When you think of the all time greats playing for the New York Knicks, you will always come up with the name Willis Reed, Walt "Clyde" Frazier and of course Patrick Ewing. Our generation will remember the tough guys from the 90s. Others will remember the great championship teams with Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. One player usually gets sold a little short and forgotten among the best who ever wore the orange and blue. As short as his stint with the Knicks was and as tragic the end occurred, just as great he was as a player.
His name is Bernard King.
Arriving in New York in 1982 in a deal for the troubled Micheal Ray Richardson, King had the reputation of being a prolific scorer from the small forward position. Yet there were concerns about prior problems with the law and with alcohol. The Knicks though were willing to roll the dice for the explosive King. He was born in Brooklyn which made the deal that much sweeter for him: "Any young person in New York dreams of making it to the NBA. Once you get there, you dream of playing for your home team. I always remember the great players of the championship years and wearing the same uniform as they did, that was always a goal of mine." Nobody at that time could envision how good King would actually play for the struggling Knicks. He became the franchise in the Big Apple and put the average team among the best in the Eastern Conference, right there at the top with powerhouses like the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers.
Standing 6-7 and 205 pounds, King (career averages 22.5 points per game and a 52% field goal percentage) was the prototypical small forward of the 80s. He had a dynamic post up game and his quick release made his turnaround jumper almost unguardable. On top of that King was a phenomenal athlete in the open court and a fierce competitor. When the going got tough... you know what I mean. He always had the same facial expression during the game which later lead to his teammates referring to it as his "game face". King used to be in his own world nearing the tip, completely shutting off everything else around him and only concentrating on winning the game. Teammate Ernie Grunfeld, later the general manager of the Knicks, explained: "He led by example. His work ethic, his intensity level and his competitive nature were unparalled. People really don't understand how intense he was during the season. And he was a great teammate too. Very unselfish and just a phenomenal guy."
In his first year in New York, Bernard King averaged 21.9 points per game as he got accustomed to the new system and the new Knicks coach Hubie Brown. Finishing with 44 wins, the Knicks were stopped in the second round by the eventual champions from Philadelphia. But the success under Brown made the team and it's growing leader hungry for more. "Let's be realistic: That was a great Philly ballclub and we played them very tough despite the sweep", King explained. "That was a good barometer for us and we were all excited about the next season."
In the upcoming season, King started to demand the ball more and truly became the player in New York. In front of his family and friends, he upped his average to 26.3 points per game during the regular season. The former Tennessee Volunteer, where his number 53 was retired, even scored 50 points in back to back games during a west coast trip. Not the points total but the way he got it was the most impressive thing about his feast. Against the San Antonio Spurs on January 30 he made 20 of his 23 shots from the field along with 10 free throws. He followed that up with a 20 for 28 performance one night later against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn't need many free throws or pampering by the referees to be great, King just did it all on his own.
He led the Knicks into the playoffs against a young upcoming Isiah Thomas and his Detroit Pistons. And right here, in this season and in those playoffs, Bernard King to me really defined his legacy as one of the greatest and toughest Knicks and probably as one of the greatest basketball talents of all time. Yes, that's what I said and that's what I mean...
In the very intense series against the Pistons, King battled two dislocated fingers which still couldn't stop him from performing at a level that you rarely see with any basketball player. With the series being nodded at two games apiece, the Knicks' leader had connected for 36, 46, 46 and 41 points. All that while not being a 100%. Yes, you can look up those numbers. It's hard to find a superlative for that. Maybe I should ask David Stern and his buddies as he knows probably every shameful way to promote players and their games to higher standards...
But unlike the so called superstars in today's league, King would have deserved every bit of the praise. And he still does today...
Game 5 in Motown resulted in an epic showdown between Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas and No. 30 of the Knicks. After trailing New York going into fourth quarter, Thomas erupted for 16 points points in the final 1:57 of regulation to send the game into overtime. It was NBA basketball at its peak. Two heavyweight players going at each other with their best stuff on the highest stage imaginable, the NBA playoffs. Marv Albert, the long time legendary Knicks voice, would later say: "They were both playing on a different level. They were playing their own game in another universe." King, battling fever and the finger injuries, would finally prevail in overtime, scoring 44 points in one of the great games in playoff history. Knicks guard Rory Sparrow remembers King on that night: "That whole series, he was unbelievable. It's a testament to his greatness as a player. When the game was on the line, he could focus so much and put everyone else on his back."
