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Commentary : In John Wooden Award Voting, Resentment Cost Patrick Ewing

March 17, 1985|KEN DENLINGER | Washington Post

Life often gets unbearable. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Guns or butter? Cash or charge? Tastes great or less filling? Cashews or macadamia nuts? Beethoven or Mozart? Christie Brinkley or Cheryl Tiegs? "Cheers" or "Hill Street Blues"? Patrick Ewing or Chris Mullin?

There's no debate on that last one, I'd assumed. Before last Sunday. As reasonable people, we could argue over dozens of issues, tough and trite, but agree that each side was equally persuasive.

Ewing versus Mullin seemed a subjective subject long ago decided. As to which collegian is superior, the only relevent question could be: Which would you choose for your team?

If you had first choice on one of those playground drafts, do you pick the 6-foot-6 unselfish jump shooter or the 7-footer who deposits the ball in the basket at one end of the court and keeps it out at the other?

Right.

You take Ewing.

When Ewing was still in high school, the Dallas Mavericks thought he would be as extraordinary as he in fact has become. So, years in advance, they acquired the Cleveland Cavaliers' top choice in the 1985 draft.

Unfortunately for Dallas, the Cavaliers have not lived down to their potential. Then the NBA devised a lottery system so that teams would not be deliberately awful this season to maneuver into prime position to draft Ewing.

Houston took a suspicious half-gainer near the end of last season in pursuit of the giant who Ewing outplayed in the NCAA final, Akeem Olajuwon.

St. John's thinkers are on record as calling Georgetown's center "a once-in-a-lifetime player." Mullin even copied Ewing's wearing a T-shirt under his game jersey.

So how come Mullin got his sport's most coveted individual prize, the John Wooden Award? By 870 points to 790.

"Surprised?" said a source at the sponsoring Los Angeles Athletic Club. "I think everybody all over the country is. We had made some preliminary plans, with Ewing in mind."

Basketball is supposed to be the real world with a shot clock and scoreboard. Simple, if all you care about is who won a matchup of 10 half-dressed young men and women.

Anything in sport that requires a judgment for which there is not a convenient number forces us to think as we would anywhere else.

The entire bag of hangups gets dragged along.

Why postpone this any longer. Do I think race was a factor in Ewing losing to Mullin in the Wooden voting?

Yep.

Difficult as it may be to comprehend, the collection of writers and broadcasters who determine the Wooden award is no more holy than an equally random gang in any other profession.

But I don't agree with those Georgetown officials--Thompson is not among them--who privately insist race was the major factor.

The chip Ewing carried into college on his massive shoulder has largely been swept away. He still refuses to ignore flagrant cheap shots, but only his retaliations seem to get noticed.

Having ignited a highly flammable topic, let me quickly insist a more plausible emotion cost Ewing: anger. At him. At John Thompson. At the frequent arrogance of so many involved with Georgetown basketball.

Some schools hustle too hard for publicity; Georgetown sometimes refuses common courtesies to unfamiliar reporters.

For three years, the response Ewing usually offered to even rather tame postgame questions was: "I do not wish to discuss that."

So a scribe who has been denied the time of day by Thompson and who leaves Ewing's locker with an empty notebook is not likely to go out of his way to honor either of them.

Besides, Mullin is a terrific player. Blessed with every basketball virtue except speed, he is a left-handed Larry Bird who does not rebound much.

Until Georgetown won the rematch with the Redmen and coasted past them to the Big East championship recently, a decent-enough case could have been made for Mullin:

His team won.

Still, Mullin is not necessarily the most gifted player on his own team. Skeptics were defining a future trivia question: "What teammate of Walter Berry's won the Wooden award in 1985?"

Splendid as he is, Mullin ain't Ewing any more than iced water is iced tea. I say he got to be slightly ahead of Ewing in the voting, instead of slightly behind, more by resentment than racism.

Significantly, Ewing and Mullin evidently were close to even in every section of the country except the Northeast.

That is Big East country, where Georgetown has waged some of its ugliest battles with the media. Mullin won handily.

Thompson and Ewing have known that the price of their fierce pride and unyielding nature might well be losing such as the Wooden award.

Perhaps some of the Wooden voters acted as childishly as Thompson did last year when Ewing and Mullin were going head-to-head for player of the year in the Big East.

Each of the nine head coaches had a vote, but could not pick anyone on his team. Four coaches chose Ewing, four coaches chose Mullin; Thompson voted for Pearl Washington of Syracuse.

Ewing probably can make do without being able to add the Wooden award to his NBA resume. He knows the men who determine his future have been overwhelmed for years.

He has been acting with silent dignity about losing to Mullin, because anything he said might detract from his buddy's glory.

Were the Wizard himself, John Wooden, eligible to vote for the award that bears his name, the choice would be obvious. He won national championships at UCLA with guard-oriented teams, with forward-oriented teams and with center-oriented teams.

It always seemed a bit easier with the big fellows.

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