He was unbelievable," Dallas Maverick forward Mark Aguirre mumbled, eyes glazed. "Unstoppable. To score 50 back-to-back on the road, that's a roll. He is on a roll. Rolling. Rolling. Rolling."
Bernard King of the New York Knicks indeed was on a roll last week. Playing at San Antonio on the night of Jan. 31, he scored 50 points as the Knicks beat the Spurs 117-113. The next evening in Dallas he deposited another 50—many of them against Aguirre, who fouled out in the fourth quarter of New York's 105-98 victory. If Aguirre's dazed testimony didn't sum up King's remarkable feat, try this on for size: The last NBA player to score 50 or more points on consecutive nights was Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in February 1964 for the San Francisco Warriors. The last player to score 50 or more in back-to-back games was Rick Barry, then also of the Warriors, who accomplished it in February 1967.
King, a 6'7" forward who's in his seventh NBA season after a stellar college career at Tennessee, converted 40 of 58 shots from the field (69%) during his two 50-point games and followed those performances with a 25-point outburst in a 103-95 victory at Houston on Saturday. His play helped the Knicks draw to within 2½ games of second-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division race.
To put what King achieved last week into sharper perspective, he was averaging only 24.4 points a game, fifth best in the league through last weekend: In each of his explosions he more than doubled his norm. Chamberlain—who scored 50.4 points a game in 1961-62, when he had 100 points in one game—averaged 36.9 in 1963-64, Barry 35.6 in 1966-67. Both seasons came in an era when NBA scores were significantly higher than they are now. For them to have doubled their averages, back-to-back 70-point performances would have been in order. Another factor that makes King's output so noteworthy is that under coach Hubie Brown the Knicks play a very deliberate offense that doesn't lend itself to the running style King prefers.
King had primed himself for last week's outburst with his performance in the All-Star Game a few days earlier in Denver. There he'd scored 18 points in only 22 minutes. From Denver King flew to San Antonio with New York assistant coach Rick Pitino, and during the flight the two talked about the importance of the Knicks' getting off to a good start in the second half of the season. "Bernard was concerned we weren't playing as well against the middle-of-the-road teams as we were against the top teams," Pitino says. Indeed, at the All-Star break New York was 6-2 against the league's elite—Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—but was only 18-16 against everybody else. King was determined to start the Knicks' stretch drive off with a bang.
For a while against the Spurs it was all King could do to stay even in the scoring column with San Antonio's George Gervin. Gervin oozed his way through every defensive pore for 16 points in the first quarter, exactly what King scored in the period by making his first eight shots. Nine times in the quarter, when either King or Gervin scored, the other would retaliate with a basket or free throws. At one juncture during the period, which ended with New York ahead 37-33, the gunslinging became so rapid-fire that Knicks guard Rory Sparrow walked over to teammate Trent Tucker and whispered, "It looks like it's the shootout at the O.K. Corral."
It isn't uncommon for players on a scoring tear to say that the basket looks larger than normal to them, but King had a different feeling. "I could see and feel everything," he said. "It's almost like an unconscious feeling, as if you're being guided to all the right places at just the right times.
"I got the ball in the positions I like to get it, and I felt all the seams. What I mean by that is that you don't always have to look to see where the defense is, you just feel it and go."
Feeling it and going are two of the things King does best, though he doesn't get to do either very often in the Knicks' methodical offense. "I prefer running to anything," says King, "and my perception level of what's going on in the game goes up when we run. I don't consider myself a creative player in a set offense. I create on the break, and that's where my heart is. I'm born to run. But that doesn't happen to be the best thing for this team. We experimented with it early in the year, and it didn't work."
The Knicks did run more often than usual against San Antonio, but King has become so adept at establishing position along the baseline that he scored all but about a dozen of his points off New York's setup offense. "We don't have a system designed for one-on-one play," King says. "We don't believe in that. I don't believe in that. Everything is done within the system. I think it means more to get 50 within the system than by going one-on-one."
It helps, of course, that the Knicks usually get the ball to King in the low post, a spot in which he can make maximum use of his unique ability to turn and get off his jumper—he fires it with the fastest release in the league—even when guarded by several men larger than he. It's also a spot from which he shoots almost unerringly. Says Sparrow, who spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday keeping his eye upon the King, "If you get him the ball on his spot and he misses twice in a row, you feel he's off."
