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Mourning The Retired

Philip Burrowes

It may sound cruel and inhumane, but it is useless to mourn an athlete when he dies simply because he was at one time an athlete. You can mourn a man because he used his celebrity for a good cause, or even merely that he provided a lift for you personally, but if you lament the loss of a formerly fantastic physical specimen, then you are usually decades late. Simply put, by the time he had died, his skills have so greatly atrophied that the performer you so admired was effectively dead long before. No, you should give our praise when said athlete retires, because as far as his impact on you is concerned there is no difference. As an exercise, let us compare the recently passed Hall-of-Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas to the finally retired center Patrick Ewing, and see who is really more deserving of our tears, if we care at all.

Unitas is probably colloquially best remembered for his style -- or lack thereof -- and its marked contrast to Joe Namath in Superbowl III, but in actuality the 1968 season was his worst (if you believe QB ratings). American-football buffs are probably more impressed by his longevity and consistency, which enabled him to accumulate such records as the greatest number of consecutive games with a touchdown (47). Many regard him as the most intelligent field leader in football’s history, something we cannot understand in an league where legions of coaches communicate with QBs through headsets.

Patrick Ewing is not regarded as the greatest anything. Where Unitas surpassed accepted notions of what he and his position could be, Ewing never lived up to the expectations of those around him, let alone blazed a trail. He and Bill Cartwright chronologically followed Hakeem Olajuwon’s teaming up with Ralph Sampson, and geographically were supposed to fill Willis Reed’s shoes. A member of the 1992 “Dream Team,” Ewing nonetheless never garnered a league trophy of any kind after his rookie season. Nor did he possess any distinct character or charisma, even less than Unitas “economy.” Both were consistent, but Ewing was never prolific.

So why care about an apparently ineffective athlete when a real archetype has departed the earth? Precisely because Unitas was was so heavily praised, he does not need anything else. Ewing lived under the spotlight of mass media attention, an environment that is hardly kind. As the first lottery pick in history, in the NBA”s largest market, playing the (literally) biggest position, everything he did received the strict critiques. Baltimore readily accepted a man who had been rejected by his home team, but New York could not care if Ewing were from Kingston, Jamaica or Jamaica, Queens.

Moreover, the onset of free agency made the position of Ewing and his supporting cast all the more tenuous. New York’s Eastern Conference Championship team of 1994 was radically different than the the champions of 1999. Unitas stayed with Baltimore seemingly longer than the Colts themselves, and indeed the Baltimore Ravens franchise associates itself with Unitas. A brief stint with the San Diego Chargers is but a footnote to a glorious career. Tenures with first the Seattle SuperSonics and then the Orlando Magic, however, highlight Ewing’s desperation for the glory of an NBA title.

Given Ewing’s immense wealth, you may not feel sorry for his empty resumÉ. Perhaps the fact that he never faced physical danger on the level a quarterback must deal with reduces his tendency to shoot fadeaways to a form of relative cowardice. Or maybe you see little point in concerning yourself with a glorified entertainer when PhDs get paid in a year what either could make in a day. These are valid comments; it is a sacrifice of robustness for being topical. Still, the athlete that dies has nothing to gain from our words, but the athlete that retires may at least find solace.

This all being said, Ewing is commendable for trying at all to do what was requested of him. Never did the Knicks amass true talent to complement him. From Kenny “Sky” Walker to an aging Larry Johnson, to even Pat Riley, everyone who came heralded to the New York seemed removed from the best years. Only Ewing truly gave his life to the city, only Ewing would go out on the limb with guarantees of victory, above all others Ewing bore the boos of Knick-haters (inside New York and out), and it is Ewing that deserves the credit for getting those teams into the playoffs at all. Some say he will be missed, and it is not entirely true, and we may be the worse. Perhaps when he is dead we will understand.