I was watching Derrick Rose’s press conference yesterday, and as a Chronic Knick Fan I couldn’t help being transported back in time when another seriously injured Fallen Star was unceremoniously let go from his beloved team in a city that loved him, only to recapture glory, if only briefly, on another team.
A RE-EDITED STORY FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF BASKETBALL, VOLUME ONE, THE NBA IN THE DECADE OF THE EIGHTIES.
Knick fans know the never-ending saga, featuring a history of senseless trades, weak drafts, oft-injured players, revolving door Coaches, clueless General Managers, rudderless ownership, horrendous starts, worse finishes, forgettable decades. Jordan. Charles Smith blocked x 4. Starks 2 for 18. Isiah and Marbury. Yada, yada, yada.
Fans of my generation, born around 1960 were still young enough to smell the liniment on Willis Reed’s knees, hear the twine of the net pop on a Bill Bradley jumper or Dave DeBusschere’s grunts while snatching down rebounds; race downcourt with Walt “Clyde” Frazier after he’d hijack an opponent’s dribble or throw a patented head fake, then hit the dagger shot of the game; spin with Earl Monroe thru the lane, double pump, flip the ball off the backboard, into the cup. Catch a Phil Jackson elbow, watch the flight of a Jerry Lucas bomb. Watching Coach Red Holtzman deftly orchestrate the show from the bench. Listening to Marv Albert’s golden voice on the radio, “DeBusschere over to Bradley in the corner, now to Frazier across to Reed, down the lane, Yes!! and it counts!.”
My memory could still hear the roar of the MSG crowd, the thunderous din of “Dee-Fense”, “DEE-FENSE”; feeling my heart beat through my chest while yelling at the top of my lungs on so many winter weeknights into spring in front of the TV, from middle school thru high school, together with my older Brother leaping out of our seats time and time again, experiencing basketball poetry in motion, while the Knicks would prevail time and time again.
Then it was gone.
By 1984, the 10 year drought of Championship caliber Basketball weighed heavier on fans than the New York skyline. The Knick faithful, (of which I am a charter member), was still easily seduced by the continuing Knick soap opera, known as “This Season’s Savior”. Spencer Haywood, Marvin Webster, Bob McAdoo, Bill Cartwright (who had the misfortune of entering the league the same year as Bird and Magic, which amplified his deficiencies, then distinguishing himself for having all of Bill Walton’s foot injuries but none of Walton’s game); mercurial but troubled guard Michael “Sugar Ray” Richardson and the like; either their best days were behind them, or the crucible of New York pressure just got the best of them.
In the 82-83 Season, the Knicks traded Richardson, who had a problem with substance abuse that eventually cost him his career, for forward Bernard King, raised in Brooklyn, who had a history of alcohol abuse which nearly cost him his career. While Fans saw this move as another botched Knick transaction, Bernard King sensed an opportunity for recovery and redemption. Released from the relative obscurity of the Golden State Warriors (yes kids the Warriors used to suck), Bernard returned home to play in the place he dreamed of as a kid, Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of Basketball, with a clean slate, in a city starved for heroes, desperate to win again.
To say the Bernard King carried a Knick fan’s hopes on his shoulders is the understatement of the decade. Coach Hubie Brown, as tough a taskmaster that ever walked an NBA sideline, knew he had struck oil and gold in the same vein. Brown coupled the prodigious King’s offense with a full- court, 48 minute pressing, trapping defense, and by the 1984 season, the 47 win Knicks rekindled the flame that had been barely a flicker for far too long. Bernard’s performances had Knick fans thinking about a deep playoff run for the first time in a decade. New York finally found a player to look Magic and Bird in the squarely in the eyes without blinking.
King was fearless. Deftly mixing an assortment of quick-release 15 to 18 foot jumpers with dynamic slashes to the basket, he played every game as if possessed, locked in for 48 minutes. He became the most dangerous scoring machine in the NBA, power lifting the Knicks into conference contention, while dueling for 1984 league MVP honors with Larry Bird the entire season. This while playing with a clearly inferior supporting cast to the Lakers or Celtics, as King, Knick defense and Brown’s coaching made up for lack of All Star support. Larry Bird won the regular season MVP award, but made it clear he would have voted for Bernard, the supreme compliment.
