Who would have thought that the Kansas City Kings would be where they are a quarter of the way through this NBA season? That the Kings—a perennially slogging, losing, nearly invisible outfit, absent from postseason play 11 of the last 12 years and a sorrowful 31-51 last year—would be 13-8 and three full games ahead of Denver in the Midwest Division?
Beyond that, who would have thought the New Jersey Nets would be mainly responsible for this renaissance on the Missouri? But it's true. Two first-round draft choices the Nets gave up in 1976 for Tiny Archibald have turned into gold for the Kings. The first pick, a year ago, brought Otis Birdsong, the 6'4" scoring machine from the University of Houston. Birdsong served most of last season as an apprentice to starting guards Ron Boone and Lucius Allen, though he did manage to scrape together a 15.8 scoring average. This year the Nets' largesse yielded a mother lode in the person of North Carolina's 6'2" Phil Ford, last year's college player of the year and the best all-round guard to come out of college since Maryland's John Lucas two years before.
After 21 games Ford ranks third in the NBA in assists (9.4 per game), fifth in steals (2.4) and is averaging 14.8 points. Moreover, his confidence and his natural capacity for leadership have pumped new life into the Kings. As Ford's steady backcourt mate and off-court running mate, Birdsong has never sung better. Now that he no longer has to worry about where the ball is ("No one worries with Phil out there," he says. "You just get open and it comes to you"), Birdsong is leading the club with just under 20 points a game.
The most wondrous change to those few who have watched the Kings in recent years—their average attendance last season was 7,700, fifth worst in the league—is that the team is running now. No more of the slow, set-up, clog-up, mess-up offense that they ran for four years under Phil Johnson.
At last season's end, General Manager Joe Axelson hired Cotton Fitzsimmons, who despite his hard-driving, motivational approach to coaching is loose and amenable and extremely popular with the young Kings. He had been a coach at Phoenix and Atlanta and director of player personnel at Golden State before returning to coaching last season at Buffalo under meddlesome owner John Y. Brown. The Braves were weak already; ravaged further by bad trades and injuries, they finished 27-55. Even before Brown began dickering to buy the Boston Celtics, Fitzsimmons asked out.
On May 10 of this year he signed a two-year contract with the Kings. "I was tired of being a vagabond," he says. "The book on the Kings was that if you can stay close you can beat them at the end. But I liked their potential. I loved Birdsong and Scott Wedman. I thought Sam Lacey had an unfair reputation for being lazy. Their offensive rebounding was pathetic, their defense was weak. Their ball handling was awful."
Part of the turnover problem was eliminated by trading away Boone, the main culprit, but the Kings still needed a point guard to replace the aging Allen. With the second pick in the draft, they hoped and prayed that Ford would be available, which was a big question indeed. Indiana had the first pick, and Philadelphia was trying desperately to get it—and thus Ford—in exchange for George McGinnis, but the deal fell through. On draft day Indiana traded the No. 1 pick to Portland, which was clearly going for Minnesota's center, Mychal Thompson. That meant Ford was Kansas City's for the taking. But would Ford take Kansas City?
Conferring with Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith and agent Donald Dell, Ford decided that Kansas City was not one of the teams he would play for. On the day of the draft Dell called Axelson and Smith called Fitzsimmons. Their messages were the same: "Don't draft Phil. He'll never play for you."
Fitzsimmons told Smith, "Ford is the only guy we want in this draft and we're going to draft him."
And they did. And in the end, after a good deal of persuasive talk plus a five-year, million-dollar-plus contract, they signed him. Next day Ford practiced with the Kings for the first time. "Well," Fitzsimmons told reporters, "I became a much better coach today."
In his first exhibition game, against San Antonio, Ford scored 15 points and handed out eight assists. Later at the hotel coffee shop he introduced himself around, to Spurs and Kings alike. The next night he had 26 points and seven assists against Milwaukee, prompting the Bucks' Marques Johnson to say, "From seeing him on TV I didn't think he could shoot, and I didn't know how well he could see the whole court. Now I'm wondering what he can't do."
The answer seems to be not much. In a regular-season win over New Orleans, he dived after a loose ball and came up with a gashed chin that required three stitches. Back in the game a while later, he went diving chin first into the Jazz bench for another loose ball. The first time the Kings played Denver—the Kings have beaten their divisional rival two out of two—Ford took an inbounds pass with five seconds left, dribbled away four of them, then swished the game winner from the top of the key.
But Ford's value goes far beyond the things he does on the floor. He keeps the team loose, particularly Lacey, whom he rides constantly. The big center loves it. During the Kings' 136-127 loss to Los Angeles, Lacey and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar squared off. "Watch out, Sam, or I'll knock some of that ugly off your face," said Kareem. Later Ford said to Lacey, "Man, Kareem sure knows ugly when he sees it."
"Are you gonna take that from a rookie?" chided Forward Bill Robinzine.
"Of course he is," said Fitzsimmons. "Phil's the only guard in five years who's given Sam the ball."
Lacey has been playing the best basketball of his career. In last Thursday's 108-94 win over visiting Boston, Lacey destroyed Dave Cowens, outrebounding him 13-10, forcing him away from the basket and triggering half a dozen fast breaks. When the Kings were down by a point late in the second period, Cowens grabbed a defensive rebound, whirled and hurled a bullet outlet pass that would have sailed the length of the court. Except that Lacey leaped and batted it straight back over Cowens' head, off the Kings' backboard. Robinzine recovered it and Ford made a three-point play. The Kings never again trailed.
A further measure of the Kings' early success is the strength of their second five, among them two rookie guards—Billy McKinney, the former Northwestern scoring whiz, and Marlon Redmond, a burly 6'6" shooter from San Francisco. Both played their way onto the Kings' roster as free agents, and they are Fitzsimmons' kind of players. "You know why?" asks the coach. "Because they've been pounding the pavement. They're hungry."
In fact all the Kings are hungry, so much so that last Saturday they went to Washington and refused to leave without staying all the way through the dessert. Never mind that the NBA champion Bullets were going for a club-record 10th straight win, or that they had not lost at home since Nov. 10. Down by 17 points in the first quarter, the Kings fought back on the shooting of Birdsong (30 points) and Wedman (nine in the third quarter), the passing of Ford (11 assists) and Lacey (seven), and the defense of Robinzine and Darnell Hillman, and squeezed out their biggest win of the season, 110-109.
"Last year they used to look for ways to lose games," said Fitzsimmons. "This year we keep finding new ways to win."
It has to be the hunger. Everybody connected with the Kings has it. The 10,435 fans who showed up for the Boston game gave the Kings three straight 10,000-plus crowds for the first time in their seven years in Kansas City. The several hundred members of a group of zealots called the Backcourt Boosers (sic), as intoxicated by the new Kings as anyone, can even visualize them rising to the playoffs and beyond.