The three of them are the favorite sons of their widely separated constituencies, have impressive credentials and, like presidential candidates, are trying to become the nominee:
AR-I-ZO-NA. Mr. Chairman, the great desert paradise which bestowed on the nation Barry Goldwater, Linda Ronstadt and the polyester Indian moccasin, is proud to submit the name of the next Rookie of the Year in the NBA, Walter (Sweet D) Davis.
NEW JERSEY. Mr. Chairman, the choice is clear to the industrial hub of the Northeast, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, the state to which all tunnels burrow except when clogged by snow, soot or the bodies of fallen Mafia leaders. New Jersey is honored to cast its vote for the Pearl of Piscataway, Bernard King.
WIS-CON-SIN. Where there is cheese, Mr. Chairman, there is justice. The land of a thousand breweries, the home of the three L's—La Follette, Lombardi and Lager—the amazing state of Wisconsin gives you our amazing native son (by way of another L, Los Angeles), the Grand Slammer himself, Marques Johnson.
February 20, 1978
Hyperbole aside, Walter Davis, Bernard King and Marques Johnson may be the best athletes ever to come into the same professional sport at the same time at the same position. Think about this for a minute:
Small Forward Davis has transformed the Phoenix Suns from a last-place Pacific Division team to a championship contender that last week was tied for the second-best record in the NBA. Davis leads the Suns in shooting percentage, as well as in uncanny plays, and is averaging 23.4 points per game, 10th highest in the league.
Small Forward Johnson has transformed the Milwaukee Bucks from a Midwest Division cellar occupant with the tied-for-second-most-terrible record in the pros to a legitimate playoff spoiler whose overall youth and potential scare the bejesus out of everybody. Johnson leads the Bucks in two or three dozen categories, including rebounds, blocked shots, minutes played and gasps from the audience. He is seventh among NBA shooters (53.5%) and 10th among rebounders (11.1 per game).
Small Forward King must be content with single-handedly preventing the incomparably horrible New Jersey Nets from fleeing the coop and seeking some sort of asylum east of Eden. The smart money once held that the Nets, who won only 22 games last season, would be shut out this time. But while watching seven inmates—uh teammates—leave and six new ones arrive, King has averaged 24.3 points (seventh highest in the league), helped the Nets win an astonishing 12 contests and avoided being apprehended with a single video tape machine.
The irony is that none of the rookies was the original heartthrob of his team. Selecting first and third in the draft, Milwaukee went for Center Kent Benson ahead of Johnson, which, in retrospect, looks like the dumbest move the Bucks have made since they traded Kareem Abdul-Goggles, opening the way to obtaining the draft choices in the first place.
Though they will not admit it even at gunpoint, the Suns and the Nets preferred, respectively, Greg Ballard and Tom LaGarde to Davis and King. But, picking fourth, just ahead of Phoenix, the Washington Bullets drafted Ballard while the Nets turned sour on LaGarde at the last minute because of his questionable (now collapsible) knee.
In any event, the league has welcomed its finest group of rookies since 1970-71 when Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy and Geoff Petrie entered the lists.
While the likes of Benson, Denver's LaGarde, Kansas City's Otis Birdsong and Los Angeles' Kenny Carr have been set back by injuries; while Ballard and Boston's Cornbread Maxwell have been stifled by erratic playing time; and while Guard Norm Nixon of the Lakers, big men James Edwards of Indiana and Jack Sikma of Seattle, and little men Charlie Criss and Eddie Johnson of Atlanta have played surprisingly well; King, Johnson and Davis have become instant legends.
It is difficult to imagine any three men playing the same position so differently. King: the inside terror from Tennessee, posting up down low, receiving the pass, and—Whoop! Faster than he can enunciate "With regard to this dazzling move I am about to protrude on your consciousness," King turns, jumps and delivers, in NBA parlance, "a facial" over his defender.
Johnson: the golden strongboy out of UCLA, hurling his magnificent body through the rafters to grab another rebound—Boom!—and, where altogether impossible, jamming another thunderous dunk—Boom! Boom!—as Milwaukee fans approach delirium.
And Davis: the whippet from North Carolina, firing into the lanes on the fast break; making the play with an immaculate, wire-hanging pass or receiving one himself; pulling up on the dead run and accelerating into the air, and—Whoooosh!—an automatic two.
Whoever invented the absurd term "small forward" could not have imagined any of these disparate, yet elegant, players at work. Perhaps the only way to describe the variety of their styles is to communicate in onomatopoetic sounds. Whoop! Boom! Boom! Whoooosh!
The assumption that King has had the most difficult task—breaking in with a broken-down team—does not actually stand up. Double your teammates' ability, double your pleasure, double your fun, yes. But also double your chances against playing the minutes you need to show your stuff. This is why Johnson's exploits on a pretty good Milwaukee team are probably more impressive than King's with the Nets, and why Davis' accomplishments on a very good Phoenix club earned him a berth in the All-Star Game (and probably the Rookie of the Year award) while the other rookies stayed home.
King, however, is deserving of sympathy because of the guilt he bears by association with the pitiful Nets and his entrapment in Joisey, although, as he has pointed out, "I don't find New Jersey off-hand to be an atmosphere whereas it dictates to a player that they can't feel they're in the NBA." Hooray!
The opposition has felt King's presence often. As the Nets have rolled to their 12-42 record—at one point losing 16 straight—King has scored 39 points against Los Angeles, 44 against Phoenix and 41 against Philadelphia while much of the time being guarded (?) by Julius Erving. "This guy moves away from the ball, not toward it," says Dr. J. "He backs away, and that allows him to get open, where he is deadly." Can he be stopped? "Only time will fell," says Erving.
