By Sam Aleinikoff
July 20, 2010
Wittman. Ewing. Karl. The trio of names collectively represents more than 30,000 points and 32 seasons on the hardwood in the NBA.
Today, the three are mainstays along the professional basketball sidelines as coaches. But during the NBA Summer League in both Orlando and Las Vegas, players with those names were once again on the court, as the next generation, Ryan Wittman, Patrick Ewing Jr. and Coby Karl, worked toward carving out their own niches in the league.
The red carpet wasn't exactly rolled out in Sin City for the younger Wittman. The recently graduated Cornell sharpshooter didn't see a minute of action during his opening game with the Knicks in Las Vegas. When he took the floor against the Lakers on day two, the name on his jersey was misspelled. Such is the life of a undrafted small conference player trying make an NBA roster.
But with a former NBA player and current NBA coach as a father, Wittman's story is slightly different than your average Ivy Leaguer. His dad, Randy, was an NCAA champion and Big Ten Player of the Year with Indiana.
Professionally, he spent nine years as a player with the Hawks, Kings and Pacers, before moving on to the coaching ranks. Since then, he's had stints as an assistant in Indiana, Dallas, Orlando and Minnesota and has been the head man for the Cavaliers and Timberwolves. Now he's part of the Wizards staff.
Despite the respect the elder Wittman might command around the league, Ryan doesn't like to exploit his father's NBA pedigree or shared last name.
"(My dad) told me what to expect going into these experiences with workouts and summer league and everything. I think that helps me prepare but also just helps me to be a better basketball player overall," Wittman said. "But I'm not really thinking about him being there to help me make the NBA."
League executives seem to consider his dad's role in a similar manner.
"NBA scouts often mention Ryan's background as the son of an ex-NBA player," Wittman's agent Mark Termini said. "They recognize that his father has helped to prepare him to be a pro player, but he has his own game and basketball personality."
According to Termini, it's Wittman's ability to combine the qualities he's developed growing up around the game with his NBA-level skills that has teams interested.
Regardless, it's clear that the Knicks did not award playing time this summer based on having a father among the coaching ranks. In a week with New York, Wittman appeared in just three games, playing a total of 20 minutes. His teammate and fellow NBA son Patrick Ewing Jr. didn't get many more opportunities, playing just 45 minutes over the five-game schedule.
Neither of the Knicks' coaches' sons will complain though.
"You're not going to have as many opportunities because everyone on the court is so talented. It's definitely something that I've gotten used to in Orlando and Las Vegas," explained Wittman, who impressed despite limited minutes with the Celtics in the Orlando league. "It motivates me to work harder."
The summer league circumstances are different for Patrick Ewing Jr. The Kings drafted and signed Ewing in 2008, but he was quickly traded to Houston and then New York. After what seemed to be a promising preseason campaign, Ewing was waived by his father's former team.
Nearly two years later — after a successful NBDL stint and a misdiagnosed knee injury that kept him out of organized games for 15 months — Junior played his summer ball for a pair of organizations with intimate Ewing family ties: first with the Magic, where his father has been an assistant since 2007 and is currently serving as the summer league head coach, and then back with the Knicks in Las Vegas.
In Orlando, Ewing started all four games, leading the team in scoring on two occasions despite his reputation primarily as a defender.
"He pushes me like he pushes every other player," Ewing said of the experience playing under his dad in Orlando. "But at the same time he is my father, and just like it is with any father, it's a combination. At any level I feel like your father is going to look out for you a little bit. But at the same time I don't think (the playing time) was anything I didn't earn."
Halfway across the country, Nuggets guard Coby Karl knows the feeling of having to justify your presence on the basketball court. As the son of 900-win NBA coaching legend George Karl, there have always been doubts cast upon Coby's game.
"For me it's been that there's always been a stigma — whether it was from high school to college or college to the professional level — that I am where I am because of my father," Coby said.
But the younger Karl has always made an effort to make a name for himself rather than use dad's connections.
"From high school to college I feel was a huge step for me, to leave my father's proverbial nest. Because if I went to college in Wisconsin or if I walked on at the University of North Carolina, it would have been because of who my father was," said the former Boise State standout, whose dad has coached with the Milwaukee Bucks and played his college ball for the Tar Heels. "One of the main reasons that I picked Boise State was because I knew they were recruiting me for my basketball skills."
Since going undrafted out of college in 2007, Karl has bounced between several temporary NBA gigs, the NBDL and Europe. In April he signed a contract with the Nuggets, for whom he also played this summer in Las Vegas. While he's excited about the prospect of reuniting with his father — who plans to return to coaching after a leave of absence last season for neck and throat cancer treatment — Karl understands that he had to prove himself elsewhere before teaming up with dad.
"I think it was necessary for me to be able to play with the Lakers, Cavs and Warriors to make sure the impression wasn't that it was just nepotism or anything bringing me in," Karl said. "And I think I've proven over the years and throughout the summer that I belong."
The trio of NBA sons took the court this summer, each at different points in their development and career, but all three have similar attitudes toward the naysayers who think they're merely riding their fathers' reputations to professional basketball careers.
"I could be a soccer player and people would say I got to the MLS because my dad is Patrick Ewing. Regardless, I think people are going to say those things. But those aren't the people I'm concerned about," said Ewing Jr., who prefers to focus on the opinions of his teammates, coaches and management.
It's nothing new for basketball to seemingly run through bloodlines. Former first-round pick Joe "Jellybean" Bryant is the father of 12-time NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant. Hall of famer Rick Barry has four sons who have played pro ball. What makes the newest class different is that they all have dads who remain on the sidelines in the league they hope to call home.
All three understand the benefits of having a father currently in business. Karl calls it a "distinct advantage" to have seen firsthand what it takes to go from an undrafted player out of college to a regular in the league, the route taken by several of his dad's recent pupils and the path that he's followed as well.
Wittman appreciates what his father's sustained career has given him. "I've had unbelievable opportunities because of my dad and what he's done in the NBA," he said. "Just to learn from him and have experiences as a kid going to games and everything, I wouldn't trade that for anything."
He doesn't shy away from the raised expectations that may come with being a coach's son either. "I know that I'm going to push myself. I'm one of my toughest critics, always striving to get better," Wittman said. "But it's not because of who my dad is, it's just my personality and that I like to play this game so much that I want to be the best that I can be."
The attitude toward pro basketball is similar for all three: confidence and desire rather than a sense of entitlement.
"We had practice the day before our first game but I didn't realize the jersey was wrong until about an hour before the (second) game," Wittman said of his minor wardrobe malfunction in Las Vegas. "I mean I wasn't looking at the back of my jersey or anything."
Even when he noticed he didn't make an issue of the mishap. A team equipment manager had to search him out to get it corrected. It comes as no surprise, though. After all, he never has liked to play the name card.