Despite being in the thick of title contention for the better part of a decade, the 1990s New York Knicks were never able to get over the championship hump. It's hard to fault them. They went against a bevy of all-time great players: Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in the 1994 Finals, Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Finals, Reggie Miller's Indiana Pacers in the 1995 and 1998 conference semifinals and the 2000 conference finals and, of course, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, who eliminated the Knicks four times during the decade.
The Knicks obviously had their own all-time great player in Patrick Ewing, and in the opinion of Charles Oakley, that was part of the problem. On Monday, Oakley, who played with Ewing and the Knicks from 1988-1998, said on CBS Sports Radio's "The DA Show" that Ewing ultimately held the Knicks back.
"He could never put us on his back like he should have because every adversity he ducked away from," Oakley said of Ewing.
Oakley was not suggesting that Ewing couldn't, or didn't, put the Knicks on his back from a basketball standpoint. Rather, it was sort of a backhanded compliment as to just how great a player Ewing was during his Knicks career. But with that kind of talent, in Oakley's estimation, comes a responsibility to lead, to speak up when necessary, to stand up for teammates when they made a mistake and ultimately be the galvanizing force and voice of an organization.
"Every leader, every superstar in this league, if you go through adversity and you're trying to duck and dodge and you're in the biggest city, it's going to damper your team," Oakley said, citing, among other things, Ewing's unwillingness to be accountable with the press and say tough things to officials and coaches when they needed to be said. "Michael Jordan wasn't like that at first, but he installed it in his game. He seen that if he's going to be getting 30 shots, 30 points, that he's got to put his team on his back. And Patrick could never put us on his back like he should have."
You can listen to Oakley's full comments below:
Bear in mind, this is one man's opinion. Take it for what it's worth. Ewing was an indisputably great player who, again, ran up against some of the greatest players in history in his quest to bring a title to the Knicks.
Would the Knicks have beaten Jordan's Bulls or Hakeem's Rockets if Ewing had been a better behind-the-scenes leader? These are easy things to suggest in retrospect, but I'm not sure Ewing had anything to do with John Starks going 2 for 18, including 0 for 11 from 3, in Game 7 of the 1994 Finals. If Starks makes just a couple more shots and the Knicks win that title, Oakley might be singing a very different tune.