The 6'7" King is not as sharp a shooter as Davis nor as devastating a rebounder as Johnson. What he has are the quickest hands since Mandrake and a unique ability to collect all the garbage and shove it back in the basket. "King is John Drew with brains," says one NBA player, who also recognizes that Bernard is double-teamed every time he so much as whispers.
Unfortunately, whispers have followed King since he was arrested five times in 15 months while an undergraduate at Knoxville—prowling; drunken driving; burglary; picky, picky, picky. NBA opponents didn't know whether to guard him or book him. But so far the Brooklyn native, who doesn't give interviews so much as he distributes oratory—"In reflection of that particular question," Bernard will begin—has kept his nose clean outside of a one-game suspension for missing practice and arriving late for a game.
"I don't like to formulate assumptions that only provoke thought," King said when asked to name his candidate for Rookie of the Year. "If you think you are most deserving, why offer it to anyone else?"
Why offer it to Marques Johnson? Because, says Milwaukee radio voice Eddie Doucette, who took one look at Johnson's incendiary bomb-dunking prowess and labeled him "the Grand Slam," Marques is "affable, articulate, visible, charismatic, has savoir faire and is the next O. J. Simpson." Well, maybe so. The handsome Californian also scored high in diplomacy when he complimented the inhuman Milwaukee winter weather: "It just gives me a chance to broaden horizons."
On the basketball front, Johnson is equally polished. He does not have the outside shooting touch or scoring ability of his rookie rivals, but he carries a bigger load at both ends of the floor. "We ask Marques to get points and rebounds, to get out on the break and run, to defend the heavy hitters, to take the physical punishment," says Coach Don Nelson. "I haven't seen a guy so willing to learn and to play the non-glory aspects since Dave Cowens."
Johnson is so strong in what coaches call "the low box area," and such a monster of a jumper, that most of his shots are initiated from above the rim. "I've been wrapped up in going to the basket all my life," he says.
The 220-pound Johnson is listed at 6'7" but doesn't look that tall, which makes his numbers off the glass seem all the more outrageous. The Grand Slam has led the Bucks both in scoring and rebounding in 19 games, including the team's exhausting 152-150 triple-over-time defeat of the New York Knicks, in which he played 52 minutes and had 27 points, 18 rebounds and six blocked shots. In a split of two games against Erving and the 76ers, Johnson's card read 56 points and 28 rebounds to Dr. J's 52 and nine.
Milwaukee Guard Quinn Buckner attributes his teammate's rebounding artistry to extraordinary lateral jumping. "Marques doesn't let too many balls come to him," Buckner says. "He's got a flex span like David Thompson. He's up, then he's over there, then he's way over there. He's ridiculous."
Buck Forward Dave Meyers, who played college ball with Johnson, says, "Did I think Marques would be this good? Marques was this good as a freshman at UCLA."
Walter Davis was not as good when he was a freshman at Chapel Hill. Nor did he possess his currently brilliant all-round running, jumping, passing, shooting and defending skills, which have everybody in the NBA comparing him to—don't strike them dead, Lord—John Havlicek. He was introduced to Havlicek before a Phoenix victory over Boston. Davis then poured in a career-high 40 points, many of them over Hondo's bewildered head.
Actually, nobody could tell how good Sweet D was in college, so frequently did North Carolina Coach Dean Smith run him in and out of the lineup, and so willing was Davis to subjugate his talents within the Tar Heel team concept. Big Carolina names, such as Bobby Jones (with whom Davis also played in high school), Mitch Kupchak and Phil Ford, always got the ink while, Davis says, "I felt like the kind who made A's on his report card but nobody said, 'Good work.' Coach Smith kept me going."
Atlanta Hawk Coach Hubie Brown was among NBA investigators who were not fooled. "This kid gave up his one-on-one skills to play the passing game at Carolina," says Brown. "How many guys ever saw Walter Davis do his dance? Nobody. Now nobody can guard him."
Philadelphia's Erving (who somehow appears to be the patsy of this piece but in reality is the NBA's Shane, against whom the young gunslingers must test themselves) was assigned to guard Davis twice. The games were split, but the gun of the Suns went for 35 and 29 points to Erving's 19 and 12. "Against Sweet D," said one observer, "the good Doctor looked like a horse doctor."
Davis' name did not appear on the All-Star ballot distributed to civilians—he was added to the team by a vote of the coaches—but in a separate players' tally he outpolled Rick Barry by 10 votes for a starting position on the West squad.
Even Marques Johnson admits that Davis has a superior arsenal. "My game is inside and on the board, Bernard's is around the lanes," Johnson says, "but Walter Davis' game is everywhere."
And everywhere he has played, the angular (6'6", 180 pounds) Davis has been a phenomenon in the fourth quarter. His average scoring by quarters this season, first to fourth, reads 4.8, 5.2, 6.3 and 7.3. He has hit double figures in the final period no less than 20 times. "Walt's flat-out the best forward in the league," says Phoenix's All-Star guard, Paul Westphal.
It is no coincidence that the 36-16 Suns have already won more games than they did all last season and are headed toward their finest record. "Adjustments?" says Davis. "The only difference from last year is I'm wearing orange and white instead of blue and white. I love the togetherness here."
However, there is love and there is love. Last week Davis arrived in Phoenix a day late from the All-Star break, missing practice, and was fined by Sun Coach John MacLeod. Where was he? Why, working out with the North Carolina Tar Heels, of course.
So even Sweet D Walter Davis is not above making basic rookie mistakes.