
E: Your oldest son is in Germany now, have you visited him yet?
P: Not yet, but I will soon. This is his first season over there, so he has only been there for a couple of months. He is in Bonn, Germany.
E: Ok, so going from Georgetown to New York. What was that like?
P: Well, the Knicks won the lottery. That was the first year they had that, to prevent teams from losing on purpose to get the number 1 pick.
E: So did you want to go to New York?
P: You don’t have a choice.
E: But you must have had hopes on where to go before you knew?
P: Well, yeah. There were seven teams that were in the lottery. New York, Seattle, Indiana, Atlanta, Sacramento, Golden State and the L.A. Clippers. And my first choice would have been Golden State because Erick Sleepy Floyd who I used to play with in Georgetown was already there. The Knicks was my second choice.
E: So it turned out pretty well then.
P: Yes. Indiana… I did not want to go to Indiana (giggles).
E: You played for New York for 15 seasons. That is a long time. You ended up your last two years playing for Seattle and Orlando though?
E: So, I read somewhere that you actually asked for the trade from New York? And that you today feel that if you could do it all over, you would have stayed?
P: Yeah, I would have stayed.
E: That move ruined New York Knicks for a decade or something.
E: So what was the story, why did you leave?
P: I played in Seattle for one season – didn’t work out. Played for Orlando for one season – didn’t really work out either so I just called it quits. I had one more year on my contract, but I figured it was better to call it quits.
The reason I asked for a trade in New York is that I got tired of hearing the same thing over and over. I always heard that “the Knicks are better off without him”. I kept hearing that for 15 years, so after 15 years I just got tired of it. I felt like it was time for me to move on and to let them…. grow. But in hindsight I should have stayed. It would have been better for me to stay. But you know – that is water under the bridge now.
E: But your son played in New York last year?
P: No, he was picked by Sacramento, and then the Knicks traded for him. But then they cut him. They cut him twice.
E: Are you involved with the Knicks in any way today?
E: You we’re the assistant coach for Orlando for the last 5 seasons. But you lost that job as part of a major change over there?
P: Right, they got rid of everyone.
E: And I know you just got turned down as the head coach for the Bobcats, which might have been a blessing in disguise with their record. But they have a Swedish rookie now so they might be better this season.
P: Oh they do?
E: We have two Swedes in the NBA now. Jonas Jerebko of the Detroit Pistons, and now also Jeffrey Taylor who got drafted by the Bobcats.
P: Jerebko is Swedish? I thought he was American.
E: I think his dad is American. But Jonas is Swedish. Anyway, back to the question. I know you are trying to get on the coaching staff, but what do you do today? Do you still go to Georgetown and try to help kids to get better?
P: Well, during the season I am always committed to the team I am coaching for. This year I am off so I will be going to some of the Georgetown games, and some Knicks games. And maybe some of the Chicago games because Tom Thibodeau and I are good friends, and he used to coach me for the Knicks and he coach with me with Houston. I might go to some other games, or watch other team’s practices. But yes, I want to get back into the coaching.
E: Ok, so I want to talk about endorsement deals a little bit. You came into the league when it was all changing. And in a sense, your agents David Falk played a big role in that change turning people into extreme stars. I mean, basketball wise you had huge stars before that, but when Nike signed Jordan and made him basketball god. And at that point Adidas was the top brand in the NBA. And they actually passed up, or did not want to match what Nike was offering. And then you came along, and they paid you a lot more than they had paid anyone before.
Making the decision in what shoes to play in, is that something that you as a player has anything to say about? How do you choose?
P: Choose what shoes to play in? Well, adidas paid the most money. Hahaha. That is the reason why I went to adidas. I had worn Nike all through High School, and all through College. So I thought I was going to sign with Nike. But like you said, adidas lost Michael to Nike and they didn’t want to lose me to Nike. So they paid me more money than everybody else before.
E: This is at a time where making your own signature shoe, clothing line and things – and get commission for every pair sold, became a big thing. Did you ever have that demand? “I want my own shoe”?
