Just when he thought it was safe to walk the Maryland campus again, Albert King is hearing whispers. Why isn't he playing better? Why is Buck Williams leading the team in scoring? Why isn't he taking over games the way he did a year ago? Why hasn't Albert been Albert?
"I know I'm not playing as well this year as I did last year," King says.
"I know I'm not playing as well as I can. Believe me, I've thought about it a lot. I know I'm better than this. On campus, it's been like it was a couple of years ago. People kept coming up to me and saying, 'Why don't you shoot more?' That's not an easy question for me to answer."
Albert King is a prisoner of his potential. He knows, the world knows, he is as gifted as any basketball player alive. He can do things other players cannot do. Because of that, when he averages 18.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game -- solid statistics for anyone else -- people ask, "What's wrong with Albert?"
Other players draw applause for filling the lane on the fast break. King is expected to fill the lane without touching the floor with his feet. "I know people expect a lot of me," King said. "That's become a part of my life."
At times, those expectations are unfair. King is just 21. He still is maturing as a player and as a person. He knows he has weaknesses, most notably his defense, and he has worked to improve.
At the moment, Maryland is a team in flux. The record is 14-4 and should be 15-4 after today's 3 p.m. game in Cole Field House against Georgia Tech (WJLA-TV-7). Buck Williams is playing as well as anyone in the country. Greg Manning has been steady. Ernest Graham has good days and bad days, but that is his nature.
The unsettled situation at point guard isn't helping matters. But Dutch Morley and Reggie Jackson hardly tore up the Atlantic Coast Conference a year ago, and the Terps were the league's wonder team.
Now, though, the question comes up again and again. What's wrong with the Terps? That leads, inevitably, to the question, "What's wrong with Albert?"
It is not a pleasant question to ask around College Park these days. Coach Lefty Driesell alternates between fits of near panic and calm serenity. One moment he is storming:
"Last year we were a hungry team. We went out every night with something to prove. We played emotional, we scraped, we hustled on defense. Sometimes having everybody back can hurt you. They start thinking they're better than they really are. They get lazy. I know we can play better than this."
Then, a minute later, "We'll be all right. We could easily be 16-2, then people wouldn't be getting all upset and panicking. Maybe we'll be like Duke was last year, weak in the middle, strong in the end. I'd rather be that way anyway."
But always, Driesell adds: "We got guys on this team not playing up to their potential."
"Why hasn't Albert been Albert?" King repeats the question again and again. "I don't know, let me think about it a while."
"About three years."
He is sitting on his locker room stool, staring at the red carpeting, still in his practice jersey. The room is empty. King's mood is light, the sense of humor still crackles at times. But the questions are making him squirm.
The question is repeated.
"Boy those three years went fast."
"Yeah, you're already a star in the NBA."
"Probably got drafted in the second round."
The last statment says reams. Beneath the banter, King is keenly aware of the fact that he has not been the player this year that he was a year ago. He has thought about it at length, tried to figure out why he can't seem to get up for the "little" games, tried to figure out why, in the crunch, he has disappeared at times.
There is a long silence. "Albert, why haven't you been the same as last year?" King is thinging alond. "The theory that I don't have anything to prove anymore doesn't work because if you don't prove it again, you lose it.
"Just because I've been an all-American and been on magazine covers, that doesn't mean I'm going to get fat-headed. I mean, I enjoy it but I know if I stop playing it will go away in a minute."
The words are coming in short bursts, followed by silence. The questioner says, "I'm not enjoying this any more than you are."
King is still looking down. "I know that," he says. "But you have to ask the question. It's reality."
He went on, finally, 30 minutes after it had been asked, addressing the question.
"I was looking at film today, trying to find out what the problem is. Most of my game is based on how well I get into the flow, especially on offense. Last year I went after the ball. If they were sloughing on me, I went after it, I forced myself to get the ball one way or the other.
"This year when they slough on me or double-team me I've just been waiting for the ball to come to me. I'm not going to get it. I'm getting caught up in saying, 'Well, I can't get to it so I'm not going after it.' That's messing me up.
"When I'm playing well on offense, I play better overall. When other teams slough on me now I stay where I am. That takes me out of the offense and out of the game. A lot of teams have done a god job taking me out of games that way."
He stopped for a moment. "I've done a good job taking myself out of games."
