After undergoing knee surgery on April 1, 1985, Bernard King found his sleep frequently bothered by dreams that came upon him like a fever. "Often I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating so badly I had to change into a clean pair of shorts and T-shirt," King says.
Awakening from one of these troubling dreams 23 months ago, King realized he could not get back to sleep without a drink of water. He was sleeping on a hospital bed in the basement of his New Jersey home following surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The knee had shredded a month earlier in Kansas City, when the New York Knicks forward made such a powerful turn that he simply ran out of his knee the way someone else might twist out of his shoe.
King's wife was asleep upstairs when the dream jarred him, and rather than wake her, he climbed into his wheelchair and headed to a water cooler in an adjoining room. When he reached the door, however, he found his way blocked by a gate that his wheelchair could not quite clear. "I was upset and thirsty," King says. He decided to go upstairs, get his toolbox and tear the damn thing down.
"I pulled myself up the stairs backwards, step by step, on my rear end," King says. "When I got to the top, I shimmied across the kitchen floor on my butt, got out a pair of pliers and then started back down. I had an evil grin on my face because I knew what I was going to do to that gate. I slid back down the stairs, one by one, on my rear end, and I tore that gate out. When I told my wife the next morning what I had done, she said I was crazy not to have called her, but I knew right then that I was going to make it back. If I was that determined just to get a drink of water, nothing was going to keep me from playing basketball again."
From the very beginning of his two-year quest to return to the NBA, King realized that he would have to crawl before he could run. Not only was he attempting to overcome an injury that, in the words of his physical therapist, Dania Sweitzer, "no basketball player has ever made it all the way back from," but he seemed determined to return just as he left—as one of the top players in the game. At the time of his injury King was the leading scorer in the league (32.9 ppg), and he still holds the NBA record for most points (213) in a five-game playoff series. He was so relentless on his way to the basket that former Knicks coach Red Holzman once called King "the greatest scoring machine I've ever seen."
Early last week King emerged from the veil of secrecy he had drawn around himself and his fragile knee and announced he would forgo his private workouts and start practicing with his teammates again. After the first few days of testing himself, he said there had been no new swelling in the knee, and he pronounced himself "cautiously optimistic" about his chances of making a successful comeback. He even indicated he might play in his first game as early as next week.
That would be a welcome relief for New York, which has the worst record in the NBA over the last three seasons. The team needs him now more than ever, having just lost Patrick Ewing for the rest of the season to a knee injury.
Since being injured, King has been criticized for being too removed from the team. Last year he attended only three games. This year he has been more of a regular at Madison Square Garden, though both he and the Knicks deny reports that his attendance is the result of pressure from the team. Other rumors had him spending his days in a dimly lit room, paralyzed as much by depression as by the injury to his knee. King denies this, too, but he does say, "I never knew how far this thing would go, if I would have to retire because of it. When I was injured, I felt I had to protect myself emotionally from the game, because I knew I would miss it if I could never play anymore. To protect myself I had to stay away. If I had stopped to give interviews all the time, it would have interfered with my concentration. I had always played the game harder than 99 percent of the players in the league when I was healthy, so if I chose to make my workouts a private matter, I don't see why people couldn't just accept that." One person who did accept it was Knicks general manager Scotty Stirling. King apparently kept Stirling completely in the dark.
King says he endured only two real moments of depression during his ordeal. The first occurred right after the injury when he realized how badly his knee was damaged. "I cried my eyes out," he says. The other came two months later when New York used the No. 1 pick in the draft to acquire Ewing. King felt that with Ewing the Knicks finally had a realistic shot at winning a championship and that now he wouldn't be a part of it.
After flying some of the country's top orthopedic surgeons in for consultations, King chose the Knicks' team physician, Dr. Norman Scott, to do the surgery. King preferred the procedure Scott recommended, because he thought it would afford him the best chance to regain the explosive quickness so important to his game.
A month after the operation, the soft cast on his leg came off. "I didn't recognize my leg," King says. "My knee was bigger than my thigh because the muscles had atrophied. I remember looking at my leg in the mirror one day and asking myself, 'Am I going to play again?' "
One of the most important aspects of King's recovery was his learning to swim, an exercise that wouldn't strain his knee. It wasn't easy, though, because growing up in Brooklyn he had always steered clear of water. "When I was about to go on a class trip to the beach, the last thing I heard from my mother as I was leaving was, 'Boy, stay away from that water.' Now I'm an adult, and in the back of my mind I still hear a voice saying, 'Stay away from that water.' " Sweitzer helped him overcome his fear of the water, and before long he swam his first lap in a neighbor's pool. "It was one of the biggest moments of my life," King says. "When I finished, I threw my head back and screamed for joy."
King nearly made his return six months ago, but after one day of practice at the Knicks training camp, he stepped in a ditch while jogging on a grass-covered playing field and was back on crutches for nearly a month. "It would have been very easy to give up, and a lot of people would have understood," he says. "There were times when I wasn't seeing any results from my effort. But I would have had to live with questions in my own mind about whether I could have come back and played again. That was something I wasn't ready to do."
Although his $874,000 annual contract expires at the end of this season, King denies he is returning simply to showcase himself. "By no means is it a comeback in the sense that I'm back in my entirety," he says. "The first question they ask you is, 'Can you do all the things you used to do?' But it's unfair to judge me by what I once was. That's history. I am what I am today. I've made great strides, and if somewhere along the line I acquire the skills I had before, that's wonderful. I have certain standards that I have set for myself, and I will not play again unless I can play at that level. I won't settle for something less than the expectations I have for myself. But that's not what I'm looking at right now. A week from now my knee could swell up and it's all over. I try not to look too far ahead."
Shortly after he left the hospital, King had a dream that he cannot get out of his mind. "I dreamed we were getting ready to go out to play a game, and we were all standing in the tunnel, waiting, and then they call out my name," he says. "I was just about to take that first step out onto the court, and then the dream ended. I'm still waiting for that dream to happen." Sometimes dreams die hard. And sometimes they don't die at all.