It was another one of those quiet, contemplative afternoons for the Kansas City Kings, the NBA's answer to the question: "Whatever happened to vaudeville?" Shortly after arriving at San Francisco's International Airport last Thursday, Otis Birdsong and Phil Ford, two members of the Kings' eccentric corps de garde, tried to engage two vending machines, an elderly woman and teammate Bill Robinzine in a tag-team wrestling match. While that was going on, another guard, Billy McKinney, approached a heavily armed security guard standing near the airport metal detector and mentioned to him that Robinzine "just got out of jail," implying that surveillance might be in order until Robinzine was safely off the premises. After the team had finally boarded its bus and roared off toward its Oakland hotel, Ford intoned, in his normal, outlandish fashion, "Let's go immolate somebody."
Which, in effect, is just what the Kings have done while burning up the Midwest Division this season. After getting off to a 5-11 start and falling 7½ games behind Milwaukee, Kansas City suddenly began winning at a .774 clip. For what it's worth, the Kings didn't begin to roll until the evening of Nov. 13 when Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins shattered a backboard at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. The Kings snapped a six-game losing streak that night and went on to win 24 of their next 31 games, eventually building a comfortable five-game lead over the Bucks. According to Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Kings' success during the past three months is simply a case of better living through chemistry. Not chemicals, chemistry.
"Individual talent?" says Fitzsimmons. "I think you would have to say there is not a lot here. We've only got three guys who can get their own shot without any help. But there are a lot of teams that have losing records that could be just as good as we are if they had our chemistry. Nobody's going to beat us badly. We've got too much character. We play everybody tough." Just how tough is borne out by the rather astonishing fact that the Kings have not been beaten by more than 13 points all season. Seattle and Boston, with the best records in all of pro hoopdom, have lost games by margins as wide as 21 and 28 points, respectively.
Fitzsimmons is guilty of some flagrant poor-mouthing, because while the Kings certainly aren't the NBA's most talent-laden club, they're not exactly hurting in that area, either. Both Birdsong and Forward Scott Wedman were selected to play in this year's All-Star game. Birdsong is one of the game's best pure shooters and is 10th in the league in scoring, with a 22.6 average. Wedman gets 20.1 points a game and is the team's best defensive player and leader. Fitzsimmons is a big Wedman fan but then in the same breath he says that Wedman can't dribble, can't pass and can hardly ever get off a shot without the benefit of Center Sam Lacey's jarring picks.
"Scotty is a self-made player who doesn't have a lot of natural talent," Fitzsimmons says. Although the Kings selected Wedman in the first round of the 1974 draft, Fitzsimmons says that, too, is a misleading indicator of his natural ability. "He wasn't a legitimate first-round draft choice," Fitzsimmons says. "I'm sure the people who drafted him would tell you now that they could see how good he was going to be, but that's a lot of bull. They took Scott No. 1 because he was a Big Eight player [Colorado] from the area and because they thought they'd be able to sign him."
If it sounds as if Wedman is being damned with faint praise, it is only because the NBA is unaccustomed to having such a hard worker in its midst and has yet to figure out how to categorize him. But he does have his admirers. Portland Forward Jim Brewer says, "Wedman will work you to death at both ends of the floor. He moves so well without the ball that when he finally gets it you're already too worn out from just trying to stay with him to do anything about it." Boston Forward M. L. Carr recently became so frustrated by Wedman's tenacity on defense and his tireless running of the baseline offensively that Carr finally turned on Wedman and coldcocked him, for which Carr was fined $1,500. Three weeks ago Wedman hit his first eight shots against Utah Forward Jerome Whitehead. Then Whitehead—in what was described as an accident—put an elbow in Wedman's face, shattering several bones in his cheek and around his left eye. The injury forced Wedman to miss the All-Star Game—his second—and it will be another week before he can return to the lineup. When he does come back, he will have to wear a hockey goalie's mask until the broken bones have fully mended.
Without Wedman this season, the Kings are 5-7. "Until Scott gets back, we're like the fighter holding on in the late rounds," says Fitzsimmons. "Without him, we're having to rely on too many people doing too many things for us to win." One of the people Fitzsimmons has gone to during this difficult time is Forward Gus Gerard, who has bounced among five ABA and NBA teams in his six pro seasons. Forced into a starting role by Wedman's absence, Gerard scored an NBA career-high 25 points last week in a 97-95 road loss to Phoenix.
Another of the key elements in the Kings' chemistry set is substitute guard McKinney, who was taken in the sixth round of the 1977 college draft by Phoenix. He was then cut by the Suns before the season began and sat out a year. Last season he came to Kansas City's free-agent camp and beat out one of the Kings' first-round draft picks, Mike Evans, to become Ford's backup. Against Portland last week, McKinney came in during the second period and hit six straight long shots over Dave Twardzik. Three nights later, with Ford having a bad game at Golden State, McKinney contributed 10 points and eight assists to a 107-100 victory that ended a three-game Kings losing streak.
All of Kansas City's precious chemistry would turn into a fizzling bomb were it not for the fabulous and crazy Ford and Birdsong, nicknamed the Coneheads by their teammates. "You really can't ever get down for long with this team," says Lacey, who used to have a reputation for moodiness. "I might be feeling bad, but then I see the two Coneheads and that's the end of it. They keep things going 24 hours a day. They're the reason we call this team Animal House."
Birdsong actually was quite shy as a rookie, but last season, his second, he fell under the spell of Ford, the ebullient former Tar Heel who leads the league in Ray Charles impressions, and nothing has been the same in Kansas City since. "Our practices are crazy, even though we work extremely hard," says Birdsong. "Phil and I feel like having fun every day. Even if we lost the night before, eventually we'll laugh."
Last year the Kings signed Ron Behagen to two 10-day contracts while Wedman was recuperating from injuries he had suffered when his sports car struck a tree and a telephone pole and he was thrown through the fiberglass top. "I put him with Ford and Birdsong on our full-court layup drill," says Fitzsimmons. "The rule is that each group has to hit three layups in a row or all three guys have to run wind sprints. The first time down the floor, Behagen hit his layup, Ford made his, and Otis threw the ball over the backboard. After they had taken their laps, Behagen hit his layup, Otis made his, and Phil lobbed one over the backboard.
"Behagen was out of shape, and he was tired of running, so he took the first shot the next time they ran the drill. Then he got his own rebound and shot again. Coming down the floor for the third time Behagen had the ball again and was dribbling in for what would have been the final hoop when Otis and Phil jumped on top of him so he couldn't shoot. As he was taking off to run his laps Behagen looked over at me with this puzzled look on his face and said, 'Where'd you get those Coneheads?' That's how they got their name."
Fitzsimmons had coached in Phoenix, Atlanta and Buffalo before he came to Kansas City last season and won a division title. "Cotton is a motivator," says Birdsong. "He makes you really want to win for him," says Lacey. "I think Cotton has made as much difference as any player on this team, even though he's never scored a single point for us. He gets upset when we lose, just like we do, but after it's over, it's spilled milk. I've known coaches who wouldn't speak to you for two weeks after a hard loss. But Cotton has never blasted anybody in the papers or stayed mad at anybody for making a bad play."
"We can't play badly and still win," Fitzsimmons says. "We haven't got the luxury of talent that some teams have." So if the Kings are to laugh all the way to the NBA playoffs and beyond, they will have to go on being the best blue-collar team in basketball. "We're just a bunch of guys who feel we have something to prove," says Birdsong. "Here we are in first place again, and people still don't think we're for real."