ASHEVILLE — Patrick Ewing cringes at the perception he’s “just” a big-man coach.
No one enjoys being pigeon-holed, but Ewing is an accomplished big-man coach. He tutored Yao Ming in Houston and Dwight Howard in Orlando. And he played 17 NBA seasons, averaging 21 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
Ewing hasn’t played since 2002, but players remember. That’s one of the reasons center Al Jefferson, the most prominent free agent in Charlotte Bobcats history, chose to sign here.
“I knew about what Patrick Ewing did for Dwight Howard – a major impact. I knew that working with him was my chance to bring my defensive game to another level,’’ said Jefferson, whose defense has been frequently criticized over a nine-season career.
“Pat said that for me to get the respect I deserve, I have to pick my defense up. And I have the tools to do it. He can have that impact on me.”
Ewing has gravitas. He was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. That gives him a head start toward credibility, which coach Steve Clifford believes is a prerequisite to accomplishing anything in the NBA.
“Coaching in this league is all about credibility. There are different ways to establish that, but these guys are fans and (Ewing and fellow assistant Mark Price) were terrific players,’’ Clifford said.
“That’s the start. The thing with those two guys, though, is their true credibility is once you get to know them: It’s clear they can help’’ players improve.
That Ewing has Jefferson thinking defense underlines Clifford’s point. Jefferson has never played in an All-Star Game. Ewing was an 11-time All-Star. Jefferson has reached the playoffs twice so far. Ewing’s teams were in the playoffs 14 times, including the 1994 Finals.
So Ewing has Jefferson’s attention on a team where Jefferson’s productivity at both ends should be crucial to the Bobcats’ performance the next few seasons. He’s happy about that. But that “big-man coach” label chafes.
“I don’t see myself as just a big-man coach. I see myself as a coach,” Ewing said Saturday after practice at UNC Asheville. “Center is the position I played, but I can offer advice to anyone on the court: The point guard to the 2-guard to the center.”
Ewing has coached in the NBA for about a decade, working for Doug Collins in Washington, Jeff Van Gundy in Houston and Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. He and Clifford were assistants together in Houston and Orlando.
Ewing is associate head coach on Clifford’s staff. One of the reasons these two work well together is a shared belief that if a team stresses offense over defense or defense over offense, you’re not going to be very good.
“We come from the same school of thought. We both worked for the Van Gundys and a lot of what they believe in, we believe in,” Ewing said.
Ewing would love to be a head coach. He sees himself as an amalgam of basketball knowledge, from John Thompson to Hubie Brown to Pat Riley to the Van Gundys.
And, yes, he knows his playing history makes it easier to teach what he knows.
“They know that everything they’re going through and will go through, I went through: Two-a-day practices, ups-and-downs of the season,” Ewing said. “They know I’m somebody who’s done it.”
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129 Twitter: @rick_bonnell