By Jason Keidel
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I am a proud product of the 1980s, the decade of Izod shirts, Polo cologne, Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson. But the King of Pop wasn’t the only one whose moves we mimicked on the street. Another King had a robust congregation on the basketball court.
For a few, fleeting years, Bernard King was the most potent scoring machine on Earth.
While the national debate du jour was Larry vs. Magic — as the lone white boy on the block everyone looked at me and barked “Bird,” which nauseated me no end as a Celtics hater — the five boroughs doubled as an altar where we worshiped King.
Just before Michael Jordan made the hardwood his personal fiefdom, King was the irresistible force against the once-rugged, immovable defenses of the NBA, where hand-checking, decking and even punching were pro forma.
Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, King had a stellar, signature move that made otherwise otherworldly defenders look like they were chasing him on a beach. As soon as King got the rock on the low block, you knew he’d fake one way and then whip the other, his endlessly long arms high while he finished his pirouette fadeaway jumper just off the baseline. And he could drill it from either side, backboard be damned. You could have blindfolded King and he would have nailed that shot half the time.
When King was on — and he was on a lot from 1983 until 1986 — it felt like defenses just congregated near the net, awaiting King’s flawless fadeaway to twist through the twine.
Hubie Brown was (and still is) a great basketball mind who can break down a game with alarming ease, a walking “Basketball for Dummies” handbook. But when you have Rory Sparrow, Bill Cartwright, Truck Robinson and Trent Tucker, the best play almost every time is simply “Give it to No. 30.”
But it says here that King is not a Hall of Famer, despite his recent Springfield calling. And it kills me to say that. Indeed, King is much like another NYC star of the ’80s — Don Mattingly — who was dominant for a brief, enchanted slice of his career, just long enough to be an icon but not an immortal. And like Mattingly, injuries are what kept King from staying atop his craft. If not for balky knees, King would have been in the same discussion with Julius Erving, George Gervin and other transcendent scorers of his time.
King was only an All-Star four times. He didn’t score 20,000 points, won just one scoring title, never won league MVP and doesn’t have a championship ring. For all his talent, King started a mere 547 games, which make up about half of his 14 NBA seasons. King was stellar enough, just not sturdy enough.
We all exaggerate the heroes of our adolescence, and few are more guilty than yours truly. But as someone who loved sports and is now paid to discuss them, I know the difference between Jordan and King. And, sadly, the difference is significant.
Most of all, King played with an understated dignity that is so hard to find these days. For every Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, there’s a phalanx of me-first mantras and groin-grabbing dunks. King never showed up a referee, coach or teammate. He never pounded a part of his body after scoring because it was his job. He was old-school in the most noble sense of the term.
All of this makes King hardwood royalty.
Just not a Hall of Famer. And it kills me to say that.
What’s your take? Is Bernard King a deserving Hall of Famer or not? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…