In the early days of basketball a team was considered a real powerhouse if its players produced a point per minute. A clear indication of how the game and its young players have progressed is that scoreboard operators in the Southeastern Conference now barely can push their buttons fast enough to keep up with just one college freshman, 6'6" Bernard King of Tennessee, who is averaging nearly a point a minute all by himself.
In the process King may be burying for good the already tarnished axiom that freshmen are not good enough—or poised enough—to start for the varsity. In fact, it has begun to seem the other way around to SEC fans, who have never seen a player so young do so much so well and do it so easily. Of course, they have not had a peek at Bernard's 15-year-old brother Al, whom some recruiters consider the most advanced player for his age ever in New York City.
Seventh in the nation in scoring following Tennessee's 59-56 victory over Florida last week, Bernard King has managed to get his 28.3 points per game in less than 32 minutes of play. A Jumpin' Jack Flash around the basket and a deadly accurate shooter from the foul line on in, King's extraordinary .634 field-goal percentage explains how he can be so economical in these inflationary times.
When King exploded for 42 points in his debut against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, expert observers, including Tennessee Coach Ray Mears, felt that his totals probably would be cut in half when sophomore teammate Ernie Grunfeld's injured wrist improved. But although Grunfeld, whose high school team once scrimmaged against King's, has averaged 25.8 points per game since he returned to the lineup late last month, King has continued his hot shooting. Mears' two young New Yorkers have become the highest scoring duo in college basketball, and Tennessee (9-3) is still in a fight with Alabama, Auburn and Kentucky for the SEC title.
The 195-pound King, who wasn't old enough to vote when the season started, went on to score 34 points in a bruising matchup with Michigan's 230-pound C.J. Kupec, who used to be a tight end on the Wolverine football team. Tennessee then played in two holiday tournaments and King was MVP in both. And though Alabama beat the Volunteers 82-78, King gave the Crimson Tide a bad scare by sending 6'10" Center Leon Douglas to the bench with three fouls in the first four minutes of a game played on 'Bama's court.
By the time the Vols lost 88-82 at Kentucky last week, King had become the center of attention for rabid 'Cat fans who pelted him with oranges as he left the floor. His temper exploded when someone flicked a lit cigarette at him, and he had to be restrained from pursuing the spectator.
King comes from a poor section of Brooklyn, but attended a middle-class school, was not heavily into street life and, on orders from his mother, had to be home by nine every night. So while his buddies got high on drugs and acquainted with the police, King turned on Kojak and tried to pass geometry.
"It's funny how you have to learn to do things by yourself in the ghetto," he says. "Nobody ever showed me how to play ball. I just picked it up. I guess it's the same with learning to live. The guys I knew had already made up their minds about which way to go. People think it's your neighborhood that does it to you. I think it's what's inside you."
Among Mrs. Thelma King's rules was one forbidding her sons from playing playground basketball at night, even though there is a lighted court near their apartment house. This may help account for the simple efficiency of Bernard's game. He spent most of his high school career trying to impress coaches rather than neighborhood legends, and the difference is evident in his economy of motion. If King has a fault, it may be that his first fake is almost too fast, so that the man guarding him may still be on him only because of missing King's initial move.
Otherwise, Bernard has been so good that it makes the talk that brother Al, a 6'6" sophomore at Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High School, is already his equal impossible to believe. That notion got started last May at an all-star game in which Bernard was playing. At halftime Al joined a pickup game and, before a Who's Who in college coaching, put on a dunking exhibition that left the crowd yelling for him to suit up in the second half. With an average of 28 points and 19 rebounds a game, Al already looks good enough to start at Tennessee, but the following scouting report, written about Al, is still a better description of Bernard:
"King may be the first computer player ever. If you need a field goal, push his scoring button. If you need a rebound, press the carom button. If you are behind by 10 and need the ball, push the pilfer button. If you are behind by three and there is no time left, push his three-point play button. For sure, he is too poised to ever push the panic button."