Friday, September 10, 2010

The Undervalued King

Like most people interested in basketball history, I don’t pay enough attention to Bernard King. He hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame, despite 19,655 career points in 14 seasons, twice being named first-team All-NBA and making four All-Star Games.

I had read great things about King in Spike Lee’s book “Best Seat in the House,” but I always thought Bernard’s brother Albert King was better because Albert was featured in Rick Telander’s book “Heaven is a Playground.” I knew Bernard from his shoutout in Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” (Basketball has always been my thing/I like Magic, Bird and Bernard King). And, oddly, I vividly remember his 1989 NBA Hoops basketball card when he was with the Washington Bullets.

But I couldn’t recall ever watching King actually play. He seems to have fallen through the cracks of history. Maybe he was a victim of timing, coming into the NBA when the league was at its fighting-and-cocaine nadir in the late 1970s and early ’80s. King got caught up in that scene for a while, and when he finally got straight, Magic and Bird had taken over, closely followed by Michael Jordan. King verged on superstardom when he landed with the Knicks, including averaging a league-best 32.9 points per game in 1984-’85. But then King blew out his knee and, by all accounts, was never the same player.

I wanted to see King at the peak of his powers, so I watched his back-to-back 50-point games against the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, respectively, in 1984.

It’s implausible to say that a player can get a quiet 50 points, but King has definitely come the closest. A casual fan glancing at the TV between sips of craft beer would be more apt to remember the showier scoring in those games from the Spurs’ George Gervin and the Mavericks’ Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman. King could have efficiently dropped in three fast-break lay-ups while you were pondering the mellifluous name of Dallas’ Kurt Nimphius or wondering if the Mavericks’ Brad Davis, with his blond curls and wispy moustache, was the oddest-looking point guard in league history.

King’s two 50-point games came on the road, just after he scored 18 points in 22 minutes in the 1984 All-Star Game. That he scored 50 against the Spurs would have come as no surprise, given that San Antonio under coach Bob Bass runned-and-gunned with little regard for defense.

Gervin and King each had 16 points at the end of the first quarter. Gervin’s baskets were more pleasing to the eye, with his high-arching finger rolls and feathery jumpers. King was ruthlessly effective, filling the lane on fast breaks for lay-ups or lofting quick turnaround jumpers on the baseline. All the while, King showed no emotion. Gervin faded late, getting just two points in the fourth quarter and finishing with 41. King just kept going, getting a wide-open dunk in the final seconds to finish with an even 50 in the 117-113 victory.

King grabbed the opening tap against the Mavericks and got an easy bucket. It looked to be another shootout, with Aguirre scoring 16 points to King’s 11 in the first period. Once again, King would outlast his competition as Aguirre eventually got into foul trouble. King’s third quarter was a brilliant study in economic movement. He made all eight of his shots, filling the lanes on breaks as usual but also creating just enough space so he could unleash his quick jumper. Like a Raymond Carver short story, King’s game was Spartan and precise.

Again, King had 48 points as the final seconds ticked down. Teammates were screaming to get the ball to King, who drained a long jumper over Jay Vincent with seven seconds left to make King the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 to record back-to-back 50-point games.

How efficient was King? Against the Spurs he was 20 for 30 from the field, and he was 20 of 28 against the Mavericks. There was nothing flashy about King, and he never drew attention to himself. That’s probably why he is so often forgotten.


  1. Excellent post, Ben. I wasn't a natural fan of any of the teams King played for (I grew up in Chicago), but have always considered to have been one of the most outstanding offensive small forwards to have ever played.

    Here's an interesting, related quote from Dominique Wilkins:

    The New York Post talked to a number of players about King, and the great Dominique Wilkins said that of all the storied opponents he faced, King was the only one who actually scared him. "That's right, he truly made me sorry I had to play that night. We'd set up for the opening tip, and you might as well put 40 points next to his name. He was unstoppable. I'd reach out to shake his hand and he wouldn't even look at me. He'd have that evil game face on. Bernard King scared me."

  2. The odd thing about King is that from looking at the details of his career, you would almost expect him to be overrated. He played in New York, (and was at his best in New York,) scored a lot of points, had that epic playoff duel against Larry Bird, and was cut down by an injury when he was at his very best. That's the stuff NBA legends are made out of, and yet it doesn't seem to have held for King. I wonder, would he have attained mythic stature if he had never come back from the injury?

  3. Reading this post my mind drifted to Kevin Durant. My brother and I caught the Thunder at MSG last year and I remember looking up at the scoreboard in the 4th quarter and being astounded that Durant was in the mid-20s points-wise. Of course, I mentioned this to my brother, who agreed that Durant had a quiet "mid-20s" point night. Durant then proceeded to take over the game, hitting a shot at the buzzer to send it to overtime and putting the Knicks away in overtime.

  4. I did watch him play on many nights from my home on Long Island. He was terrific. His open-court moves were like Magic's, his mid-range jumper was like Bird's, and he had Kobe's killer instinct.

  5. Im a lot older than most of you and have been watching the Knicks play since Reed and Frazier; for two years,83 to his injury in 85, Bernard was the second best small forward in the NBA next to Bird, the best wing scorer in the league. His shot was unstoppable, he ran like a deer and he burned competitive intensity. He literally had no fear, and that raised the play of the rest of that Knick team, which was really below average. Hubie Brown's team defense was the 6th man on that team, they all played defense or they didn't play. Finishing 2nd in MVP voting in 1984 to Bird says enough (Bird says he would have voted for King).