Whispers. They were all over. Everywhere. On the Maryland campus. At home in Brooklyn. Everywhere Albert King went last summer one word kept cropping up.

Overrated.

In 1977 he had been anointed as the greatest player ever recruited by Maryland. He was it. The player to end all players.

Two years later the cheering had stopped. No one was at King's door telling him he was wonderful. Instead, there were just whispers.

King heard. He winced. The whispers hurt as much as the cheering and the adulation had felt good.

"Of course I heard people whispering about me," he said. "I heard what people said. It made me wonder. It made me wonder if Albert King was as good as people had said. I began thinking, 'What's wrong with me?'

"I had something to prove this year. Not to the fans. Not to the media. I had to prove to Albert that Albert was good. I didn't know anymore."

Cole Field House. A frigid night in January. Maryland vs North Carolina State. Midway through the second half the score is tied, 44-44.

Reggie Jackson dribbles up court looking at his teammates. King, 6-6, 190 pounds, slender and fragile-looking, runs through the lane. He is dogged by Hawkeye Whitney, 6-5, 220 pounds of solid muscle.

King sets up 15 feet from the basket, Whitney hanging on him. King puts his arm up and waves it toward Jackson. He wants the ball.

Jackson recognize the signal. He feeds King a bounce pass. Whitney is muscling him now, pushing him away from the basket.

King leans in, turns and, in spite of a painful thigh injury, leaps, twisting his body 180 degrees in the air to face the basket.

Whitney is still in his face as King shoots a soft, arching 15-foot shot. It swishes cleanly through the hoop as King falls down, fouled by Whitney.

He completes the three-point play and Maryland goes on to win. Cole Field House rocks with cheers.

The play is typical of this year's King. The cheers are almost deafening.

King smiles faintly. No one is whispering anymore.

"Albert King has the ability to be the best player of all time. He has everything. The only question is whether he wants to be the greatest. If he does, he will do it."

The speaker is Howard Garfinkel, renowned as one of the top scouts of high school basketball talent in the country. The statement was made in the summer of 1977 shortly after King had announced he would attend Maryland, ending one of the most bitter recruiting battles ever waged.

They lined up in the gym of Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High School to talk to King, a slender, wide-eyed youngster then as now, but a man on the basketball court, one endowed with a combination of natural gifts that made him irresistible to those who tout talent for a living or a hobby.

"I heard people talking about how good I was, that I was this and I was that," King said. "But I didn't really listen. I've never really been one for listening to what other people say about me. It isn't that important."

College scouts had their eyes on King at 13. At that tender age he was mentioned prominently in a book about college recruiting.

By his senior year in high school the phone calls had become so constant he began avoiding his own home. Many people thought at the time that he had moved in with Winston Kareem, his close friend and adviser. Coaches took to calling Winston to talk to albert and usually ended up talking to Winston.

"I never moved out of my house like people thought," Albert says now. "But once it had been written, what was the point of denying it? People probably wouldn't listen anyway. They believe what they read. But I would never leave my family like that. I spent a lot of time at Winston's but I lived at home."

King's willingness to remain silent even when something inaccurate was being written about him is, in many ways, typical of his personality. According to his mother, Thelma King, her fourth child was always the most benign of her six children, never lookng for a fight, always giving in to the wishes of his brothers and sisters.

"If there was something that he and one of the others both wanted, Al would always be the one who would say, Okay, you take it'," Mrs. King said. "He was just that type of child. He didn't like arguments or fights. He wanted to please people all the time."

It was that almost overwhelming desire to be liked, to be accepted, that created some of the problems King experienced duting his first two years at Maryland. With his reputation as a "franchise," many assumed he would try to take over the show and be the Maryland offense.

King was determined not to do that. He wanted to fit into a team concept. Frequently, he passed up god shots to get the ball to teammates who just as frequently threw up bricks or committed turnovers.

During his freshman year, at a game in Chapel Hill, King made nine of 11 shots the first half. He took one shot the second half.

"I did some stupid things those first two years," King said, smiling almost apologetically at the memory. "I remember that Carolina game, I looked at the stat sheet at halftime and I'd taken 11 shots. I thought, God, that's as many as I take in a game, what am I doing? I stopped shooting.I shouldn't have.

"Now, I know I'm expected to score. If the shots aren't there I'm not going to force them. We've got lots of good shooters so I don't have to take all the shots. But I know when I get it down low I can score. I like to get it there. I feel like I'll do something good with it."

The new King on the court, the confident, take-charge King, is a product of the new King off the court, a King produced by a summer spent largely away from basketball.

"Last summer I just decided not to play very much basketball," he said. "I lived off campus with Buck (Williams) and even though I did a lot of work with weights to build up my strength I didn't really play ball.

"All of a sudden I found out that there could be more to life than basketball. I began thinking about the fact that someday I won't be playing anymore. i'd never thought about that bfore. All I ever thought about was life with basketball, not without it.

"In the old days when people asked me what I was going to do with my life I'd say 'play basketball.' But now I know if basketball ended tomorrow I could go out and do something and it wouldn't be the end of the world. It would be sad if it ended suddenly, ut but not the end.

"Now, I don't really worry about basketball away from the court. I worry about my social life or my school work. But not basketball."

There is little reason for King to worry about his basketball. The key to his success this year may be that he has stopped worrying about it.