King was rarely off against San Antonio, but he did cool down considerably late in the third quarter when the Spurs removed forward Gene Banks, who had held King to a measly 40 points, and tried rookie Fred Roberts on him. Starting shortly after Roberts entered the game and continuing until the Knicks had blown a nine-point lead and trailed 110-105, King went 12 minutes, 59 seconds without a point. Roberts was fresh and played the by-now tiring King as if the NBA title were on the line, which King says "took me a while to adjust to. I looked up at the clock with four or five minutes left, and I said, 'My goodness, we've worked too hard to lose this game.' I was tired, but I just picked myself up another notch."
In the span of 36 seconds, beginning with 3:45 left to play, King rebounded a Sparrow miss and went back up over 7'2" Artis Gilmore for a score; faked Roberts to the right and spun left for a 10-foot jumper; and then finished the flurry with his signature move, a turnaround eight-foot jumper from the baseline that put the Knicks up 111-110 and left the Spurs gasping.
After the game, King's teammates presented him with a couple of bags of ice for his shooting arm, possibly a more symbolic act than they realized, considering that Gervin, the Iceman, had himself bagged 41 points. The Knicks also threatened to call substitute forward Louis Orr, who was home with the flu, and beg him to come to Dallas for their game the next night, so that Brown could keep his second unit intact. After all, it was Orr's absence that had made it necessary for King, who at the All-Star break was averaging 34.1 minutes a game, to play 44 minutes against the Spurs and 41 versus the Mavericks. Too, with guard Ray Williams out for both games with a turned ankle, King felt he should shoulder a greater offensive burden.
King says he isn't superstitious, but just to be on the safe side, when he arrived in Dallas he ordered from room service the same meal, a breast of turkey sandwich and a vanilla milkshake, that he'd ordered in San Antonio the day before. And exactly 10 minutes before the start of the pregame team meeting in the locker room, King went out on the floor to shoot around. He had done the same a day earlier. "I tried to follow the pattern I'd used in San Antonio," he admitted somewhat sheepishly. But he had some logic working in his behalf: "Some of my best performances have come in the second of back-to-back games," he says. "I usually feel better the second night."
Well, this second night he was merely as good as he'd been the previous evening. In fact, he seemed less proficient. This may have been history's first "quiet" 50. "You can't say he's spectacular," Brown said after the game. "You think he has 18 points, and when you look up he has 32. Tonight when I heard he had 48 toward the end of the game, I couldn't fathom it." Even Sparrow, who had 14 assists against Dallas, was shocked. "I didn't realize he had 50," Sparrow said. "In San Antonio, Bernard scored points in mass quantities. But in the Dallas game it was more a matter of grinding out 50 points. That is, if you can grind out 50."
In grinding it out, King just went about his business, establishing position down low. "Everybody in our offense knows that when Bernard gets the ball, he's going to get it on the baseline nine out of 10 times," says Pitino. "His are never easy points. He gets elbowed on the screens; when he catches the ball he gets hit. [Maverick coach] Dick Motta said after he had watched film of our game with Dallas that Bernard didn't see the basket on half of his shots."
King prefers contact with other players under the basket; it gives him a sense of where the defenders are. "He beats me up more when he's on offense than when he's on defense," says Laker forward Jamaal Wilkes.
Against Dallas, King didn't get his 49th and 50th points until seven seconds left in the game, and this basket was the only one in either game on which the Knicks purposely fed King the ball to fatten his point total. Sparrow was dribbling out the clock when the Knicks on the bench began screaming at him to give the ball to King, which he did. King took the pass at the three-point circle, dribbled left and, when he pulled up 22 feet from the basket, Dallas' Jay Vincent was there to cut him off. "I just said to myself, 'I'm not missing this one,' " King said later. With that, he spun to the right and launched a softly arcing jumper.
"I've played with the same consistency, desire and intensity this season as I've played with my entire career," says King, who's only now beginning to realize his full potential. "So if that means this is a particularly good time in my life, well, it sure the hell is. This is a pretty good time for Bernard King."