The Lowdown: Bernard King

Regular Season: 874 games, 22.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 0.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 51.8% FG, 73.0% FT
Playoffs: 28 games, 24.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 55.9% FG, 72.9% FT
Accolades: 2x All-NBA 1st Team (1984-85), All-NBA 2nd Team (1982), All-NBA 3rd Team (1991)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1978), 4x All-Star (1982, 1984-85, 1991)

Bernard King is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. He didn’t do much else extremely well, but when you excel at a singular talent so well, it deserves recognition. And his determination to continue his career in the face of troubling personal failings (a bout with alcoholism and a sexual assault conviction) and hellish injury (destroying his right ACL) add more to his legacy.

The key to King’s scoring acumen was his tremendously quick release on his jump shot that prevented defenders from bothering it. There was also the quirky fact that he shot the ball as he was going up, leaving defenders further bewildered. He also was the master of positioning his body to seal off defenders and to quickly rise up before the opponent could recover. Having a tremendously big butt to maneuver the opposition didn’t hurt either.

King’s basketball journey began on the courts of Brooklyn, New York where he became one of the greatest playground legends the city ever saw.  Moving south to the University of Tennessee for college ball, King instantly made an impact averaging 26 points and 12 rebounds his freshman year (1974-75). Over the next three seasons, the small forward would team with Ernie Grunfeld in the “Bernie and Ernie Show”. King’s time would be marked by on-court showmanship, but also off court issues. During his time in Knoxville, King was arrested for marijuana possession, drunk driving and reckless driving.

Leaving the Volunteers after his junior year, King was selected by the New Jersey Nets 7th overall in the 1977 draft and he roared his way to 24 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Amazingly this was not enough to win Rookie of the Year. Phoenix Suns stud Walter Davis (24 PPG, 6 RPG, 3.5 APG) took home the award probably due to the Suns finishing with 49 wins to the Nets’ paltry 24. Nonetheless, King and high-scoring guard John Williamson would lead the Nets to a 13-win improvement the next year and a playoff appearance. A sweep by the Sixers ended the year and Bernie’s first stint with the Nets.

That off-season (1979), the Nets swung Bernard in a trade to the Jazz for Rich Kelley. It was a disastrous trade for all parties. The Nets managed 34 wins and Kelley would be gone by mid-season. The Jazz despite King, Adrian Dantley and Pete Maravich on the roster stumbled to 24 wins. Maravich would miss all but 17 games with injury, Dantley blossomed into a 28 PPG scorer, and King would be convicted of sexual abuse and suspended by the team appearing in only 19 games with 9 PPG to show for it.

King’s much-needed summer of 1980 trade to Golden State was a godsend. Cleaning himself up, King would team with Lloyd Free, Joe Barry Carroll, Purvis Short and John Lucas to create one of the more exciting offensive lineups in NBA history. The team won 39 games missing the playoffs by one game. (Fun footnote: 40-win Houston wound up representing the West in the Finals that year). The next season Golden State finished with 45 wins but again didn’t make the playoffs. King’s performance that year (23/6/3.5) garnered him a spot on the All-NBA 2nd Team and the All-Star Team. Despite the Bay Area’s bright future, King would find himself on his fourth NBA team in just his 6th season for the start of the 1982-83 season. But it would also usher in the most legendary part of his career.

Golden State sent King to his hometown New York Knicks in exchange for Micheal Ray Richardson. He was also reunited with college teammate Ernie Grunfeld who was now a bench player for the Knicks. The team also brought in a new coach, Hubie Brown, to replace the legendary Red Holzman. The Knickerbockers responded by winning 11 more games than the previous season finishing with 44 victories. Awaiting them in the first round were the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks quickly dismissed them in 2 games before falling to the Fo-Fo-Fo Sixers in a 2nd round sweep. Despite the unceremonious exit, this was New York’s first 2nd round appearance since 1978 and the next season (1983-84) was filled with optimism.

The sunny disposition was well-placed. King man-handled the league on his way to 26.3 PPG on 57% shooting… as a small forward, mind you. He became the first player in 20 years to notch back-to-back 50 point games combining to shoot 40 for 51(!) in the two games. King’s dynamic scoring was all that held together a rather thin New York roster which only featured Bill Cartwright as a player who could legitimately start for another playoff squad. The Knicks finished with 47 wins and King placed second in MVP voting that year behind Larry Bird. Bernard, of course, made the all-star team and his first selection on the All-NBA 1st Team. And thus began his legendary playoff run of 1984.

Squaring off with the Detroit Pistons in the first round, King scored more points than any other player in history in a 5-game series with 213. That’s an average of 42.6 PPG. And he did it shooting 60% from the field. And with dislocated middle fingers on each hand. And a case of the flu for half the series.