P: Not a demand but, that was the thing that was going on back then. Michael started it, and I came the next year so. Either I would have went with Nike or adidas I would have had my own shoe.
E: How involved were you in the design and feeling for the shoes? Adidas were kind of famed for bringing athletes over to Germany to custom make their shoes.
P: Well, I didn’t go to Germany. But I only wore adidas for a year and a half. I wore them my first year, and half of my second year. I was hurt a lot my first two seasons, so adidas told me I was not the player they thought I was going to be. They wanted to cut my money, so I told them to just buy me out. So we parted ways.
E: What happened after that?
P: I was looking around to see who I wanted to sign with. Almost signed with Nike, but then a friend of my agent David Falk – Roberto Mueller (founder of Pony) came to me with an idea of me having my own company. Ewing Athletics.
E: That’s a pretty bold move. It hadn’t been done before, and no one has been able to successfully do it after that.
P: Well, you know. We did it at the right time. We had the right people behind it to help push the brand. That is the same thing that is going on right now. When we launched the brand, we had a lot of rappers wearing it. I was wearing it. Some actors were wearing it. So it helped a lot to promote it and to get it out there. And I think it is one of the reasons why it was so successful, besides me wearing it.
E: Yes, in a way, Ewing Athletic almost became bigger than basketball on a global level. I mean, we had Ewing in Sweden, and it was sold by stores who didn’t know anything about basketball.
P: Yeah, Ewing Athletics was pretty big in Europe.
E: But there was an existing company behind it at first, right?
P: So, when we got with Roberto Mueller there was company called Next who did the first prototype for the shoe. Before I even knew if I was going to sign. Then when the 33 hi first came out it said Phoenix on the box. Like a sign off. So Phoenix was the brand who did the first Ewing shoes. But then, like a year or two later it became they changed it to say Next on the box.
E: Did you feel that you had to be more involved as you were the front figure for the company?
P: I tried to be as much involved as I could be. But they had people who ran the day-to-day operations, as well as I ran my own day-to-day operation (giggles) of being the best player that I possibly could be. So Roberto and his team ran the company. I got to pick what shoe I wanted to come out and such, but I wasn’t really involved on a daily basis.
E: You won the Olympics twice. Once in the legendary Dream Team of 1992, but the team from 1984 is almost as impressive, even though you were all younger at that point. Playing for the national team – is that somewhere where you get to know other players better, or are you all too competitive?
P: We were all friends, even before going to the Olympics. We already knew each other from the All American games in high school and then going forward to the Final Four in college. So we were all friends. But we were also all Alpha Males - hehe. But that is the thing about playing as a team. You have to set your ego aside and make the best for the team.
E: I recently saw the great documentary about the 1992 team for the 20 years anniversary. That was a great documentary because it showed your personal views from that Olympics. More than the basketball views that was shown in 1992. But I am curious; they sort of implied that coach Daily tricked you into play harder than you actually had to play. Because there might have been the possibility of losing?
P: Not in our minds. Coach Daily was a great coach. And I don’t want to take anything away from him. But if you look at that team – there was no need to tell us to play as hard as we could. All the players on that team were self-driven self-motivated so once we became a team there was no doubt in our minds that we would win.
E: But did you lose to the college team in your first game?
P: Yes, we did lose that game. But that was our first date. It was the first day, first practice. Second day… we didn’t shut them down but… we killed them.
E: But how does it work now? I mean, 20 years later? You still try to get together sometimes? Like a Dream Team re-union evening every now and then?
P: No. Michael and I are good friends. So when he’s in town we hang out. Or when I am wherever he is, we will hang out. Charles and I are still good friends and we hang out every now and then. I haven’t really hung out with Larry since the Dream Team, but you know – we still talk whenever we see each other. Same thing with Magic. Chris Mullin and I hang out; we talk pretty frequently on the phone. The rest of the guys, I see them from time to time, but we don’t really hang out. There is no team function any longer. Last time we had a team function was when the Dream Team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
E: Do you still play basketball on any level?
P: No. I am too old.
