Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld on Bernard King: “He was unstoppable – and extremely efficient”

September 6, 2013
Ah yes, the Bernie and Ernie Show... (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Ah yes, the Bernie and Ernie Show… (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Ernie Grunfeld vaguely remembers his first encounter with Bernard King, back when their high school teams scrimmaged against each other. Grunfeld was a junior at Forest Hills High in Queens, N.Y., and King, a sophomore at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, had yet to hit his growth spurt, so he didn’t distinguish himself much during the exhibition.

“I didn’t recall him,” Grunfeld said.

The two finally met a few years later when Grunfeld was a gregarious, hotshot freshman at Tennessee. He was asked to show King, by then a stud recruit, around campus and persuade him to commit to the Volunteers. Whatever Grunfeld said worked, because King decided to play for Tennessee and didn’t waste any time leaving a lasting impression.

“His first game as a freshman, he came on the scene and scored 42,” Grunfeld said about King, with chuckle. “That makes an impact on a lot of people’s minds right away.”

King would continue to make an impact on people’s minds with his tremendous scoring ability and quick release. On Sunday, King will feel the scale of that impact when the four-time all-star, two-time first-team all-NBA player and one-time scoring champion finally gets inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

“It’s very well deserved,” Grunfeld, now president of the Washington Wizards, said in a recent telephone interview about King, who played for the Washington Bullets from 1987 to 1991.

For three seasons at Tennessee in the mid-1970s, Grunfeld and King were known as the “Ernie and Bernie Show” (Or “Bernie or Ernie Show,” depending on who was hot that night) as they formed the most prolific scoring duo in college basketball, combining to score 4,211 points, and even made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976. King was SEC player of the year all three seasons in Knoxville and shared the honors in 1977 with Grunfeld, who left Tennessee as the school’s all-time leading scorer (he has since been passed by Alan Houston).

“It was great,” Grunfeld said when asked to reflect on his time in college with King. “We had a certain attitude, being New Yorkers, playing a different brand of basketball. We had a little swagger, I guess, a little confidence or whatever, coming from the big city. We complemented each other very well. We were both very competitive. We liked to win and we liked to have fun when we played.”

They rarely got in each other’s way and benefited from what Volunteer Coach Ray Mears called his “star system.”

“He liked to put the ball in the hands of the most efficient players. I’m not saying that we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to shoot the basketball,” Grunfeld said with a laugh. King “got the ball in the low post and if I cut backdoor and I was open, he always made the right pass. And if I was driving and I saw him, I tried to pass him the ball. We had real good chemistry.”

King led Tennessee in scoring as a freshman, posting 26.4 points per game, but Grunfeld felt that what often gets overlooked is that King also averaged 12.3 rebounds and shot 62.2 percent from the field that season. King, an African American from the tough streets, and Grunfeld, a Jew born in Romania who hailed from a middle-class neighborhood, had varying personalities and styles, with the thin King representing a sleek sports car zipping around foes while Grunfeld was the rugged pickup truck.

In the 1977 NBA draft, King was selected seventh overall to New Jersey while Grunfeld went 11th to the Milwaukee Bucks. They would become teammates again with the New York Knicks in 1982. King would continue to be a big-time scorer in the NBA while Grunfeld had settled into being a role player.

“Bernard, at that time, was unstoppable,” Grunfeld said. “He had an unbelievable low-post game with a quick, quick release. And he was also great in transition. If you got him the ball on the left wing, between the hash mark and half court, he had the uncanny ability to split defenders. There could be two, three defenders and he could split the defenders and get above the rim if he needed to.”

Grunfeld jokes about the time he combined with King to make history in 1984, during a back-to-back set against San Antonio and Dallas. “In those two games, we combined for 106” points, Grunfeld said. “That was a great moment.”

Actually, they combined for 104 points, but King scored 50 points each night, with Grunfeld adding two points in both games.

Later that season, King had a memorable five-game playoff series against the Detroit Pistons in which he averaged 42.6 points and scored at least 40 points in four of the games. Grunfeld added that in one of the games, King “was playing with a 102 temperature. Next battle, we ended up playing the Celtics. They said no way this guy is going to score 40 on us.”

King had two games with at least 40 points in a seven-game series against Boston, which went on to win the NBA championship. The next season, King led the league in scoring at 32.9 points but his season came to an end on March 23, 1985, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

King sat out the 1985-86 season but then rejuvenated his career in Washington, where he spent four seasons. He made his final all-star appearance and made third-team all-NBA in 1991 with the Bullets, averaging 28.4 points. He retired in 1993 with a career scoring average of 22.5 points while shooting 51.8 percent from the field.

“I don’t think people remember what a great player he really was. Not only at Tennessee, but when he came to the pros, before his knee injury, he was one of the most lethal scorers in the NBA. He was unstoppable – and extremely efficient,” Grunfeld said. “He accomplished so many great things.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee | September 4, 2013