Return to 50s is special trip for King Bullets forward calls big night 'incredible'

December 31, 1990|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

LANDOVER -- The past, present and future all converged in Bernard King's mind Saturday night, as the Washington Bullets forward scored 52 points in a 161-133 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

"This was an incredible experience for me," said King, whose output Saturday represents the most by any Bullet since the team moved from Baltimore in 1973. "To come back from major knee surgery, when so many people doubted if I would ever play at this level again, scoring 50 points is something very special."

The game ball was tucked safely in King's locker, earmarked for delivery to New York to Dr. Norman Scott, the orthopedic surgeon who used a new procedure to reconstruct the right knee King damaged as a member of the New York Knicks, March 12, 1985. At the time, he was leading the National Basketball Association in scoring.

"I can still see Bernard soaring to block a shot by [then Kansas City Kings guard] Reggie Theus, and then crumbling to the floor, holding his knee. It was sickening," said Darrell Walker, now reunited with King in Washington.

The injury would keep King on the sidelines for nearly two full seasons. After the Knicks decided not to re-sign him in 1987, the Bullets offered him a two-year contract.

How far has he come? Today, King, now 34, again leads the NBA scoring race with a 30.2 average.

King, who recently signed a two-year contract extension worth $5 million, thought back to the days in 1985 when he wondered whether he ever would play again.

One night, sleeping on a hospital bed in the basement of his

New Jersey home, King awoke from a nightmare, his body drenched in sweat.

Determined to get a drink of water, he hoisted himself into a wheelchair and headed for the water cooler in an adjoining room. King found his path blocked by a gate. Upset and thirsty, he was not to be deterred.

As King recalled, "I pulled myself up the cellar stairs backward, step by step, on my rear end. When I got to the top, I shimmied across the kitchen floor, got a pair of pliers and started back down.

"I know I had an evil grin on my face because I was determined to rip that gate apart. I slid back down the stairs, and tore the gate out.

"The next morning when I told my wife what I had done, she thought I was crazy. But I knew right then that I was going to make it back. If I was that determined to get a drink of water, nothing was going to keep me from playing basketball again."

Indeed. King used that same will to overcome an injury that had ended or shortened the careers of a number of his contemporaries, including Mitch Kupchak, Campy Russell and Toby Knight.

First, he had to learn to swim, after his mother had put the fear of water in him as a youth growing up in Brooklyn. But physical therapist Dania Sweitzer put him in a pool daily to strengthen the injured knee. After swimming his first lap, King said, he felt as if he had scored 50 points.

"That's Bernard," said Walker. "He can set his mind to accomplish whatever he wants to do. Truthfully, I never thought I'd see him score 50 in a game again, but no one deserves it more than he does.

"You can understand better just watching himself prepare for a game. He gets himself so pumped up. He's already sweating hTC before he gets on the court. Then he puts on his game face, and nothing is going to stop him from succeeding."

Walker learned, when he was a rookie guard in New York during the 1983-84 season, what makes King tick.

"I was there for the 'Texas Massacre' when Bernard got 50 two straight nights, against San Antonio and Dallas, and finished the trip with 25 against Houston. No one could stop him."

King continued his rampage in the 1984 playoff series against Detroit, averaging better than 40 points a game.

"We got down to a last-shot situation at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit," Walker recalled. "Our coach, Hubie Brown, started to diagram a play. Bernard said: 'Get that stuff out of the way. Shut up, just get me the ball and I'll do the rest.' And damn if he didn't win it for us."

Bullets coach Wes Unseld has a special respect for King's work ethic, which was similar to his own as an undersized center and the backbone of the Bullets franchise for more than a decade.

It is why Unseld put him back in the closing minutes of a one-sided game Saturday night, watching King score his final field goal with an acrobatic move in the lane.

"The knee?" Unseld said in response to a question. "Bernard never talks about it. He may say his arm, back or leg hurts him, but he never mentions the knee. He just goes out and plays hard every night."

The 52 points left King four short of the Bullets all-time mark, set by Earl Monroe against the Los Angeles Lakers in Baltimore, Feb. 13, 1968. Phil Chenier, who joined the team while it was based in Baltimore and now is a Bullets broadcaster, is next on the list with the 53 he scored against Portland, Dec. 6, 1972.

What can King do for an encore?

"Making the All-Star team, that would be the culmination of all I set out to do after my knee injury," he said. "That's the goal I set the start of this season. Then, I'll know I've come all the way back."

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