Sport: A Banner Year for Meanness

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Patrick Ewing comes ungently to the Big East tournament

The sophomore season of 7-ft. Georgetown Center Patrick Ewing has been a mean slide back to the hard times of Jackie Robinson. Signs along the way: at Providence College, EWING CAN'T READ; at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, THINK EWING! THINK!; in Philadelphia's Palestra, EWING IS AN APE. When Ewing was introduced there someone in the crowd tossed a banana peel onto the court. T shirts and buttons have been manufactured bearing the slogan: EWING KANT READ DIS, which is also a recurring chant at the games. Not surprisingly, Patrick Ewing, 20, has had a few fights this year. Racism is not surprising. It pervade sports and life. But the overtness of ape banners and bananas on the floor is chilling.

Basketball is a most intimate game. Observing a baseball or football player from a distance, the first impression of color might be the color of his uniform. But basketball players are running around in their underwear, and the spectators are close enough to see the players' beards dripping sweat. Since a giant black center is no novelty, something about Ewing must be particularly affecting. "He looks like a big, bad, mean guy," says John Thompson, his coach. "Actually he's a big, quiet, sensitive guy."

Ewing is an aggressive player. The most popular black basketball players in the world are the Harlem Globetrotters, grinning minstrels "aping" their game. But the next most popular black basketball players are those without a black presence, whose talent may be intimidating but whose style is unthreatening. Ralph Sampson, the University of Virginia's 7-ft. 4-in. senior center, is more docile and less abused. In fact, fans are given to wondering how much better Sampson would be if he had a rougher temperament. Ewing plays angry. "The way Ewing plays," says Thompson, "he doesn't ask questions, he makes statements."

Neither does he answer questions very often. In the manner of U.C.L.A. Coach John Wooden, whose players frequently needed postgraduate work in smiling, Thompson has sheltered his star from the public and press. "I'm not going to make Patrick talk to someone if he doesn't want to," Thompson says, "and usually he doesn't want to." Though just a few words from Ewing might lower the banners, Thompson wonders, "Should it be up to him? We've received letters from people trying to rationalize the abuse, to justify it. 'He should get used to it,' they say. 'It comes with the territory.' Do we want a young kid to get used to this?"

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