Some men are born to greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. Then there's Washington Bullet equipment manager Charlie Butler, who rebounds for greatness and locks up when greatness leaves.
This is what makes Bernard King great: Heavy snow and freezing rain closed schools and made travel treacherous in Prince Georges County, Md., last Friday morning. King, who had been exempted from practice by Bullet coach Wes Unseld, pulled his blue Mercedes in front of the gym at Bowie State University just as his teammates were leaving. Inside, alone but for Butler, King rained jump shots. Ten off the left foot. Ten fading to his right. Ten fading to his left. Ten signature bump-and-fade numbers from the baseline.
Over and over King practiced the same preposterous, hair-trigger shots he had hoisted the night before, when the 6'7" forward scored 45 points in 39 minutes in a 122-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. King's 45 points, his seventh 40-plus game of the season, were 14 fewer than the Sacramento Kings scored that night. The total gave the 34-year-old King a 31.0 average and made him the leading scorer in the NBA, just as he was five years and 295 days before, when he crumpled to the floor in Kansas City with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
King's 45 came 12 days after he dropped 52 points on the Denver Nuggets. The 52 came almost seven years after he went for 50 on consecutive memorable nights as a New York Knick. And all of this has come in a singularly fascinating career that is missing nearly two years in its middle, years lost to King's difficult recovery from surgery.
January 21, 1991
"A lot of people, probably including myself, look at the period when I got back-to-back 50s as the height of my career," King would say later, staring at the abandoned practice court from a dilapidated stage. "During my recovery from surgery, that was the magical level to work toward again. And so to come back after the entire knee was reconstructed, to come back from seeing 40 metal staples running down the middle of my knee, to come back from being unable to lift my leg off the bed without help from my physical therapist, to come back from a surgery performed to allow me to walk properly again, to come back—I must say all this—to come back and get 50 points in a ball game again is one of the most special feelings in the world. It's something I will never forget. And it's something that I'm awfully proud of."
King has come back before, establishing himself as one of the game's premier players after incidents involving alcohol and brushes with the law in college and early in his NBA career. He is a fiercely proud man who has every right to feel that way in this, his fourth season back after his knee injury. King is not alone in his pride. "I've put out six books and 80-some articles, and yet I'll go down as Bernard King's doctor," says Dr. Norman Scott, who replaced King's anterior cruciate ligament with a band of ligaments from King's upper leg on April 1, 1985. "But that's fine. I just hope that in his lifetime, Bernard has someone who makes him as proud as he has made me."
Those people already exist for King. They are his parents, Thomas and Thelma, whom he credits with "whatever success I've had." But before we get to them, let us examine whatever success King has had. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny him a place along with Bird and Magic and Jordan in the modern-day NBA pantheon. But three-time All-Star King is genuinely concerned that he may not even land a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team next month. Still, while Larry Bird and Charles Barkley appear to have the starting forward spots wrapped up, it's hard to imagine that King won't be added to the Eastern team as a coach's selection.
"B played at that level before the injury," says guard Darrell Walker, King's teammate for seven seasons with the Knicks and now the Bullets. "And you have to say that this year, he's again on a level with the top five players in the league."
Jerry West (31) and George Gervin (30) were the oldest players ever to win a scoring title. Neither had to have his knee or his game remade. Which is why the two most impressive years of King's career are probably the two that he missed.
"People don't give him credit for his basketball intellect," says the Knicks' director of administration, Ernie Grunfeld, the second bill in the Bernie & Ernie Show at the University of Tennessee, who was King's teammate on the Knicks and is still his neighbor in Franklin Lakes, N.J. "Bernard had to consciously change his game. Completely. In New York he was a low-post player who could get out on the break and finish it off the wing. Now he's become a face-up player who has to hit the jump shot or drive to the hoop." At least one NBA observer says King had no choice but to change, having "lost that explosiveness."
Tell it to the Boston Celtics, whom King blowtorched for 37—raising his average to 31.2—in the Bullets' 116-99 win last Saturday night. Tell it to Butler, who would like to lock up at Bowie State, but who can't get King off the treadmill.
Tell it to King's younger brother Albert, now with the CBA's Albany Patroons, and he'll tell you about his and Bernard's five-hours-daily, seven-days-weekly workout routine this past off-season. "I've always believed that this is what has separated me from other players," Bernard says of his work habits.
And if it doesn't separate him from Albert, it is because they are both the children of their parents. "I watched how my father went out every day and worked at his job," says Bernard. "He worked in a housing development in Brooklyn, and I watched him work whether there was snow, whether there was rain, whether he was sick. He gave everything he had, and he wanted to be the best at what he did, which was keeping the buildings clean and maintaining them. My mother cooked a meal every single day, seven days a week. We didn't have a microwave, and we didn't eat frozen foods. She took care of the apartment, made sure that our clothes were clean, that they were sewn. That is hard work when you have six kids. So I emulated my parents. I work as hard at basketball as I saw them work."
King was still sweating. Butler had long since wheeled the ball rack away, but King was standing in the empty gym. "The ultimate for me would be to make the All-Star team," he said. "For two years I dedicated myself to dream. To play in an All-Star Game without an anterior cruciate ligament, when really no one thought that was possible, is something that pushed me. That's what I'm waiting on."