E: I know guys your age that still plays.
P: Well, yeah. You know, after 17 years of professional basketball… Your body is not the same. At this age, I just teach.
E: Do you know if any of the other members of the Dream Team still plays?
P: Chris! He’s still trying to get me down to play with him. But I’m like… naahh...
E: Mullin was always known for his work ethics. It is mind blowing to hear you talk about all these people. Growing up, you all ruled my world. You were my world. And I followed everything. Imagine today with twitter and all…
P: Thank God we didn’t have that back then! (Giggles)
E: So about the Ewing Athletics re-launch. In the sneaker community there has been a cry for years to bring them back. So I am guessing a lot of people have approached you to bring them back?
P: A Lot of people have approached me to bring them back.
E: So why now? What is different now?
P: Well, a lot of people have approached me. But the way that all that ended, did put a bad taste in my mouth. The market went bad, and a couple of the distributors that I had did some things that they should not have done. So when other people came to me to try to re-launch the shoe I just didn’t want the headache. And now these guys have been calling my agent David Falk for many years now. So just to get them of his back, David had to talk me into have a meeting with them. And after that, I decided to re-launch.
E: Do you feel like you need to have more control over it now, given the headache that you had the last time?
P: They still have to do all the day-to-day work. That’s their expertise. My day job now a day is coaching, even though unfortunately I will not be coaching this season. So, they are still the one running the company on a daily basis. I still have a say in what goes on within the company. But they are the ones that are running it.
E: Do you have anything saved from that era?
P: What, the shoes? Must of the shoes I got rid of. I have one that I have on display in my home. I have one of these leather jackets (pointing at a black/purple vintage Ewing Athletics leather jacket that hopefully will be re-launched eventually). I had another one, but I just gave it to my daughter.
E: We talked a little bit about the trade you asked for earlier. How are your feelings towards the Knicks today?
P: I don’t have any hatred towards them or anything. I will go to some of their games this season. I will go to some of their practices. You know, I’m still going to be routing for them. Who knows what will happen with the Knicks and I in the future. Maybe I will get a chance to get on to their coaching staff, or somewhere in their organization. So no, I don’t have any bad feelings towards them.
E: You must still get a lot of love if you walk down the streets of New York today?
P: Yes, when people see me they show me that they respected what I brought to the table. So yes, they show me a lot of love.
E: When the Ewing Athletics re-launched in New York you went to two of the stores in New York and one in New Jersey. And I saw the pictures, and people went crazy and just loved the fact that you showed up. Is it like that wherever you go? This was very much your crowd.
P: It is almost like that. I am not sure if people would show up to the level that they showed up on that re-launch. Because that was a specific crowd. When we were going to one of the events in the City we had to walk for a block and a half. And I told the guy, watch what will happen. 20 something people stopped me, and people were yelling from the other side of the block.
E: New Yorkers strikes me as one of the most honest fans.
P: Yeah, they say what’s on their mind (giggling)
E: So do you still hear from people “I am glad you left”?
P: No, they were never happy that I left. They might say they are angry about a specific game, or a specific play or something like that. And I’m like: Man, that’s 12-13 years ago. Let it go (laughing)
E: But you must have heard so many things from the New York Knicks fans over the years?
P: Yes, I did. They always said what’s on their mind. You have to have thick skin to play in New York.
E: I can imagine. So, we are almost done here. One last question though. Do you guys have any plans to launch a new functional shoe with today’s standard?
P: (looking at the people in the Ewing office and smirking). It’s possible. But right now we are only making the originals. We are actually sending the factories the original styles and just re-producing them. The next model that will come out is the Focus. My son wants to play in these shoes. And the Focus is technically more functional than the 33 Hi.
E: Ok, so that was about it. I know you have things to do, but if I could just ask for a couple of pictures, and also if you had the time and possibility to do a short promo video for the European launch of the Ewing’s on November 9th.
P: The Ewing’s are coming to Europe. Sneakersnstuff, November 9th – launch of the Ewing’s. Come and get them, while they are hot!