If the streets around Fort Hamilton High School are not mean, neither are they kind. At sundown, the neighborhood shops and delis roll out their window bars.
The corners are free of panhandlers. Fort Hamilton has little spare change.In this community - neither well off nor wanting, not predominantly of any one race - people work hard, make ends meet. Archie Bunker lives around here.
So when Fort Hamilton High, home of Albert King, America's most celebrated high school basketball star this year, had its athletic awards banquet on Wednesday night, there was no renting of a ballroom at the Waldorf Towers.
Andre's Caterers at 86th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway, two blocks from the school, worked just fine.
The banquet was perfect. The rock band was loud, the roast beef rare, the guest speaker well done.
King, who moments after the banquet announced he would attend the University of Maryland, got the most applause.
"Albert just told me," said the Fort Hamilton athletic director dramatically, "that when he signs his first pro contract he's going to buy* glass backboards for the gym."
The roomful of teenagers, who had giggled and teased each other all night, chanted, "Albert, Albert."
"Albert hates this kind of stuff," confided one of the player's friends.
In fact, King did not want the glass backboard story told. He is a product of Fort Hamilton and knows that fancy talk about money and fame is not the proper way.
Fortunately, the 6-foot-7 senior has a natural modesty and humor. He does not enjoy standing above, though he has no choice.
His best moment Wednesday night came when he got to join the standing ovation for his senior classmate, Jean Balukas, the best woman pool player in the world.
It delighted him that she won the school's Celebrity of the Year Award for earning nearly $75,000 in the ABC-TV "Women's Superstars."
King's low spot came when he had to stand after the banquet and sign autographs for his own schoolmates.
Each year, the denizens of schoolboy basketball madness decide who is to be the main man of the nation's schoolyard crop.
Moses Malone, Lew Alcindor, Bill Cartwright . . . they all resembled King in statistics (38 points, 22 rebounds, and nine assists a game) and in accolades "better than Connie Hawking."
But King is different. "He thinks of himself as just another person and believe me, that is unusual," said Maryland coach Lefty Driesell today. "All this hasn't gotten to his head."
A wry smile plays on King's face when he talks about recruiters and the preposterousness of the attention he has received. When one of his coaches told how the University of Hawaii stayed on the phone on hold for 15 minutes just to speak to him, King gave the sort of shake of the head that Fort Hamilton folks reserve for people who waste good money.
Typically, the favorite King Story of Fort Hamilton coach Ken Kern is not about a flying dunk shot or a 48-point game against Canarsee. It is about restraint.
"I've only seen Albert lose his poise once. He didn't like a referee's call and slammed the ball down and bounced it clear to the ceiling.
"He realized it would cost the team a technical foul, so he sprinted all the way into the corner and caught the ball before it bounced. Then he politely handed it to the ref. The official didn't call a thing."
That model temperament was at the heart of the Maryland-King marriage. "I don't think Albert wanted to go to a college where he would have to be the whole show, and Maryland didn't want a prima-don a type player," said a coach who tried to recruit King.
Despite King's astronomical statistics, he was a team player at Hamilton. "Passing may be Albert's greatest asset," said a Hamilton coach. "He's so sophisticated I'm afraid our players didn't usually understand what he was trying to do."
But Driesell understood. "He's an excellent offensive rebounder. He can play almost any position, though he is probably a small forward," Driesell said today. "But what impressed us most is that he was very, very team-oriented."
"He's only 17, but he seems much older. He's been all over the world . . . to Russia and Europe playing basketball. It's given him great maturity. He's a real old 17."
King has been a man for some time. He lives in an apartment with a 26-year-old buddy, Winston Kareem, and they seem about the same age. "There are some things I don't even ask Albert about anymore," said King's mother today.
King's friends speak first about his self-confidence and self-reliance, then about his basketball.
"All year people from all over the country have come bearing gifts to the King," Kareem said with a laugh. "They think they can flatter Albert or turn his head. Man, that's sad. The last time he was impressed was a long time ago - like in the first grade. Albert pleases one person - himself."
