What you didn't know was what good it could do. Four months in mothballs are not conducive to peak basketball, even for an athlete of seasoning, polish and altitude advantages. Even for a star of Patrick Ewing's stature.
The distinguished center of the New York Knicks suited up and tipped off for the first time since December Thursday night at Market Square Arena, turning a playoff game with the Indiana Pacers into a short-pants passion play.
"A tremendous tale of perseverance and pride," gushed the guy from the New York Times.
A sad story of ambition overcoming aptitude, it says here.
Patrick Ewing's pride and perseverance looked pretty pointless as he was being schooled by the heretofore inelegant Rik Smits. He committed three fouls before his first field goal, had shots blocked by comparative shrimps, and demonstrated a multitude of lost steps as the Pacers took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with an 85-77 victory.
Ewing played 27 minutes, looking a little bit lost and a whole lot rusty. He looked, for the most part, like he was in the way.
"Ewing's presence," said Indiana's Jalen Rose, "was not a major factor."
"I thought I played an OK game for my first game back," Ewing said. ". . .(But) I thought I was going to have a better game. My expectations are high and I have confidence in myself."
Better off on the bench
Athletes are always playing hurt, often to the detriment of their teams. They hide injuries or minimize them, motivated as often by selfishness as by selflessness. This does not necessarily apply to Patrick Ewing. His fractured wrist is well-documented and has been carefully monitored. But he had about as much business in this ballgame as did Spike Lee.
"He played a lot better than I anticipated," said Pacers coach Larry Bird. "(But) coming back in the playoffs is twice as tough as it is in the regular season."
You wanted to cut Ewing slack, to celebrate the attempt rather than cite his shortcomings. But there is a point where an injured player is of more value on the bench than in the ballgame. Patrick Ewing was pretty close to that point Thursday night.
Smits, who moves with the mechanized grace of a steamroller, made Ewing seem slow. The Pacers center attacked from the first possession, and usually beat Ewing with his first step. He missed scads of open shots and still scored 22 points. Ewing totaled 10 points, on 3-for-11 shooting.
"You could see Patrick was a little off-balance," said Pacers guard Reggie Miller. "It's all about timing. When you haven't played for that long, it's going to be tough to get shots to fall."
"He did all right," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "I didn't really have any expectations. I just wanted to see what he would do. Early on, he got in a little foul trouble and mishandled the ball. I thought in the second half he did much better."
Late in the first half, Ewing was isolated on the left wing against Smits, determined to beat him off the dribble. Smits stole the ball before Ewing could decide which way to drive.
This was the sort of thing you expected under the circumstances, just not what you might have wished for an old warrior whose competitive days are dwindling. Patrick Ewing is 35, and was ranked last year among the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Yet in terms of NBA titles, he is no match for Luc Longley.
His contract with the Knicks runs through 2001, but he has to know his window of opportunity is probably not that wide. If he does not win it all this year or next, there may not be other opportunities. Time grows short for this 7-footer. He can't wait on his wrist. Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivanenquirer.com