Torturous waking hours helped King fulfill dream

February 10, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

On the night of April 9, 1987, Bernard King stretched out on the hospital bed in the basement of his New Jersey home that had been converted into a mini-rehabilitation center for his shattered right knee.

He dreamed of how it would be to step on the floor of Madison Square Garden the next night and hear himself being introduced to the discriminating New York Knicks fans, who would rejoice in his return. And he could visualize making his patented post-up jump shot or flying down the left side of the court to finish a fast break.

He put a favorite record by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on his turntable, and the soothing jazz sounds helped him plot a night he had been assiduously working toward for more than two years.

"I couldn't sleep," King recalled. "I was thinking of all the work I had done to get to this point. No one will ever know what I went through and the emotions I felt. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

But now King, who before his serious injury on March 23, 1985, was leading the National Basketball Association in scoring and being compared favorably with Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird as the game's premier forward, was prepared to test the best again.

A perfectionist, King isolated himself for close to two seasons from the prying eyes of the media and team officials until he was certain he could play at a level that would satisfy the harshest of critics -- himself.

"In my mind, I felt I was ready to come back," King said. "I always had that inner strength. I never needed outside motivation. It would have been easy to give up, but then I would have always questioned myself. I demonstrated a great deal of patience with myself. Now I was ready to show the fans I could still play my game.

He turned off his record player, called Gillespie and said: "Diz, I'm coming back and I want you to be part of it. I'm getting you a ticket for tomorrow's game." And Gillespie said, " 'B' my man, I'll be there."

King, 34, has orchestrated his life to the point that this afternoon at the Charlotte Coliseum, he will be matching shots again with the NBA All-Stars. Only this time, it will be as as the unquestioned leader of the Washington Bullets.

He has written the most compelling story of the season, surviving a frightening injury that had ended the careers of several of his peers to challenge again for the NBA scoring lead.

It is an improbable tale, but one he has carefully crafted step by step, rebuilding and re-tuning his game to fit the times and his physical capabilities.

In plotting his comeback, he first interviewed a number of noted orthopedic surgeons, seeking reassurance that the chosen one not only could guarantee a successful operation, but also give him a chance to perform again like an All-Star.

Finally, King chose Dr. Norman Scott, the Knicks' team physician who used a radical procedure to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament. Scott's technique employed a muscle transfer that would allow King to rebuild the strength in his surgery-scarred knee. The same procedure worked in helping to salvage the hockey career of New York Rangers forward Anders Hedberg, but not to the lofty heights King has achieved.

"As a surgeon, I don't know what winning the Super Bowl is like, but it is certainly a delight to be part of Bernard's accomplishment," said Scott, who received a game ball from King after he scored 52 against the Denver Nuggets in December.

"There were three parts to the recovery," Scott said. "First, the surgery, second, the patient's determination and third, the rehabilitation. But we were fortunate in having a great combination in the therapist [Dania Sweitzer] and Bernard's unremitting focus."

Looking back on her six-day-a-week sessions with King, Swietzer said: "I knew Bernard could play basketball again, but I didn't know if it would be on an NBA level. People ask me why he was able to come back and others weren't. It started with his motivation. Bernard was shooting for something higher. He wouldn't be denied."

Former University of Tennessee teammate Ernie Grunfeld, who, with King, formed the "Bernie and Ernie" show for the Volunteers in the mid-1970s, also played with King and the Knicks in the '80s.

They remain close friends, and no one knows better thaGrunfeld, now the Knicks' assistant general manager, what makes King an unrelenting force.

"There was a long period during his rehab when he couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Grunfeld, "but Bernard is probably tougher mentally than anyone I've ever been around.

"Still, it's amazing to me what changes he has made in his game. He doesn't have that same awesome explosiveness he had before his injury when he was almost exclusively a post-up shooter. Now he uses picks more, shoots more from the perimeter and moves better without the ball. It's not easy to do something one way for 20 years and then change it and make it work. But Bernard has."

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