Going past the Pistons, a new challenge awaited the King and his troops. They should go into Boston Garden to face the vaunted Celtics around Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. A tough and physical team, the Celtics embarrassed the Knicks in the first two games and also hold King to only 26 and 13 points. Yet with the series going back to New York, the Knicks and their leader lived up to the challenge. The leveled the series at 3 and once again had to go into one of the most intimidating arenas in NBA history. King had once again carried New York with an average of 35.3 points in games 3 to 6. Yet the great effort of the inexperienced Knicks shouldn't be enough. Behind a phenomenal Larry Bird, the Celtics would advance with a 121-104 win on their way to another NBA chmapionship. King (24 points in the deciding game) and his teammates once again faced a summer of waiting for next year.
Now take a deep breath and maybe take another look at the past few lines. Make sure you get all the numbers right and some of the facts. Yes, that's how good Bernard King was in the prime of his career. He wasn't facing some mediocre teams during that time, he played Dr. J's Sixers and Bird's Celtics. These teams are considered among the best of all time yet Bernard King torched them night in and night out. His exlplosivness back then and his scoring prowess were unbelievable.
But as great as those days were in the mecca of basketball, dark skies were showing on the horizon above Madison Square Garden. The next year, the Knicks were hit by many injuries yet only one would doom them for years to come. Bernard King continued his sensational play from the years past with a 32.9 scoring average, which led the entire league and was highlighted by a 60-point explosion on Christmas Day against the New Jersey Nets. But in a game against Kansas City, the tragedy happened. Going up for a block against Reggie Theus on a fastbreak, King howled in midair and sank to the ground on one leg. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "You could hear the crack", said Hubie Brown. "You could hear it so loud. I will never forget that. It was so sad, especially for him and the person that he was."
As history turned out, Bernard King's days as a Knick could never recover from that crack. As complicated as such injuries were in those days, it took King two years to get back on the court. During that time he distanced himself from the team and it became more and more evident that the Knicks weren't willing to take a risk on resigning their once glorified leader. After drafting Georgetown center Patrick Ewing in 1985, the Knicks never got to see their dynamic duo play together at the Garden. "Both of them, healthy on one team could have won a championship. I'm absolutely sure about that." explained former Knick Trent Tucker. Even though King returned for six games (in which Ewing was injured) at the end of the 1986/1987 season, he wasn't resigned.
He made his comeback with the Washington Bullets and continued to play in the NBA until 1993 before knee injuries finally ended his spectaculat career. Yet he never was the same player after his devastating injury. Knicks fans today should feel fortunate that this great individual and this great player spent some of his best years in the Big Apple. Marv Albert said it pretty well: "He had a brief career in New York but he's one of the most underrated players in the history of the game."
Also in New York where his number isn't retired.
The Knicks and Bernard King were a match made in heaven. He was the prototype of the tough New York basketball player, the guy who would never shy away from any contact and who would go fearless into battle against every player and every team.
Trent Tucker always felt good playing alongside No. 30: "Anytime you face tough and heavy competition in the playoffs, you want that one guy on your team who can get you 35 or 40 points a night. We knew Bernard King could do that for us. He was so determined to carry us on his back and he did a fantastic job at it." Now while we today swim between the headlines of shoe deals, referee scandals and hyped primadonnas, those were the days that made the league. These old time stories and these great, great players who played the game that we love. Among them is Bernard King and we should all remember him playing the game of basketball with a passion and a love that is unmatched by most other players. That's what sets players like King, like Reed, Ewing or Frazier apart. For King himself, it was the ultimate time: "I fulfilled my dream playing for the Knicks. I would never say anything bad about them, about my hometeam. I left my heart and soul for this team."
Here I remember Patrick Ewing's last words when his jersey went up in the rafters... "I will always be a Knick and I will always be a New Yorker."
Even if you are not a Knicks fan, try to get a tape or some footage of those days when Bernard King played for New York. It's great basketball, great sport. I just hope that it will be remembered as that forever and that he gets remembered for what he was... a great Knick and a great basketball player...