The most frequently repeated question of this basketball season is, "What ever happened to Albert King?" Since he began his illustrious career at Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High in 1974, King's name has rarely been off the lips of New York basketball fans, so, naturally enough, it was there that his decline into semi-obscurity was most keenly felt. King's playground buddies who take the RR subway to Fort Hamilton every morning have been enraged for the past couple of months. You can hear their complaints over the roar of the train, and invariably they reach the same conclusion: "Albert made a big mistake when he decided to go to Maryland."
And if the guys happen to run into King's best friend and adviser, Winston Karim, on the street or at a party, they give him a rough time. "Hey, man," they say, "you really messed up Al's life, sending him down there to play for Lefty."
Lefty is Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, who actually has the Nets' Bernard King to thank for convincing his younger brother that Arizona State was too far away and that Al would be better off going to Maryland. Although Driesell has been well criticized over the years—mainly for his failure to be Dean Smith—Maryland seemed appropriate for King because its teams are usually filled with big-city players who have gaudy reputations. Thus, Albert, the most intensely recruited high school player in many seasons, had reason to believe that he would fit in as well with the Terps as he would have at Arizona State.
"Maryland has a well-balanced team," he said last summer. "It has a lot of good players, and I won't have to do as much as I did in high school."
When the Terps got off to a 9-1 start and climbed to No. 14 in the polls, it seemed King had made a wise choice. In his third game he scored 22 points in a 91-87 victory over Georgetown. Yet, after those 10 games, King was averaging no more points than he is now (14), although he somehow remains Maryland's leading scorer. There has been a certain amount of talk that he was overrated. However, since those early games King has made enough dazzling shots and passes on the rare occasions when he has had the ball that those doubts have disappeared. It now seems clear that from the beginning he foresaw the conflicts his presence at Maryland would create and decided to curtail his shooting. That way he could ensure that he would not tread on the tender egos of some of his teammates.
"I'm not worrying about getting a lot of shots," he said as the season started. "I'm trying to fit in with this team...there are a lot of different personalities. I could be the whole thing. Some people would like me to take over. But my teammates are used to having the ball a lot, and I'm only a freshman. I don't figure I'll average many more than 12 shots a game this season. Getting personal attention is nice sometimes, but winning is better."
But suddenly the winning stopped, too. In its most recent 10 games Maryland has lost seven times, including a 66-64 defeat by Virginia last week, and tumbled to the bottom of the ACC with a 12-8 record. Worse yet is the gnawing feeling expressed by Forward John Bilney. "If we don't get our stuff in gear," he said, "we could lose the rest of our games. This team hasn't set a pick all year."
Maryland does lead the ACC, and perhaps the NCAA, in discord and petty jealousy, and therein lies the source of the team's drastic slide and King's disappearing act. From the opening week of practice Jo Jo Hunter and Bill Bryant, two sophomore guards with impressive high school credentials and unfulfilled egos, have neglected to pass the ball to King when he has been open on fast breaks or has worked himself into an advantageous position while running the Terp patterns. Locker-room shouting matches with Driesell have not changed Hunter and Bryant's attitudes, and their selfishness seems to be contagious. Against Virginia, freshman Ernest Graham ignored three teammates on a 4-on-1 break, barged in for the shot himself and was assessed an offensive foul.
Another divisive incident occurred in November when the academic troubles of Bilney, Hunter, Bryant and Center Larry Gibson—all four were on probation at the time—received extensive coverage in the Washington papers, which implied that Maryland was recruiting academically unqualified athletes on a wholesale basis. A ridiculous $72 million lawsuit was brought on behalf of the players against The Washington Star and The Diamondback, a campus newspaper, for invasion of privacy and "intentional infliction of mental distress." It succeeded in distorting the matter further and certainly did not help the four to get to know and like their new teammates. Hunter, miffed at losing his starting position to freshman Greg Manning early in the season, skipped a practice and was suspended for a game. Bryant came to practice but he certainly didn't seem to be listening when the coaches talked about defense. Driesell was even forced to dismiss one of the Terp co-captains. Center Mike Davis, after the 6'8" senior refused to reenter a game with 24 seconds to play and the Terps already clearly on the way to an 80-73 defeat by North Carolina State.
"This team is not even together enough to have a party," Davis said. "Everyone is going through a head job. This just makes me a scapegoat."
On paper, Maryland looks like a powerhouse. Hunter, the bouncy jump shooter who averaged 16.9 points during the last 12 games of his freshman year, and Bryant, a muscular, 6'4" penetrator, should complement each other very well. But neither one can live without the ball, and both seethe when they don't get it enough. Manning, a deadly shooter, should have provided spark for the team, but he, too, has turned out to be something less than generous with the ball, which has added to the friction. Only Gibson and Forward Lawrence Boston, who are big, strong rebounders and capable scorers, are performing their roles.
Had the guards fulfilled their roles, King, a 6'6", 180-pound blade of a forward with uncluttered, lightning-fast moves and sound basketball instincts, would have fit in nicely. He is a friendly, unselfish kid who is as smart as a whip. It's simple—throw him the ball and he either scores quickly on a high-percentage shot or gives the ball back to you. None of the Terps have been willing to pass to King often enough to give this scenario a fair test. In light of that, Driesell, who can be faulted for recruiting players he seems unable either to control or change, might have tried to instill what could be called "the Las Vegas spirit" in the Terps. In other words: everybody shoots whenever he wants, everybody else goes to the board to try to get a shot of his own if the first guy misses, and no recriminations afterward. Greed feeding off greed.
Because he has spent most of the season being frozen out, King did not begin to show his stuff until recent televised games against North Carolina and Notre Dame. He exploded for 16 points in the first half at Carolina, scoring on all manner of shots—rainbows from the corner, 17-footers off the glass, a vicious rebound dunk—before getting only three shots in the second half of an 85-71 loss. He simply did not get the ball. Of Maryland's 28 baskets in that game, only six were set up by assists. At South Bend. NBC commentator Al McGuire had no sooner said, "Notre Dame's Kelly Tripucka may be the best prepared freshman I have ever seen," than King rocketed inside for a magnificent triple-pump jackknife layup in heavy traffic. "Now I see why 500 colleges were after him," said McGuire.
Despite the disruption around him, King admits to very few misgivings about his decision to go to Maryland—perhaps because he knows that the press is watching closely for an outburst that, coming from a player of King's reputation, could cripple the Terps' basketball program. There will be no loud criticism, no decision to transfer or anything juicy like that. But behind his veneer of cool. King is not that happy. Last year he was forever hiding in the bathroom so recruiters would think he wasn't at home. Now he closes his door at Ellicott Hall before letting his true emotions out. It is no secret that he is not in love with Maryland, which is hardly unusual for a freshman whose girl friend still goes to high school in Brooklyn. But he has gone to extremes to close the gap between College Park and home; in the last three months he has run up a $1,000 phone bill. He also complains about never having played on a big winner in high school. Because he does not figure to be at Maryland more than two years before becoming a pro, he had hoped this season would be a big one.
After the loss at Virginia, a game in which King had a couple of brilliant moments while scoring 15 points and the Terps again had only six assists. Cavalier Coach Terry Holland was asked what he thought of King.
"He didn't have a great game tonight by any means," said Holland, "but he is unquestionably a great player. I thought he looked scared."
Distressed might be a better word.