Because King's character is many-faceted, his game is, as well. "Albert doesn't follow a pattern or rely on any one style," said Kern. "He adapts to the situation better than any player I've seen. No matter what, he'll find a way to be effective. If it's not one thing, it's another."
If King has a weakness, it is that same versatility that leads him into secondary roles. He has sometimes given the ball to teammates when he was the only one with any business touching it. In three years, King's Hamilton teams never have won more than one game in the city-wide post-season tournaments.
And in all-star games like the McDonald's Capital Classic, in which he had 15 rebounds but only eight points, King has forgotten the cardinal rule of all-star games: "He who passes shall never score."
However, Driesell does not ask for instant King miracles. "I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him," said Driesell. "I just want him to get a good education, enjoy himself and reach his maximum potential as an athlete."
If King's 185-pound body is still lean, if his high-school league was not the toughest, if his defense is still untested, nevertheless, every team in the NCCA's top 50 ceveted him.
"Getting King is an amazing tribute to Lefty," said Georgetown coach John Thompson today, "He was competing with every heavyweight in the country on this one. They go hard. But Lefty won.
"What can you say. He did it again. It seems like whoever he goes after is as good as his. But that's an illusion. This is the result of persistence, organized hard work. There wasn't one bit of luck. Albert King is the fruit of Lefty's labor."
Certainly King's decision will reinforce the reputation of a man who already had won the hand of Tom McMillan and Moses Malone in previous nationwide hunts of the same magnitude.
The question in athletic departments all over America this week will be, "How does the lefthander keep beating us all."
"I don't know," Driesell purred today, "and if I did, I wouldn't tell . . . I think Albert's been interested in Maryland all along. He called me last summer to say so and I was shocked then."
Driesell's recruiting techniques in part resemble an old-fashioned romantic courtship with the beau sending the belle flowers the first day, a card the next, candy the third, then paying a visit the fourth. The process is repeated endlessly, as much in the interest of not losing ground as in gaining it.
"The first letter Albert ever got was from Maryland," said Kareem. "When he first started high school, he got a birthday card from them, and sometimes they even sent clippings with a note, 'Maryland is still reading about you'."
Driesell does not mind the preposterous. Some adults would think it ludicrous to come to New York, as Driesell did Wednesday, to stay in McMillen's East Side apartment just so a teen-ager would know, as Hank Williams wrote, that, "I'm still in town, still around and still in love with you."
Driesell has gone far beyond being self-conscious. If he were not lurking behind drapes, hiding under the bed or sitting in the top row of a tiny gym's bleachers, people would ask, "Does Lefty have the swine flu?"
"All of us try to romance the recruit, send them flowers so to speak," said George Washington coach Bob Tallent, who was once recruited by Driesell for Davidson and now recruits against him. "But Lefty must know how to tell 'em what they want to hear.
"I have to admit that deep down I seldom know what a recruit was really thinking. Lefty seems to have a sixth sense. He can read their minds.
"Lefty cons a lot of people with that Southern drawl but he knows everything that's going on and he'll kill you with perseverance. I hear that Ned Wulk (Arizona State coach) just got tired of it all and went back to Arizona and said, 'The hell with it. Let the kid do whatever he wants, Lefty just wore him out."
In addition to 24-hour days and intuition, Driesell has a far more sophisticated understanding of a wider range of people than he is often given credit for. He has recruited future Rhodes scholars and the opposite, blacks and whites, extroverts and introverts, tough city kids and naive stringbeans from the farm.
"There doesn't seem to be any sort of player that Lefty can't get," said Tallent.
"It's true that we send clippings and make phone calls," said Driesell, "but that's superficial stuff. I've treated my players well. We have seven in the pros now. They've done the things we told them we could help them do.
"Every young player is different. You try to figure out what they want most in life. Some want constant attention. We give them that. Others, like King, what to be left alone, so for the last month I have not bugged him.
"But the first thing you have to decide is whether or not you can relate to a player as a coach and on a personal level. I always seem to know right away what my chances are. If we don't have any electricity between us at that first face-to-face meeting, then I don't waste my time.
The Fort Hamilton high awards banquet is over now. All that is left is the senior prom. Albert King is all really spoken for. He's saving the last dance for Driesell.