One of the most explosive scorers of his era, Bernard King had a fascinating career. He was never a flamboyant player … just an effective one. A 6-foot-7 small forward, he was a formidable offensive force who was at his best when he’d post up a defender and then would spin right or left to shake free for a lightning-quick turnaround jumper.
In the NBA, major knee reconstruction cost him two years at the peak of his abilities. When he returned to the court despite great odds against a comeback, he had to adjust his style of play to accommodate his diminished physical abilities. He proved many skeptics wrong when he became an All-Star. He poured in more than 19,000 points in a career spent with the New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and Washington Bullets.
King came from a distinguished basketball family. His younger brother, Albert, was once considered the greatest high school player in the country and went on to play several years in the NBA.
Bernard was a prep star at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School and moved on to a turbulent career at Tennessee marked by stardom on the court and a number of controversial incidents off of it. He declared himself eligible for the 1977 Draft after his junior year, during which he had scored an average of 25.8 ppg.
The New Jersey Nets made King the seventh overall pick and as a rookie, he led the team in scoring and placed 10th in the NBA with 24.2 ppg. He earned a berth on the All-Rookie Team but lost out on Rookie of the Year honors to the Phoenix Suns’ Walter Davis. The Nets, however, brought up the rear in the Atlantic Division with a 24-58 record.
King followed his rookie campaign with a 21.6 scoring average. But although he was a dominating player, his off-court problems continued. The Nets dealt him to Utah, where he played only 19 games in 1979-80 before seeking treatment for substance abuse. “I realized that if I drank, there would be no career, there would be no life,” he told HOOP magazine years later. “There’s not much more you can say after that.”
Before the 1980-81 season, the Jazz traded King to Golden State for Wayne Cooper and a second-round draft choice. King spent two seasons with the Warriors and averaged more than 20 ppg each season. In 1980-81, he averaged 21.9 ppg, shot .588 from the floor, and was named NBA Comeback Player of the Year. In 1981-82, he led the team with 23.2 ppg, made his first All-Star Game appearance and was selected to the All-NBA Second Team. He ranked eighth in the league in scoring and seventh in field-goal percentage (.566).
After the 1981-82 campaign, King signed with the New York Knicks. The Warriors exercised their right of first refusal, matching the offer and then trading King to the Knicks for Micheal Ray Richardson and a draft choice.
King enjoyed his greatest glory while playing in a New York uniform. His scoring output increased each year with the Knicks, from 21.9 ppg in 1982-83 to 26.3 ppg (fifth in the league) in 1983-84.
He almost single-handely led the Knicks to their first-round series win over the Detroit Pistons in 1984 as he posted over 40 points in four games and 36 in the other. King averaged 34.8 ppg in the ’84 playoffs as New York reached the Eastern Conference semifinals, where it lost to Boston in seven games.
In 1984-85, King was the main attraction in the Big Apple and beyond. He led the NBA in scoring (32.9 ppg) and provided a memorable heat wave in the middle of winter. On Christmas Day he scored 60 points against New Jersey (a Knick franchise record), and on Feb. 16, he dropped 55 points on the Nets.
“Talk to any guy who’s a scorer, and he’ll tell you there are times when you go into a zone,” King told Inside Sports. “When I was averaging 30 points a game. I didn’t have to think about anything. Everything is happening on a very instinctual level. On a particular night, no matter what you do, there’s a feeling it’s going to work. It’s an incredible feeling. There’s nothing like it.”
Then his fairy-tale season had a horror-movie ending. On March 23 at Kansas City, King crumbled to the floor with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The knee was so seriously mangled that he missed the 1985-86 season and all but the final six games of 1986-87.
That injury prompted a slump by the Knicks at the conclusion of the 1984-85 season and eventually placed the team in the inaugural NBA Draft Lottery. The Knicks got lucky, though, and landed the No. 1 pick — which they used to draft Patrick Ewing. However, King missed Ewing’s entire rookie season and in the next season, Ewing was injured for the six games King played.
In those six games, King averaged 22.7 ppg, proving that he had successfully rehabilitated himself. But the Knicks were no longer interested in him, and they renounced his rights after the 1986-87 season.
New York — and the rest of the league — then watched in wonder as the scoring machine worked his way back up with the Bullets. He averaged 17.2 ppg in his first comeback season and increased his scoring for the following three years until 1990-91, when he reached 28.4 ppg (third in the NBA behind Michael Jordan and Karl Malone) and returned — up to that point as the oldest starter ever — to an NBA All-Star Game.
Even more remarkably, King changed his playing style to accommodate the loss of explosiveness he suffered due to his knee injury. Where most of his points had once come from posting up and flinging in bump-and-fade jumpers from the baseline, the “new” King was a face-up player who scored most of his points slashing to the basket.
Not only had he reconstructed his knee and his career, but he also had rehabbed his reputation from that of a troubled Brooklyn prodigy to that of a thoughtful (if moody) superstar. He later told Inside Sports, “If I’m going to do something in life, I’ve always felt I had to be the best at it. That feeling drives me, gives me motivation. I knew that it would take a tremendous amount of effort to play again, but I wanted it. I didn’t want to just come back, I wanted to come back as an All-Star.”
Another knee operation, this time to remove cartilage, was performed before the 1991-92 season, and it eventually took its toll. He missed that campaign, then was waived by the Bullets in January of 1993. He latched on with the Nets and played 32 games before retiring after the 1992-93 season. King had scored 19,655 points for a career average of 22.5 ppg.
In 2013, King received an honor he had long waited for once his playing days were done — a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. King once said that his biggest regrets were not winning a championship ring and, to a lesser extent, not making the 20,000-point club. “But you know what I’m going to do about that?” he thought aloud in Newsday in 1993. “At some point before the winter begins, I’m going to go in the backyard and score 350 points. So that’ll bring me up to par.”