Though the Miami Heat's rich history still remains one of the NBA's shortest among the 30 teams, it didn't seem that long ago when fierce rivals Alonzo Mourning and New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing faced each other in the NBA playoffs. Forget the memorable battles between the likes of the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers years later -- none of them could compare to the sheer drama and utter dislike between the two franchises back in the day.
There were many interconnecting elements to the narrative thread of this rivalry --initially fueled by Pat Riley's departure to Miami -- that made the four consecutive postseason matchups from 1997 to 2000 so riveting, and that was just the beginning once the games actually got going. There were fights, battles in the paint and Jeff Van Gundy holding on for dear life...on Mourning's leg.
The new SI Films documentary "Patrick and Zo" expertly captures that specific era, one that any Heat Lifer will vividly recall, but at its heart is the larger theme of two Hall of Fame centers who made each other better players while forging a lifetime bond that would transcend whatever happened out on the court. Despite (or perhaps because of) the battles they faced when the Heat and Knicks would go at it, they never lost sight of why they clicked so well -- even if people like Riley could never understand it.
''If you were to say to Alonzo, 'Patrick is your big brother, and Patrick is your mentor, and Patrick is the guy who watches over you,' the connotation is that this is somewhere Patrick can get to him,'' Riley told the New York Times back in 2000 as the two teams prepared to face each other yet again in the postseason. ''That is what Alonzo has to deal with. They will be lifelong friends. Can that truly be separated in competition? That's why I never ever in my whole career cultivated any kind of relationship with somebody I was going to have to compete against.''
Director Jon Weinbach (Straight out of LA; The Other Dream Team) chronicles Ewing's journey from playing soccer in Jamaica as a kid to his explosive growth as a basketball player, while also addressing the rampant racism he faced while playing at Georgetown. Ewing would later help coach John Thompson recruit Mourning, who he idolized since he was 12, and their rivalry -- and friendship -- soon began.
Weinbach took some time recently to talk with HHH about his latest project that is now available to watch online here.
HHH: It's great to see the two of them just hanging out and jokingly take jabs at each other. Why did you choose to begin the documentary with some of those moments?
Weinbach: There's so much sports programming that's highlight based and you've seen the highlights but how do you go beyond that? That was sort of the thinking in terms of starting the film that way. The film ultimately is about their relationship between these two humans who happen to be really tall and really good basketball players who share a lot in common. I thought the way to get a really authentic interaction was to get them together and start bullshitting about their years together. So that's the stuff that I like the most in the film and it was the most fun to shoot. It was great and it was a fun shoot, but them together...if I could have shot them together for three hours it would have been great.
HHH: There were so many great stories packed in the 33 minutes, like why Ewing started wearing T-shirts under his Georgetown jersey, but was there a particularly good one that didn't make the cut?
Weinbach: The undershirt story, I had to get that in because I feel like that's a bit of a sartorial and sports pop culture that had been forgotten. That was a huge sort of identifier for Georgetown was Ewing's t-shirt. The one that we didn't get in was when Alonzo was going through his whole contract dispute with the (Charlotte) Hornets, there was a moment in time -- because they shared the same agent David Falk -- when they thought they would actually bring Alonzo to the Knicks.
It never got "serious" serious, according to Falk and Alonzo and Patrick, but there was definitely discussion and John Thompson talked about it. Again, there was only so much we could get into the film, but Thompson thought it was a bad idea. I guess they all sort of realized that it was great in theory and for making news, but it wouldn't really work on the basketball court because they were both sort of lumbering big centers who needed their own space.
It might have worked maybe for Patrick to have this young stallion next to him but I don't think it would have been great for Zo. He already had that experience once before with Dikembe Mutombo and so it ended up coming down to Miami and Charlotte. And Ewing counseled him to go to Miami.
HHH: From talking to them, did you ever get a sense that the growing rivalry between the Heat and Knicks put a strain on their friendship or even make it stronger?
Weinbach: I think it made it stronger. The other thing was that the '97 team was probably the Knicks' best team and I think that loss stings Ewing the worse because he feels, and probably rightly so, that he shouldn't have been suspended for stepping over the line in a fight when that's happened a thousand times before and since. It was the end of his career and by 2000, in fact, he wasn't even on the team anymore the last time they played. If anything it made the bond stronger, especially because so soon after the 2000 series that's when Alonzo had that kidney crisis.
I didn't know some of the ins and outs of that story. I didn't know just how serious it was and that Ewing made the offer to donate his kidney and that they matched! That was to me wild and had Patrick not have this blood pressure issue they probably would have taken him.
HHH: Michael Wilbon talked on the documentary about how Ewing helped make Alonzo better as a player but what did Ewing learn from Alonzo?
Weinbach: First of all, I don't want to say it gave him new life, but it gave him a new measuring stick to sort of train against. So it's like 'Hey, this is the young buck coming up and I've got to match his energy, his ferocity and his athleticism. So that was good for Patrick to have this guy to work out against and constantly going to be a threat. That helps make you get better.
SI Films Presents "Patrick and Zo" can be viewed in its entirety on SI.com.