The insane stats continue.

In Game 2, he reeled off 23 straight points in just 5:30 in the first quarter. In the deciding Game 5 played in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena at a sweltering 120 degrees, King and Isiah Thomas put on one of the greatest duels in history. King eventually led the Knicks out of Motown with a decisive 44 points in the OT-win including a thunderous putback dunk in the extra period.

In Round 2, the Knicks brawled with the Boston Celtics but wound up losing in 7 games. The home team won every game of the series. King’s scoring average for that series was “only” 29 PPG and included a 44 point effort in Game 6 to keep New York alive. For the postseason as a whole, King averaged 35 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists on 57% shooting. The next season, the King express kept a-rollin’, but the Knicks as a team struggled with the loss of Bill Cartwright for the season. On Christmas Day, 1984, King decimated the Nets for 60 points as he single-handedly tried to keep the Knicks afloat. Averaging a ridiculous 33ppg on the season, King’s career would be nearly ruined in a March game in Kansas City.

Planting his right leg to up for a block, King tore his ACL and crumpled to the court. At the age of 28, King was in the midst of his prime but was now told he would never be able to play again. King’s determination would have none of that but the injury was far more serious then than now. It usually did end careers in the 1980s. And even if a player came back, they would be a shell of themselves. In the end, King missed all of the 1985-86 season and all but 6 games of the 1986-87 season making a return in April. Despite some obvious rust, King managed nearly 23 points on 50% shooting in these 6 games. New York’s management, however, was ready to move on. Having drafted Patrick Ewing in 1985, it was decided that he was the future and Bernard was released.

The Washington Bullets, in the midst of a malaise that would last until the mid-00s, were in need of help as always and eagerly pounced on the free agent King. Teaming with SG Jeff Malone (20ppg) and the venerable Moses Malone (20 and 11), King and the Bullets scraped together 38 wins, which was good enough to get a first round date with the Detroit Pistons. Amazingly the Bullets could have won the series against a Pistons team that lost in Game 7 to the Lakers for the title. Washington lost 3-2, but one of those losses came by just a single point. Unlike his last postseason date with the Pistons, King was not spectacular. He only averaged 14 points as the firm of Malone & Malone handled the heavy lifting.

Over the next three seasons King’s minutes rose from 1988’s 30 to 37.5 in 1991. His scoring average followed suit (17.2 to 28.4). So at the ripe old age of 34 in 1991, King made his final All-Star appearance and first since 1985. The cherry on top was that this was a decision of the fans as they voted King as a starter for the only time in his career. King was also selected for his fourth and final All-NBA Team. The Bullets, being the Bullets, missed the postseason all of these seasons and King would find that 1991 was his final moment of glory. That off-season he had yet another knee surgery and would miss all of the 1991-92 season. There was a brief, uneventful 32-game return to New Jersey in 1992-93, but King’s basketball career was finished.

Bernard King’s 19,655 career points are 39th all-time and the only players ahead of him who aren’t in the Hall of Fame or aren’t shoe-ins when they retire are Mitch Richmond (36th), Tom Chambers (37th), and Vince Carter (35th). Not to disrespect those players, but King’s total would blast them away if he hadn’t missed 3 fruitful years due to knee injury. There’s also the lost Utah season which he inflicted upon himself.

But it’s not all about numbers. The Hall is about memorializing greatness and King created indelible memories. It’s also about the spirit of the game. King certainly contributed in that regard. He refused to let a shredded ACL (which amounted to a career death sentence in 1985) keep him down. Not only did he return after a two-year rehab, he came back for four more quality seasons and averaged 28.4ppg (second highest of his career) as a 34-year old.

Just think about that. Who else has ever averaged that much at that age. Wilt at 34 years? 21 points. Jerry West – 23. Elgin Baylor – 25. Kareem – 24. Shaq – 17. Hakeem – 23. Iverson – 14. The only player I could find who came close was Michael Jordan and he barely topped King by scoring 28.7 points per game.

Resiliency, tenacity, dedication. That’s Bernard King.

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Posted in The Lowdown
3 comments on “The Lowdown: Bernard King
  1. [...] This excerpt comes from a piece written by Harris detailing why King should be in the NBA’s Hall-of-Fame, which you can read right here. [...]

  2. [...] there ought to be riots in every city, town, village and hamlet in the United States of America. Just read this and tell me this man isn’t Hall of Fame material. Still, the Hall of Fame has been recalcitrant [...]

  3. […] of scoring were rather typical for the legion of high-octane small forwards in the ’80s. Like Bernard King and Alex English, Aguirre possessed a soft mid-range jumper. And much like King, he also had […]

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