Bullets' King has come back for his crown

JOHN EISENBERG

February 02, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

LANDOVER -- It was such a high that his adrenalin was still pumping when he got back to his house in the middle of the night, after the long bus ride from the game in New York. He didn't want to go to sleep, couldn't, so he turned on the television. The game was being shown again on a cable channel. Bernard King wanted to stay up with the insomniacs and watch. Oh, yes.

Forty-nine-points again. Twenty-three-points-in-the-fourth-quarter again. It was a game you could watch a dozen times. It was a game you could eat, each bite as sweet as a dollop of fresh butterscotch. It was late, though, very late, and he had another game in 17 hours, so he reluctantly set his VCR after a few minutes and dropped into bed. "Watched the tape when I got up," he said.

He was talking last night, before the Bullets played the Detroit Pistons at the Capital Centre, as he was making the rounds in the empty arena, talking to the local channels, the networks, the print hounds. In his locker sat a note from the Pistons' Dennis Rodman, congratulating him on, well, on the spectacle of his season. He wore a brilliant, multicolored vest, and his smile was every bit as bright.

That is one of the many charms of this story. King is thrilled about all of this, thrilled to the point of tears, and he isn't at all afraid to show it. No macho nonchalance here. King has worked too hard for too long to hide his joy. "It's taken me six years to get back to this point," he said. "No one knows how hard I worked."

The anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee snapped one night in Kansas City, just before the playoffs began in 1985, and they rebuilt the ligaments and it was almost two years before he was back on a court for a game. That he even came that far was considered something of a miracle. When he signed a contract )) with the Bullets and became a 20-a-night scorer again, a complete comeback was pronounced by all.

We know now, though, that it wasn't truly complete in King's mind, that his idea of complete was to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when there wasn't a pair of legs in the league that could stop him, when he could go for 50 any night, trade baskets with Bird and Magic, sink whole defenses -- when he was an All-Star. "I'm a dreamer," he said, "and I dreamed a lot [during his rehab] about getting back to that. And your dreams can come true."

The thing to understand is that this just doesn't happen, that he is 34 in a young man's league, that the span of his recovery and rennaissance has been so long that another generation has moved in, that among the league's top 10 scorers he is the oldest by four years. It just doesn't happen. You can hang on in the NBA as a rebounder or defender or backup big man. Not as a scorer.

Admittedly, it didn't hurt that the Bullets traded their other top scorer in the offseason, sending Jeff Malone to Utah, leaving King as the sole threat on a young team desperate for offense. But let's not put too many asterisks on top of this shower of points. The force of his will is the story.

He gets the ball on the wing, a dozen feet from the basket, and all the old moves are there again, much like old friends from high school. He goes straight up and shoots, his release too quick to block. He lowers his head and angles toward the basket, holding the ball until he sees an opening in the sea of arms. He puts his back to the defender, pauses, spins.

No one says it is balletic. No one says it is beautiful. It is just tough and professional and relentless, and sweat pours off his face, gathering at his chin before it drops, and his eyebrows form a nightmare scowl of such fierceness that it almost seems contrived until you see that it doesn't go away, not from the first dribble of the game to the last. Oh, and the knee brace is long gone. "The knee just never comes up," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said.

That he would make next weekend's All-Star Game became a formality as this season progressed, as he hit for 30, 40, 35, 45, even 50 one night against Denver. There will be no topping what happened in New York Thursday night, though. The 49 against his old team, his hometown team, the team that gave up on him. That blessed 23-spot in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks were running four defenders at him and it didn't matter.

"It's been a long time since I've seen anyone that focused and determined," Unseld said. "There was one point during a timeout when I started to go into the huddle and stopped and saw his face, and I said: 'Hey, I ain't going in there. Something's got a hold of him.' It was more than just a look, believe me."

It was, indeed. It was a gathering of the myriad components of the comeback. "To go back home as an All Star, and to be able to play like that in front of my fans in New York and all the people that helped me through these years, it was really a crowning moment for me," King said. "I can truly say I will never forget it."

Then he was out of his vest and into his uniform and out onto the court, the stands full, another night, another set of young, fresh legs ready to rumble with him. It is his arena. It is his show. "The first person," he said, unable to hide a wry, proud smile, "ever to play in the All-Star Game without an anterior cruciate ligament."

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