Kentucky sometimes calls four times before lunch. UCLA is panting. Maryland sent a Muhammad Ali autograph as bait. In fact, just about every college basketball team from Hawaii to Slippery Rock hopes it will land Albert King, a high school star from the streets of Brooklyn who has become the object of the biggest basketball manhunt in years.
"We're interested in three kinds of players—good, great and super," says Kentucky Assistant Coach Leonard Hamilton. "Better than super is where I would classify Albert King. He can deliver the goods."
Those "goods" Hamilton was referring to are the 1978 NCAA finals in St. Louis, which almost any team fielding the talented King could reach. Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian says, "If Albert King decides to go to North Dakota State next year, then North Dakota State will be in the Top 20 next year."
King has been on the Most Wanted list ever since his debut as a sophomore at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn when he scored 36 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. His credentials took on added luster when his older brother Bernard started making headlines as a freshman at the University of Tennessee that same year and ended up leading the nation in shooting percentage. Three seasons of competition in the rugged New York City Public School Athletic League, two MVP awards won with the National Junior AAU team, plus summer tournament experience from Phoenix to Spain, have polished Albert's skills. Now a 6'6½" forward and preparing for the PSAL playoffs, he recently celebrated his 17th birthday by hitting 22 of 28 shots and adding 23 rebounds, a dozen assists and five blocked shots as Fort Hamilton knocked off Canarsie High, last year's champion.
King has wound up his high school career with some prodigious statistics—30 points and 20 rebounds per game. But there are a lot of hotshots around the country with big numbers. It is the way he plays that has recruiters buzzing. His style is simple and economical, yet it is developed to such a degree that he can do almost anything he wants. He can beat you by shooting the lights out, has no qualms about dishing off the ball to the open man and is not shy about fighting for rebounds despite his bony 185-pound frame.
Moreover, Albert has shown a remarkable ability to handle the recruiters' off-court press. He did not come by this knack entirely on his own. Albert has only one close friend, but he could not have chosen a better one. Winston Karim is a 25-year-old native of Trinidad who works as a shipping clerk by day, then turns into a doctor of diplomacy by night. That's the time when one of Lefty Driesell's assistants calls Winston's East Flatbush apartment, wondering if he has seen the child star lately and wanting to know whether Albert has picked a date to visit the Maryland campus.
Coaches have long since given up trying to reach Albert at his home in a rundown section of Brooklyn known as Fort Greene. He doesn't want his parents' lives disrupted at all hours of the day and night. So Albert hangs out at Winston's most of the time, even crashing on the couch after a late date. His uniforms hang from the top of the kitchen doorway, his trophies and press clippings take up an entire living room wall and most of his mail is delivered to him there, in care of Winston. For his part as Albert's confidant and counselor, Winston admits to being something of a voyeur ("Sure, I'm a basketball fan and I never would have gotten to meet some of these people any other way," he says). But Winston has known Albert since he was a lonely, 6'3" 12-year-old, still too young and mixed up to assure Winston that if he offered the boy a helping hand he would be hitching himself to a star.
Some nights the phone never stops ringing—not even by 2 a.m., as though Winston were sponsoring a telethon and Albert were the nation's favorite charity. One evening last week there were calls from Duke, Maryland, Tulane, Kentucky, UCLA, San Francisco and either Washington or Washington State. Winston can't remember the last one because it was so late by the time he heard from that time zone. Usually the guy on the other end doesn't even want anything, he's just checking in.
"Oh, Winston, I'm sorry, I didn't know what time it was. Did I wake you?"
"Naw, I'd just been lying down for a few hours."
"Hey, what's Al doing?"
"Oh, you know, going to school, playing ball. He got 41 the other day."
"I know. Remember I was there."
Not all the calls have been so innocent. Apparently because they realize that Albert cannot be bought, a few coaches have gone to work on Winston.
"...Winston, how much money do you make a year?" asked a recruiter from a school south of the Mason-Dixon Line that should know better. "Well, how would you like a $25,000 job down here with a new car and a nice house...?"
"...frankly we're panicking," said a representative from a team in this week's Top 20. "We'll do anything to get Albert.... Let's put it this way, the sky's the limit...."
"...I'll tell you one thing, Winston," said a man from a warm climate on one of New York's recent arctic days, "you're gonna love living out here too...."
As far as legitimate offers go, Slippery Rock wins the Grasping-at-Straws Award. Slippery Rock tried to turn Albert into a recruiter by asking him to send them the names of some good players he had seen in the East.
"I wouldn't want to be a recruiter," Albert was saying last week between bites of his favorite food, a plain McDonald's quarter-pounder. "You know, having to go around begging kids to go to your school and knowing your job depends on it. I haven't gotten to the place where I can spot one a mile away. But when I see a strange man walk into a gym as hot as ours wearing a three-piece suit, I know something is up.
"What's funny, though, is some of these guys travel hundreds of miles to see me play and then after the game they act like they're afraid to talk to me. I'm only 17. They're adults. But they usually just say something like 'nice game' and that's it. If that's all they want to say, I don't understand why they come."
Mainly, because they're afraid not to, Albert—afraid somebody else will get the drop on them. So, for the benefit of those recruiters who still feel they have reason to hope, here is some inside dope:
•Eastern teams need not apply. King has said he wants to get away from New York City, and he feels the same way about places like Syracuse, Philadelphia and Boston.
•If you're starting to doubt that Winston will act according to your wishes, Albert's parents are not your ace in the hole. Unlike many athletes his age, Albert is under no pressure from them to stay close to home so they can keep tabs on his career. Neither Thomas nor Thelma King had ever seen their son play before last year. When Albert went to the foul line to shoot a free throw during a recent game, Mr. King turned to Winston and said, "Why isn't anybody guarding him?"
•Albert is no dummy from Ghettoland. Report cards were passed out this week and he received an A in accounting and a B in earth science. No outlaw schools or jucos for this kid.
•Tennessee is not in the running. Albert is not happy about the difficulties Bernard has gotten into in Knoxville and is also worried that he will always be compared to his brother if he enrolls at any other SEC school.
•Albert has five official campus visits left according to NCAA regulations, having already been to Kansas State. He is sure that two of those visits will be to UCLA and Maryland. Arizona State may be a third.
•The NBA is not going to get Albert, at least not now. He received a strong pitch from the Buffalo Braves last year and has heard some unofficial overtures from the Los Angeles Lakers, but he is not seriously considering turning pro.
•UCLA Assistant Lee Hunt is the only coach in America Albert has allowed to meet his mother. Asked about the experience and about King's upcoming visit to California, Hunt replied, "This is a crucial kid for us. We'd really like to have Albert King. So please be careful what you say about us. Don't distort anything I've said. Please."
UCLA has successfully recruited scores of fabled high school players, including Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, so if UCLA is saying "please," then you know how badly it wants Albert King. Which is to say, just as much as everyone else.