"He isn't hesitating anymore," North Carolina's Mike Okoren said after King had bombed him for 28 points. "He gets the ball, he looks for his shot. Before, you could almost see question marks in his eyes. Shoot or pass? He didn't know. Now, he does."

With Maryland having abandoned the double-post offense this season, King has more freedom to roam the low post and the key where he is more comfortable. Often when he gets the ball he is right where he wants to be and he just turns and shoots. With his superb leaping ability, the ball rarely comes back at him.

"The last two years there was a tendency to feel sorry for him surrounded by all those one-on-one players," said Duke's Bob Bender. "Not anymore. Those other guys know just how to get him the ball where he likes it. They've done a great job incorporating his style into the offense."

For Maryland not to design its offense to fit King would be like running the single wing with Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback. The contributions made in the Terps' 16-3 season by such players as Williams Ernest Graham. Greg Manning and Reggie Jackson are unquestionable. But all will tell you tha the main man is King

"It's important for the rest of us to stay within the team concept at all times," point guard Jackson said. "But Albert is the one guy we want going one-on-one, especially when things get tight. You just aren't likely to stop him then. We want the ball in his hands and he wants it, too."

And when the ball is in King's hands everyone at Maryland, from Coach Lefty Driesell down, sits back and smiles. After all he's making 57 percent of his shots (215 average).

"If there's a forward playing better in the country, I'd like to see him," Driesell has said.

"How would I describe myself?" King asked. "It's funny, that should be the easiest question of all to answer because you know yourself better than anyone. But it's hard for me.

"I would say I'm basically a nice person, kind of shy at first and sensitive about some things. I don't really like to talk about myself, especially my basketball. It embarrasses me.

"I remember when I ws a kid I would come home from a game where I might have scored 40 points (he averaged 38 as high school senior) and my mother would ask me how I did and I'd just say, 'okay, and that would be it. I don't know why I'm like that but I am.

"I'm not the all-American boy. I can be evil. I mean when something upsets me I get very quiet, even around my friends. I won't talk at all or I'll just give one-word answers. I think that's kind of evil. I know it's wrong but sometimes I can't help it."

In many ways, Thelma King says, Albert was the quickest to mature among her six children, but he was always a very private person, never outgoing

"He spent a lot of time in his room," she said, "I would go up there and he would be finding a million things to do up there," she said.

"When he was little I'd take him to the park and he'd sit right by me when the other children went to play.

"It wasn't until he was a senior that he started to go out more, started to loosen up. I let him out on his own earlier than the others because he was always so dependable. If he said he would be home at a certain hour he always was home. I never had to worry about him."

The same cannot be said for Albert's older brother Bernard, the troubled Utah Jazz forward. His three-year career at Tennessee was stormy. Bernard was arrested again on New Years Day, this time on charges of sodomy, forcible sexual abuse and posession of cocaine.

Five years his brother's junior, Albert has never been close to Bernard. But his problems clearly upset him and he does not like to talk about them.

"Of course it upsets me to talk about it, the whole thing upsets me," he said. "Bernard's my brother. No, we haven't talked recently. The less I talk about it, the better."

These days Bernard is about the only subject that King will not discuss at length. "He's a different person this year," his mother says. "His first two years when he would call on the phone you would have to cross-examine him to find out what was going on. One question after another. Now he just talks."

King is funny, capable of sliding a joke into the middle of a conversation at almost any moment. "I'm better one-on-one telling jokes than in a group," he said.

Overall, there is a sense that he is a young man about to be 20 who has found himself -- on and off the basketball court. He giggles when asked about his social life. He giggles again when schoolwork (his major is Afro-American Studies comes up. "I'm about a c+ student but I know I could do better if I ever stopped procrastinating," he said, repeating the lament of thousands of college students. When basketball is discussed, he just smiles.

"Everyone's happy now," he said. "We're winning, we're playing together. But I'm not going to get too excited. We could lose the next two games and everyone would go away. I could score 10 points the next six games and everyone would say Albert King is a fluke."

But King knows that isn't going to happen because now, finaly, he realizes just how good a player Albert King is.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't want to make all-American, things like that," he said. "They would be nice. I hear people saying again I can be one of the best of all time. I try not to think about that. But in the back of my mind I think that if I improve my defense put on some weight and keep working to improve, maybe I could be one of the best. Does that mean one of the 10 best; 100 best? I don't know.

"But I think now that Albert King is a pretty good ballplayer. If I had thought that way my first two years I think I would have played much better But the present is what's important anyway. I know I can play. That makes me feel good."

The junior said the thought of turning pro this spring has barely crossed his mind.

"If someone came along with a fabulous opprtunity I would have to think about it," he said. "My father (a New York sanitation department empolye) and mother have worked very hard for very long. If I could buy them a house or keep them from having to work so hard, it would be nice. But I expect to be back."

And with King in uniform taking charge on the court and arching into the air for the unstoppable jump shot, Driesell should be smiling a lot next year as he has done this year.

Then will come pro basketball. After that, King isn't certain. But the old Albert would have tried to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question about his future, one that would sound right. The new Albert just smiled at the question.

"I'll tell you one thing," he said "I'm not just going to sit back and spend the rest of my life drinking Miler beer."

King laughed, a long deep laugh. "I don't even like beer, but I used to be embarassed to tell people that."