Legendary center Patrick Ewing recently agreed to become the associate head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, working under new 'Cats head coach Steve Clifford, with whom Ewing served long stretches as an assistant coach with both the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. The decision to join Clifford's staff also means that Ewing will now (kind of) be on the same team as longtime nemesis Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls waged annual battles with Ewing's New York Knicks throughout the 1990s.
Before Jordan and Ewing ever reached the professional level, though, they very nearly became teammates at the University of North Carolina ... until the Ku Klux Klan ruined the prospective future Hall-of-Fame team-up. (As the Klan so often does.)
During a visit to Dan Patrick's nationally syndicated radio show on Thursday to discuss his gig with the Bobcats and he was to see newly minted Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd lock down an NBA head coaching job mere days after his retirement, the talk turned to Ewing's feelings about linking up with Jordan, which led the big man to discuss their missed collegiate connection.
The story begins with Ewing — then a much coveted recruit who'd played his high school ball for Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in Cambridge, Mass. — taking a trip down south to visit Chapel Hill:
Ewing: You know, I was close. I was close. North Carolina was a very good school, but when I went down there, they put me in that Carolina Inn and there was a big Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina when I was there. And I was like, "You know what? I'm not coming down here. I'm staying my butt back in Boston."
Patrick: So the reason why you didn't go, or the main reason, is the KKK had a rally going on at the time?
Ewing: Big rally, man.
Ewing also told Patrick that found himself bugged out (nailed it, via being a professional writer) by the nighttime sounds he encountered down south:
Ewing: And you know in North Carolina, you hear all the crickets? So they had me, stuck me in that Carolina Inn, and nights down in North Carolina, it gets pitch black, and I'd hear all the crickets. And I'm jumping, and I'm like, "What the heck?" So I said, "No, no, I'm going back."
I don't have any inside information here, but I'm guessing the crickets probably weren't quite as big a sticking point for Ewing as the KKK. Just a hunch.
Ewing's revelation that he listed UNC's proximity to domestic terror conventions a "con" in his recruitment analysis comes a couple of months after another New York Knicks great and Hall of Famer, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, shared a similar story about kiboshing a trade to the Indiana Pacers because, upon visiting Indiana, the Pacers' black players told him they carried guns for self-protection because “they got Ku Klux Klan everywhere around here outside Indianapolis and in the city, too.” Monroe's trip to Indiana took place in 1971; Ewing's visit to North Carolina took place in 1980.
While stories like Monroe's and Ewing's certainly help remind us of just how much the world has changed over the past few decades — and, regrettably, also underscore those instances in which it appears it hasn't — they also tend to lead fans' minds to interesting thought experiments and flights of fan-fiction. I mean, had there not been a KKK rally on the weekend that Ewing traveled to North Carolina, would he have committed to join up with Dean Smith's program?
Would a freshman Ewing have supplanted Sam Perkins as the go-to big man in Carolina blue? If he and Jordan had formed an unstoppable one-two punch in college, would their pro careers have unfolded any differently? If they'd become friends as teenagers, would they have tried to link up in the pros? Would John Thompson's Hoyas still become the NBA's premier big man factory, drawing recruits and producing pros like Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, if not for the success the school enjoyed with Ewing in the middle? How would the landscape of college hoops history be different if the '82, '84 and '85 national championship games didn't feature Ewing on the Hoyas? And so on, and so on.
As it turned out, such questions exist only in the realms of fiction and (perhaps) Earth-2-style alternate realities. As Ewing told Patrick on the radio, even if his trip to Carolina had gone smoothly, he was probably headed to D.C.:
Ewing: But you know, my first choice was Georgetown. That was my last visit. My second choice was UCLA, and that was my first visit. North Carolina was a great school and they had an outstanding coach in Dean Smith, and they had some outstanding talent. But even Dean Smith told me, "Patrick, if you're not going to come to North Carolina, you should go to Georgetown. Coach Thompson's an outstanding coach and you will learn a lot from him."
It's weird to tell someone to thank the KKK, so I won't. But Hoya fans, just be aware that your favorite school's hoops history could've unfolded very differently if not for a bunch of people being the worst.
Hat-tip to The Big Lead.
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