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January 07, 1985

The Master Of The Key

After years of relying on others to unlock doors for him, Georgetown's center Patrick Ewing will soon go off on his own

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Dorothy Phipps Ewing left Jamaica for the U.S. in 1971, leaving behind her husband and their seven children in a weather-beaten house near Kingston . She promised to send for them before long. " America is a dream in Jamaica , in all the islands," says Jarvis 's wife, Connie, whose parents were born in Barbados and Jamaica . "In the islands you can count on great weather and menial work. Jamaica has something like a caste system—the darker you are, the less you have. The respect is according to color. Ultimately, the dream of all island people is to come to America and accumulate something." Connie met Dorothy before the latter had even heard of basketball, when both were employed at Massachusetts General Hospital. With the help of relatives in New York , Dorothy had come to Cambridge and rented a five-room apartment on River Street, in the section between the Charles River and Central Square called the Coast.

Dorothy worked in the Mass General cafeteria, in the kitchen and food line. "She was a very hardworking woman," says Connie. "Her shift started at six, and she was conscientious. She took the work as a privilege."

By ones and twos, the Ewing children began arriving in the U.S. , with 12-year-old Patrick, who bears the strongest resemblance to his mother, arriving on Jan. 11, 1975. Carl, who had come in 1973, had mixed feelings about moving to the U.S. "I had a good job in Jamaica , in heavy-duty mechanics," he says. "I didn't want to give it up. But Dorothy had come, and so I felt I had to come. But my wife did not have to work." She did work, if for no other reason than to make life better for her children. Not that raising those seven was any easy chore in itself. Dorothy still somehow found the means to save toward her next dream—a house where there would be more room for the family. As her children (Patrick is fifth eldest after Lastina, 37, Carl Jr., 36, Pauline, 34 and Rosemarie, 27; Barbara and Karlene are 19 and 18, respectively) grew older, she wanted something more for them than jobs in Jamaica 's bauxite mines or Massachusetts ' hospital kitchens. "Education," says Connie Jarvis. "She believed in it because she didn't have it." As a girl, Dorothy had attended St. Anne's School in Kingston . She knew the value of learning, though she'd left school to work. As an adult she'd sometimes speak of taking classes, but free time was an unrealized luxury. "She preached the value of education to Patrick and all her children," says Connie. "And Patrick trusted her completely." Carl Sr., meanwhile, came to grips with his new life and found work making fire hoses at a rubber company. He now works at Mass General.

Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge , Patrick passed a playground near Hoyt Park. For some days, from a distance, he studied the game the boys were playing. Then one day he walked more slowly than usual past the playground. "Hey, do you want to play?" one of the kids called. Ewing had never touched a basketball. "Sure," he said.

"I'd watched and seen the object was to put the ball in the basket," Ewing recalls. But did it turn out to be as easy as it looked? His laughter resonates. "It was more difficult than I could have imagined," he says. Ewing had been a soccer goalie in Jamaica . But he had had little appetite and, it seems, no aptitude for that sport. "He was young," explains his father. "He grew so fast."

Carl Sr. is 6'2�" and Carl Jr. the same height. None of Patrick's grandparents were taller. He dunked for the first time as a seventh grader, grew to 6'6" by the time he started the eighth grade and, of course, began to be noticed. But he wasn't a natural by any means. "All his skills and perhaps some of his size have come through many repetitions, much hard work," says Jarvis.

That year a letter came from school to the Ewing home, saying that Patrick had tested low in reading. He would require a tutor. Patrick's father understood. "The most difficult thing for me in the U.S. was the English," Carl says. "The people couldn't seem to understand what we were saying. And I had to listen keenly." Ford followed up the letter with a phone call to Dorothy asking if she would participate in a Title I parents' advisory council. Dorothy agreed, "for Patrick's sake," says Ford, but she never showed the same interest in his basketball. "I could never get her to come to the games!" says Ford.

Ewing found himself standing out more and more for his size, yet struggling to catch up to his classmates in reading, precisely when he would have given anything to blend in. On the basketball court he was taunted as all big men are taunted, because, in the end, what else can one do in competition against such men? Says Jarvis, "I tried to tell him that some of the things that happened when he played on the road, some of the things said, were all a part of the game, people trying to get on his nerves. His mother told him—I heard her say this—'Work hard and do it right or don't do it at all. Let people say or think what they will.' I think Patrick heard his mother much more clearly than me."

At the end of Ewing 's 10th-grade season, Thompson was in the Celtics ' offices, visiting with his former coach, Red Auerbach , when the state championship final between Rindge and Latin and Boston Latin was getting under way in the adjacent Boston Garden . Thompson hadn't come to see Ewing , but Auerbach said, "You've got to see this one kid." They got to the arena just in time to watch Ewing draw a charge, then make a steal and sprint the length of the court for a stuff. Says Thompson , "That was when I said, 'Get me him and I'll win the national championship.' "

Ewing 's frustrations in the classroom paid a dividend on the court. He performed with a vengeance. "I had to hold him out of practice sometimes, to make sure he didn't leave everything he had there," says Jarvis. By his junior year, Ewing had become a naturalized U.S. citizen and was no longer taunted as the Peking man. But the Boston Herald -American, having exhausted the adjectives of its sportswriters, dispatched its dance critic, Sharon Basco, who wrote of Ewing 's "gift of flowing creaseless movement." She also wrote that "George Balanchine likes his dancers lean, long-legged and small-skulled." Perhaps only Katherine Dunham, the great black dancer and choreographer, could have fully appreciated the completeness of the Ewing technique.

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