Before King James, there was Bernard King.
King was not flamboyant, just effective. He was a formidable offensive force who was at his best when posting up a defender with his back to the basket, then spinning right or left to shake free for a lightning-quick turnaround jump shot.
NBA TV recently aired “Unstoppable”, a documentary on one of the NBA’s greatest scorers.
King had a fascinating but incomplete career. Major knee reconstruction cost him two years at the peak of his powers. When he returned to the court, despite great odds against a comeback, he had to adjust his style of play to accommodate his diminished physical abilities. He proved many skeptics wrong when he became an All-Star. He averaged 22 points per game in a career that spanned 14 years, with stops in New Jersey, Utah, Golden State, New York, and Washington.
“Money! Bernard King was money,” Magic Johnson said.
King is one of the newest members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, a list that includes Gary Payton, Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, Dawn Staley, Guy Lewis, Sylvia Hatchell, Roger Brown, E.B. Henderson, Oscar Schmidt, Richie Guerin, and Russ Granik. King amassed more than 19,000 points and enjoyed his greatest glory while playing in a Knicks uniform.
“There’s a connection forever with Bernard King and New York City basketball,” former NBA great Chris Mullin said. “He was our guy.”
His scoring output increased each year with the Knicks, from 21.9 points per game in 1982-83 to 26.3 (fifth in the league) in the 1983-84 season. In the playoffs, King and Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas authored one of the greatest duels the league has ever seen. On April 27, 1984, Game 5 was held in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. The stadium was jam packed and extremely humid. King, playing with broken fingers on both hands, scored 12 of his game-high 44 points in the final 5:12 of the fourth quarter, but Thomas fired back by tallying Detroit’s final 14 points in just 1:34 to send the game into overtime. King and the Knicks would eventually outlast the Pistons, 127-123.
King averaged 34.8 points in the ’84 playoffs as New York reached the Eastern Conference semifinals, where it lost to Boston in seven games.
“The beauty of his game, the most sensational part, was the running on the break,” former Knicks coach Hubie Brown said. “He was like a bird swooping to the basket. And then you go, ‘My God! How did that happen?’ ”
In 1984-85, King was the main attraction in the Big Apple and beyond. The Brooklyn native led the NBA in scoring (32.9) and provided the season’s most memorable games. On Christmas Day he scored 60 points against New Jersey (a Knick franchise record) and on Feb. 16 he dropped 55 points on the Nets.
“Every time I go back to New York City, it’s as if I was still playing the game in terms of how fans are receptive to me,” King said. “New York fans are very special, and I think they appreciated how I played the game on a night in and night out basis and how I represented them.”
Even though King never won an NBA championship or a regular-season MVP, he left a huge imprint in the game of basketball. He will go down in history as one of the all-time great scorers. And who knows how his career would have turned out if he never got hurt.