Posted Sep 6, 2013 10:08 AM
Bernard King has made it to the Hall of Fame, finally, and will be showered in praise at the induction Sunday afternoon in Springfield, Mass (2 p.m. ET, NBA TV). He will be recognized as one of the scoring stars of the late 1970s and through most of the 80s. He may get saluted for his perseverance.
But he is, even as he prepares to step to the stage in Symphony Hall for the enshrinement ceremony, the center of an intriguing "What could have been?" conversation. That's fair. The ultimate statement of his star-crossed career may be this:
King made it to the Hall of Fame without ever reaching his full potential.
King was not kind to opposing defenses, but the fates were not kind to him. He went from partnering in the Ernie and Bernie Show at the University of Tennessee with current Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld to averaging at least 22 points a game seven times (barely missing three other times) during a career of 10 full seasons and pieces of six others.
Those lost years were the problem.
It wasn't always misfortune. He was suspended by the Jazz and played only 19 games for Utah in 1979-80 as the result of being arrested for sexual abuse. Years later, in an interview with Harvey Araton of the New York Post, King said he had a drinking problem since college. But knee injuries are what really kept him out of action -- and out of the Hall -- for so long.
King averaged 26.3 points for the hometown Knicks in 1983-84, highlighted by back-to-back 50-point games, and was at a league-leading 32.9 a game deep into 1984-85 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. If a blown ACL is a big setback now, it was devastating decades ago. His career could have been over and, for a time, it was. King missed all the next season and played just six games in 1986-87 before New York let him go.
Then the strangest thing happened. King didn't just get back on the court. He got back to being King. The injury had clearly taken a toll, but he signed with Washington for 1987-88 and went from 17.2 points in 69 games during the comeback season to 20.7 in 81 games the next. He followed with 22.4 while playing all 82 in 1989-90 and, finally, to 28.4 points in 64 outings.
"I'll tell you, I never feared anybody that I ever played against, but I lived in fear of him," Dominique Wilkins said in February, after King was announced as a finalist for Springfield. "The guy was a machine. You could not guard him one-on-one. You can ask any of the greats of that era. You could not guard him one-on-one. It was impossible."
Missing all of the 1991-92 season was the next hit. Cartilage was removed from the same right knee, he spent a lot of time at home in New Jersey instead of with the Bullets, and he turned 35 during the season. He made it back for 32 games in 1992-93 with the Nets, his first team. But after that, he really was done.
He averaged 22.5 points a game in his career (despite the 9.3 one year with the Jazz and the 7.0 that final season while dragging the right leg around), made first-team All-NBA twice and second- and third-team two other times, made four All-Star squads and won the now-defunct Comeback Player of the Year. But, for 20 years, all those missed years were too much for Hall of Fame voters to overlook. Until now.
"You don't think about ever being inducted into the Hall of Fame," he said on NBA TV. "I didn't think about, 'It's been 10 years, 15 years' or anything of that nature whatsoever. I'm gratified that it happened at a time in my life when my daughter, who's 15 years old, will understand what's happening. If it had occurred 10 years earlier, she wouldn't understand it. I'm pleased that this is the right moment and the right time, and I'm delighted to be going in with the class of people that I'm going in with as well, Rick Pitino, my former assistant coach [with the Knicks]."
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