The 5-game, first- round playoff series are typically footnotes during the “second season” of any year, that initial round and all performances in them typically forgotten before the second round gets underway. The Celtics, who would win the East, then the NBA Championship that year had minimal concern with New York and King, as Boston was big, deep, and experienced, while the Knicks were viewed as little more than a one man show on a junior varsity squad. The Knicks’ first round opponent, the Detroit Pistons were led by diminutive but tough as nails Isiah Thomas. New York and Detroit were tied 2 games apiece, and game 5 on a steamy hot Friday night in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena found the Knicks 8 points ahead and the Pistons 94 seconds away from elimination.
Thomas, in what was to be the first national display of his individual playoff brilliance, wasn’t ready to go home. He scored sixteen points in those 94 seconds, all on a variety of playground moves, stunning New York, nearly giving Hubie Brown a coronary, and sending the game into overtime.
New York once again turned to their savior, and King carried them in the extra period, featuring a Spiderman meets Superman putback slam to seal the deal.
King scored 213 points in the series, an average of 42.6 per game, to this point the all-time record in a 5 game series, passing the 23 year old record of 197 points set by Laker legend Elgin Baylor.
The Celtics weren’t impressed. Celtic defensive stopper and infamous trash talker Cedric Maxwell took the King challenge with relish, vowing pre-series that King would never visit the neighborhood of 40 points against their superior front line. The Celtics outlasted the Knicks in 7 games, winning their 4 home games by large margins, but the King of New York gave Knick fans 3 fantastic performances in MSG, scoring 43 and 44 in games 4 and 6, both Knick victories. The Celtic depth and majesty of Bird, who averaged 30.4 points in the series, proved too much for King and the Knicks to overcome, but new hope rose from the ashes of defeat on the streets of Manhattan. Basking in the glow of King’s 34.8 ppg average in the 84 playoffs,
the Knicks seemed only a few players away from serious title contention, as King was now a certified All NBA first teamer, league leading scorer and cornerstone of the future.
That future was short-lived. The Knicks couldn’t capitalize on the momentum of 1984, struggled through 1985, and suffered a devastating loss when King shredded the Anterior Cruciate Ligament of his Knee in March of 1985, shredding Knick hopes, driving them into the basement of the Atlantic Division. King would treat knee rehab as he played the game, working out like a madman, finally ready to return 18 months later. In my meager defense of Knick Management, the later advances in Orthopedic Surgery, Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation were just scratching the surface in 1985. Players of that era just didn’t come back from ACL tears, and if they did, they were shells of their former selves, not Franchise Players.
A silver lining in that dark cloud would emerge, as the King injury positioned the Knicks to win the 1985 Draft Lottery and its biggest prize, Georgetown Center Patrick Ewing. Welcome, new Savior. Keeping faithful to their legacy of short-sided decisions, King would only play only 6 more games with the Knicks, who refused to sign King and his post-surgical Knee to a big dollar contract extension.
Folks, this exchange actually happened; I saw Knick Coach Rick Pitino at the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles during an early season game with the Lakers in 1987 before the news of King’s departure to Washington had been reported; (remember kids, this was light years before social media).
Our conversation went like this…
Me: “Hey Coach, how’s Bernard?”
Pitino: “We had to let him go”
What followed was that long, painful, awkward silence when your mind is racing at the speed of light trying to bring something out of your mouth that has even an iota of coherence, similar to the shock of being rear ended by a Bus while your car is at a complete stop. At that moment my gaze looked completely through Pitino, into the inner depths of his very soul.
Me: “Uh, Who…who’d you get for him?”.
Pitno: “Nobody…He had us over a Barrel”.
Nobody. NOBODY FOR BERNARD KING.
…yet another eternal pause….
Me: “Uh, good luck this season, Coach”.
Bernard took his reconditioned limb and wounded pride on an Amtrak ride south to the Nation’s Capital, where he would star for 4 seasons with the Washington Bullets, reaching the 40 and 50 point game marks again, making the playoffs, embarrassing the Knicks in 1991, smoking them for 49 in the Garden, even making the 1991 NBA All Star Team, if not quite returning to All- NBA form. Knick fans can only speculate how King would have benefited from playing in a frontcourt alongside Patrick Ewing for 4 years, and vice-versa. Ten excruciating seasons later, in 1994 once again with a stifling defense, a great coach and an average supporting cast, Ewing played in his first NBA Final. He too, lost in 7 games to the league MVP, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Some things never change. The soap opera continues, the Knick Management spending last 15 years looking for their next chapter of “This Year’s Savior”, while Knick fans just look for empathy.
So Maybe, just maybe, for at least one fun-filled season Derek Rose (aka This Season’s Savior) is the Karmic debt payoff for Bernard King.
And 29 years later, the wheels on the Knick Bus still go round and round, round and round, round and round….