King still is working hard, going all out in practice, making an effort to be a leader. Outwardly, he is showing more enthusiasm than ever. But he admits it is an effort, something he has to think about. Twice, Driesell has talked to him about his play, first after he made just five of 20 shots against Louisville, then this week while the team was in Pittsburgh.
"After the Lousiville game I just told him that he had to shoot more in practice," Driesell said. "He'd been passing off a lot, saying he was going to lead the team in assists. I don't want him to lead the team in assists. I want him shooting the ball."
King listened. He began shooting more. He has had spurts, the first half against Notre Dame, for example, when he has been the all-America he was a year ago. "First half against Notre Dame he was great," Driesell said. "Then in the second half he disappeared, went into hibernation."
This week Driesell dug out his "plus/minus" statistics before his meeting with King. Plus/minus is, basically, a measure of offensive efficiency. It awards points for field goals and free throws made, rebounds and assists. It subtracts points for shots missed, turnovers, fouls.
A year ago, King averaged plus-26 for the season, including games of plus-42 against Clemson in the ACC tournament, plus-36 and plus-34 against North Carolina and plus-31 twice against Duke.
This year the average is plus-16, with a plus-two against Louisville, plus-12 against North Carolina, plus-13 against Virginia and plus-14 against Notre Dame, all Maryland losses.
"Statistics don't tell it all, but I think they can be important," Driesell said. "The point is last year in the big games, Albert was super. For us to be a great team, Albert has to be a great player."
What Driesell won't say is that King has not been a great player this year, merely a good one.
Early in the season, when the Terps were pounding patsies, King was almost a fifth wheel at times, playing uninspired, listlessly.
"I ain't worried about Albert," Driesell said at least 100 times. "When we get to the big games, he'll be there."
But at times in the big games King has been nowhere.
"It's something I've thought about a lot, talked to my friends about," he said. "It isn't something that has one answer, I don't think.
"When I was a kid, whenever I played, I was always the best player," he said. "I would go out and score and score. It got to the point where people would almost make fun of me for scoring so much. They would say, 'Big deal, you should score that much.'
"Sometimes I think maybe that affects me now. I can remember times in high school when I was almost embarrassed to score or work hard because the players weren't as good as I was. Maybe, subsconsciously, I still do that. I don't think about it during games or anything, and I'm determined that it won't continue."
King knows that after today's game there are no more breathers on Maryland's schedule. He knows the team is under a lot of pressure because of the great expectations of the preseason. He knows Driesell and his teammates are expecting a lot from him. And he knows the pros are watching.
"He better know," said one ACC coach. "Everyone thinks he's automatic to be one of the top five players drafted. But if he doesn't start playing better, he's going to cost himself a lot of money. It's time for him to turn it on. It's time for him to be great."
"What is great?" King asked, rhetorically. "Something I think people see things in me that I don't see in myself. I know if I keep working I can become a very good ballplayer. But I'm still working to get better. I'm not cocky because I know I have to prove myself all the time -- to myself, not the public.
"I still have a habit, I think we all do on this team, to look at what we did last year. We put pressure on ourselves that way. We expect blowouts. I get down sometimes, I miss a shot and start saying, 'Damn, how did you miss that?'
"Then, I get hesitant, I see two guys on me and I think, 'Pass or shoot?' I'm hesitant and I end up not doing either one well.
"I know that for other people my statistice might be terrific," King said. "For me, they're not. I accept that I'm not going to sit here and put pressure on myself by saying I'll score 30 points Wednesday against Wake Forest.
"But I do know now I have to stop letting other teams dictate to me with their defenses. I have to stop thinking about what's right or wrong and just play on instinct. I have to stop waiting for the game to come to me. I have to go to the game."
Finally, he had said it, and it seemed to be a relief. By admitting aloud that he had to be more aggressive, he seemed to take a burden off himself. Peeling tape off his sprained left ankle, he threw in one final thought:
"Maybe I've hurt myself by not being a selfish player. I suppose if I wanted to I could go out and shoot and shoot and get my 30 points. Then people wouldn't be asking what's wrong with me. But that's never been my nature. I've always just gone out with the notion to try and win.
"I don't like hearing the questions come up again. But I understand. People have always expected a lot from me."
Walk on water for us Albert. Fly for us Albert.
"I'll try," he said softly. "All I can ever do is try."