Bernard King played for five NBA teams, including the Washington Bullets, but will always be most beloved by fans of the New York Knicks. The Brooklyn native wore the crown in his home town throughout the 1980s and had his most memorable performances in that blue and orange uniform, with dozens of dazzling scoring outbursts at Madison Square Garden.
During his induction ceremony on Sunday at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, King acknowledged the thrill of joining other Knicks legends – Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Patrick Ewing – in Springfield, Mass. But while speaking with reporters the day before, King said the moment that “defines my career” was his comeback to all-star form in Washington after suffering a debilitating torn anterior cruciate ligament injury.
“You can go back and look at my career — whether it’s back to back 50 [point games], whether it’s first-team all-pro, whether it’s as averaging 32 points a game, whether it’s 60 points in a game, my peers in the NBA in 1983-84 voted me MVP of the league,” King said. “You can look at all of those things, but as a player, strictly as a player, my personal legacy is what I did for five hours a day, six days a week, to come back from an injury that players were not coming back from. That was a death knell for players’ career. That’s my basketball legacy.”
King had the best season of his career in 1984-85, when he led the NBA in scoring at 32.9 points and scored 60 points against the New Jersey Nets on Christmas day. But his season came to an end in Kansas City in March, when he tore his ACL and some cartilage and even broke a bone in his right knee. He missed two full years of action but came to play for the Knicks, who let him go as a free agent. He joined the Bullets and was voted to his fourth all-star game in 1991, his last full season in the NBA.
“I started from here, not being able to move my leg. From that standpoint, it was that much physical as it was mental, because I tried to regain everything that was lost,” he said. “I did a tremendous amount of work with that. The mental part comes into play in terms of the ability to push through that, and push through whatever resistance that you will get. But I was fully committed that nothing was going to stand in my way. I had a sign on my wall, ‘I will not be denied.’ ”
King refused to convince himself that he would have to change his game after his injury and would watch film of his Knicks games before stepping on the floor so that he would duplicate the movements. Though he lacked the explosiveness, King remained efficient in his time with the Bullets. In the 1990-91 season, King had a 52-point game eight days after his 34th birthday and torched the Knicks for 49 points in a game at Madison Square Garden, turning the home crowd to his side.
“My attitude was, I’m from Brooklyn, I grew up on the toughest basketball courts in the world and in one of the toughest communities in the nation,” King said. “My thought was, if I can make it from there, all the way to the top of my profession, I can handle this. This is nothing. I knew I would be an All-Star again. And I was. I did it.”
King didn’t address his recovery during his Hall of Fame speech, as he took time to thank the people that played a role in helping achieve success at every level. He singled out Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, his former teammate at the University of Tennessee and the Knicks. In college, they were dubbed, “The Ernie and Bernie Show” as the duo often combined to average 50 points per game.
“I was fortunate to team with Ernie Grunfeld,” King said. “We had the best chemistry of any player I ever played with, on any level.”
King retired with career averages of 22.5 points and 51.8 percent field goal shooting, but he had to wait 20 years from his last NBA game to get inducted into the Hall of Fame. The wait had its perks, King added, since it gave his 15-year-old daughter, Amina, a change to be born and old enough to understand the magnitude of his accomplishment.
In the most heartfelt part of his speech, King shared a story that he had with his great aunt Pearline, who was 103 at the time of his daughter’s birth.
“I will never forget what she said to me. She said, ‘I’m happy you had a girl.’ And I inquired, ‘Why is that?’ Aunt Pearl said, ‘A girl will grow up and give you grandkids. A boy would only disappoint.’ Aunt Pearl, I’m in the Hall of Fame,” King said, as the crowd applauded and laughed, “I hope I didn’t disappoint.”