LANDOVER -- For the Washington Bullets, last night was just another mini-step toward respectability. For Bernard King, the events of yesterday represented the culmination of perhaps the greatest comeback in NBA history and the realization of a dream only he can fully appreciate.
The Bullets only had to rally from a six-point deficit in the final four minutes to record a 105-101 victory over the Miami Heat at the Capital Centre. King had to reconstruct his career after doctors reconstructed his knee.
Six years ago King had little chance of playing basketball anywhere except possibly in pickup schoolyard games in his native New York, where he originally refined his skills. The idea of King returning to the NBA, even in a limited role, was so remote the Knicks let him escape as a free agent despite a 22.7 average in a six-game trial run at the end of the 1986-87 season.
He had been away from competition for two years, working out in isolation, far from the rigors of the NBA. Even if he was a medical marvel, King, then 30, was considered a bad financial risk in a league that has a salary cap that often appears to be unlimited.
It is easy then to understand King's emotional reaction yesterday when he was informed he had been selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game Feb. 10 in Charlotte. The announcement wasn't unexpected, since King was third in the voting. He is a likely starter because of injuries to Larry Bird and Charles Barkley.
But when you've survived what King has been through, nothing is to be assumed -- especially what has to be considered the culmination of a six-year comeback. "To the best of my knowledge, nobody's ever been able to do what Bernard has done," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld, who knows a little about knee operations. "To come back with a reconstructed knee and become an All-Star, I can't help but think it's a great tribute to him as an individual."
Before dropping a 26-point postscript during last night's win, King admitted that his All-Star selection had special meaning. "For six years I've dreamed of this moment," he said. "From Day One after the injury, I said to the doctor prior to surgery and to my therapist, 'It's going to take a lot of hard work -- I hope you know what you're getting yourself into.'
"For me, this is a very special day," said King, 34. "When I think back to the many hours I spent working in my basement on a
daily basis -- this is a very emotional moment -- to the doctors who told me I would never play again, to all the naysayers who said I would never reach this level again, to me this is the culmination of my goal and my drive. The comeback was not complete until this occasion. It took six years to get here, but it was well worth it."
Ironically, the doctor who played such a vital part in King's rehabilitation is Dr. Norman Scott, team physician and surgeon for the Knicks. He was among the first to find out about King's selection yesterday.
"He was as excited and proud as I am," King said of Scott. "I don't need to send him anything, he's going to be right there in Charlotte. Everyone will be there, so it's going to be a special weekend for us and a special moment for me when I step on the court."
What has made King's performance even more impressive is the fact that the more the Bullets have needed him, the more he has scored. This is the fourth straight year his average (29.9) has improved -- and he's challenging for the scoring lead despite the absence of a proven scorer to help shoulder the load.
A year ago, when he finished with a 22.4 average, King stepped it up to 24 points per game after John Williams went down with a knee injury. This year, with Williams still sidelined, guard Jeff Malone traded and Ledell Eackles only a memory from last year, King has been amazing.
"I don't know if you can call it a six-year comeback or not," said Unseld. "But in the four years he's been here, Bernard has done everything we've asked him -- both on and off the court."
King admits he had to adjust his style when Unseld became coach. "When Wes took the job, he said he was going to institute a passing game," said King. "I had never played in a passing game in my life.
He forced me to grow as a player and each summer I got better because of it. I don't think what happened today would have taken place without Wes. I'm definitely a more complete player, I can do more things than during my years in New York."
But there is still one thing that King does better than anything else -- put the ball in the basket. That's the reason he's going to Charlotte.
The reason he's still putting the ball in the basket is an incredible work ethic that refused to let a broken body break his determination.