Posted Dec 21 2009 10:40AM
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Scrooge had a game face on Christmas. The Grinch had a game face on Christmas. But Bernard King had a game face on Christmas that made those mugs look like Tiny Tim or just another Who in Whoville.
Thing is, the explosive scorer for the New York Knicks and four other teams had that game face, that same face, every night he played. Christmas just got in the way of it back in December 1984, same as the New Jersey Nets on the night King went all "Bah, humbug!'' on them with 60 points at Madison Square Garden.
"Bernard's greatest skill was his emotions,'' longtime Knicks broadcaster John Andariese told me last week. "I did a show with him for NBA TV a few years ago and I kidded him about his game face. If you saw him before a game, he had a face on him where you wouldn't dare go near him for fear he'd bite your head off. More so than anyone I've ever seen. He prepared himself for every game. He really got into it. He went so hard. He was really, really something.''
Never more so than 25 years ago this Friday, when a succession of Nets defenders handled King about as well as Ebenezer handled Marley's ghost. At age 28, King was in his absolute prime eight years into a 14-season NBA career. He had averaged 26.3 points in 1983-84 and was on his way to the scoring title in 1984-85 (32.9 ppg) when he woke up with more on his mind than what Santa left under the tree. It's a good thing scowls don't translate over the phone or I might have gotten one the other day.
"I had a game face every night I stepped on the floor. I think it helped to deter some of my defenders,'' King said with a laugh. "It was never meant for that -- even though I might have looked intimidating, I was never an intimidating guy.''
His results often were, though. The previous winter, on consecutive nights, King scored 50 points against San Antonio and Dallas. He made the second of four All-Star teams, was named all-NBA first team and helped the Knicks push Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, averaging 34.8 points that postseason.
Half a year later, the 6-foot-7 native of Brooklyn and product of the University of Tennessee let Rudolph, Comet, Dasher and Prancer handle the sleigh while he did the blitzin'. King scored 40 points in the first half of the Knicks' 120-114 loss, on his way to breaking Richie Guerin's club record of 57 set in 1959. It was the most points in an NBA game in seven seasons, dating back to April 9, 1978, when David Thompson scored 73 and George Gervin swiped the scoring title by scoring 63 later that night. And it stood as a Garden record until Kobe Bryant scored 61 there last February.
Afterward, in an Associated Press story, King was quoted: "I'd rather have scored 10 and we had won the game. To lose a game that we had control of the whole way is very frustrating.'' Even now, he said, the sting remains. "Certainly, that performance, to me, on that day was not meaningful to me to the extent that we lost. We were not successful as a team in winning, so I could not take any joy that day in scoring 60 points.''
He can, at least, take some satisfaction. King has said that playing in New York, in Madison Square Garden, means more than just competing -- it means performing. Especially on Christmas, when the casual fans, the non-fans and so many of the league's players and coaches might be watching on TV.
"It was very important to me that we got off to a very good start that game,'' he said. "I got rolling, and as good a team as the Nets were, they really didn't have a defensive system that was going to stop me.''
New York twice led by as much as 16 points. Down 64-54 halfway through, Nets coach Stan Albeck simply wanted someone other than King to beat his team. "I looked at the halftime stats and Bernard had 40,'' Albeck said that day. "Everybody else [on the Knicks] had two and three. So we just wanted to get the ball out of his hands in the second half.''
The Nets scratched back and finally got their first lead since the game's opening bucket when Micheal Ray Richardson finished a three-point play to make it 106-105 with five minutes left. Moments later, Richardson, who finished wit 36 points, scored four more during a 12-0 New Jersey run. Mike Gminski had 27 points and 14 rebounds for the Nets while Kelvin Ransey added 24 points. Pat Cummings and Rory Sparrow provided King's best help with 13 points each.
New Jersey used five different defenders on King, with Albeck shuffling through his deck before settling on journeyman big man George Johnson. "George's long arms bothered him a little bit in the second half,'' the Nets coach said. "But it was a great individual achievement.''
Said King: "I don't remember how many guys but I do remember they were rotating different players out on me, from Buck Williams to Micheal Ray Richardson to the other players they had that night. I typically faced my younger brother Albert, who would have played the bulk of minutes at that position, but due to injury he didn't play that night.''
Johnson ended up with four blocked shots in the game, though it's unclear how many, if any, came at King's expense. King simply didn't have that happen much, despite his modest height and playing within 15 feet of the basket most of the time. His unorthodox style included a release of his shots on the way up and an unusual pivot that threw off his defenders' timing.
"I never fully turned to face a player when I made my shots,'' King said, sharing his secret. "Most people teach you to fully pivot and face and go up, but when I spun, I didn't spin on my toe. I spun on my heel. ... If you try it, if you slightly raise the front of your foot and pivot on your heel, I guarantee you you're going to spin faster. And when I turned, I didn't turn and face you -- I went up in the air and elevated as I was facing the baseline. So all of that went into what people have said might have been the quickest release in basketball.
"Then I didn't follow through -- if you look at a [photo], my hand is extended but you never see the follow-through. That allowed me to get the shot off quicker against guys who were bigger, so they didn't block my shot.''
In today's NBA, L.A. Clippers forward Craig Smith comes the closest with his "quick-up'' shot from close in. Back then, Hubie Brown -- whose time as Knicks head coach (1982-87) coincided with King's years there -- considered King to be one of the great "assassins'' he ever worked with, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson (Brown was a Bucks assistant in the early 1970s).
King, however, isn't in the Hall of Fame, despite his scoring title, his 19,655 points and his flair for the dramatic on the NBA's biggest stage. He was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1981 but that award doesn't even exist anymore, dropped in 1985 because too many winners -- King included -- were being recognized for returning to form from addictions or other vices.
It was King's other comeback that merited the recognition, anyway: Late in his storybook season, he shredded the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at Kansas City, an injury so severe that he missed the entire 1985-86 season and all but six games of 1986-87. The Knicks, with Patrick Ewing on board, moved on, renouncing King's rights. But he rehabbed himself to be an All-Star, averaging 17.2, 20.7 and 22.4 points in three seasons with Washington, then topping that at 28.4 at age 34 in 1990-91.
These days, King's passions are poured into the company he owns in Atlanta, Thompson Energy Solutions, that helps businesses reduce their energy consumption. It's an ironic role, if you think about it, for a fellow who didn't ration out his energy on NBA courts. And who, just like Santa, didn't treat Christmas as a day off.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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