It was midway in the second quarter, before the Bullets-New Jersey Nets game became a Washington rout.
Albert King, still wearing No. 55, took a pass at the top of the key. One head fake and two dribbles and he was down the lane, alone, floating toward the basket for an easy layup. At the last possible second, wide open for the shot, King tried to pass. The result was a turnover. Larry Brown, the Net coach, jumped off the bench.
"DAMN IT, ALBERT, SHOOT THE BALL, SHOOT THE DAMN BALL."
It was Monday morning. In a hallway of the new Meadowlands Arena, Albert King sat on a chair, eating a McDonald's breakfast off his lap. He was laughing.
"When I heard Larry yelling like that, I turned around and said, 'Who let Lefty (Driesell) in here?' " King said, shaking his head. "It was like I was back at Maryland for a minute: 'Albert, shoot the ball, shoot the ball.' "
The laughter continued. King was enjoying this. He knew he had messed up on the play, but where once he might have brooded over a mistake, now he laughed at it.
"I know why he got upset. I'm his, I don't know what you'd call it, whip boy or whatever. He yells at me more than anyone on the team. But I know it's because he cares and wants me to get better. When he stops screaming at me, I'll worry. I know I'm still learning the game."
At 22, Albert King, deified as a player by age 16, is just another NBA rookie trying to learn his trade. He is allowed to make mistakes. He never has been happier.
The same game, also the second quarter. Buck Williams has missed three straight shots. From 12 feet, guarded tightly, he forces another. It clangs off the rim.
Brown, who is having a rough night, is red-faced. He looks at Williams, his leading rebounder, his third-leading scorer. "Geez," he yells, "haven't you ever heard of passing? I haven't seen you pass the ball yet."
Williams finished the night three for 11. He also had 14 rebounds.
"It's just that I usually get the ball so close to the basket, I feel an obligation to shoot," Williams says later, smiling his most sheepish grin. "I guess I'll just have to keep working to get better. But don't worry, I'll get better at it. I guarantee you that."
Buck Williams may be the NBA rookie of the year. That would startle many people, but it would not startle Williams. He wrote it down as a preseason goal and put the note inside his Bible.
After 27 games, Williams is averaging 15 points and 12 rebounds a game. He is tired. Does he ever regret passing up his senior year at Maryland?
They have taken remarkably different routes to reach the same place.
King the Brooklyn superstar, recruited so heavily he had to move out of his house senior year.
Williams, the small-town boy from North Carolina who wanted to play for Dean Smith, but never felt wanted by him, a secondary recruit for the Tar Heels behind, among others, Chris Brust.
Now, Williams starts, King doesn't. Williams was drafted higher and makes more money. But Williams remains Rocky Mount to King's New York, even though both have apartments in Hackensack.
"Albert," Williams says, "is big-time. He'll always be big-time to me."
They were close at Maryland. They shared an apartment and they shared with each other feelings that they rarely revealed to others. Each is friendly and engaging, but introverted. In spite of their different backgrounds, they became confidants in college because each shared the same pressures and the same doubts, the same frustrations and, in that one season (1979-80) when it all fell into place, the same joys.
Both were drafted in the first round last spring by the Nets, Williams the third player chosen, King the 10th. But what each is experiencing now--what on the surface seems so similar--is quite different.
For Williams, the NBA represents a continuation, another step on the ladder he began climbing as a junior in high school when his coach, Reggie Henderson, convinced him to party less and study more. Each year, playing with a ferocity that rarely was equaled, Williams has improved. It was his intensity as much as anything else that made it worth $2.5 million to the Nets to lure him out of Maryland a year early.
But this year also is a culmination for Williams. For years, he has dreamed of moving his parents from the small house in Rocky Mount, where he grew up the youngest of five children, to a new home. Recently, the family moved into a handsome four-bedroom house.
"It's huge," Williams said. "My dream has come true now. It's all I've ever really wanted in my life. If I were to die tomorrow, I would feel I've accomplished my ultimate goal in life. I feel content."
For King, the NBA, like everything else in his life, is yet another roller-coaster ride. In September he injured a knee and went through pain and protracted contract negotiations. He is not a starter for the first time in his life, and is adjusting.
Still, the Nets are paying him more than $1 million because of potential. King always has been the one with limitless potential. He always has been conscious of it, almost feeling guilty about it.
After years of taking his talent for granted, he says the injury has made him think about what basketball means to him. And, he almost likes being Brown's "whip boy," because for the first time since he can remember, greatness is not expected. It is almost a relief.
"I loved hearing the cheers at Maryland," he said. "I'm not going to say that hearing people yelling, 'Alllbert, Alllbert,' wasn't great for me, because it was. I worked for that for a long time. Now, I'm going to work at this. I have a chance, I hope, to be 'Alllbert' at this level, too.
"I don't miss the spotlight. I think I'll make my own spotlight here. I think I can become--okay, I'll say it--a great player."
But for today, he is just Albert. That is just fine.
King and Williams are rookies on a team that, although it has existed for 15 years, really is just beginning. Since their inception as the New Jersey Americans in the American Basketball Association, the Nets have been the nomads of pro basketball, calling five buildings home. Once they had to forfeit a playoff game because their home court was being used by the circus.
Now, though, they are in the brand new Brendan Byrne Arena. They have new uniforms and new offices. They have a new coach in Brown and, they believe, a future built around players such as King, Williams, Mike O'Koren, Mike Gminski, Otis Birdsong and Ray Williams, all acquired within the last two years.
The Nets' management loves to talk about Williams and all he has accomplished already. They are pushing him hard for rookie of the year. Williams, as always, is the model student, the hard worker, trouble only for the opposition.
With King it is different. When King was injured in a freakish September accident--Maryland's Herman Veal fell on him during a one-on-one game in Cole Field House, hurting King's right knee--the Nets backed off from contract negotiations.
"If he sat out the season, he sat out the season," said General Manager Bob MacKinnon. "Obviously, we wanted him to play. But injuries are a part of life."
But while the Nets were nonchalant, King panicked. He spent the preseason sitting in the stands in street clothes during practice. He found himself feeling different about basketball.
"I always had a reputation for not really caring about basketball," he said. "People would write that if I liked the game, I would play better. I always liked the game, I love the game.
"But when I was hurt, for the first time in my life, I had to think about not playing the game. I had never really thought about not playing. I just always played.
"The first day I tried to come back to practice I couldn't even dunk. Couldn't dunk! I was in shock. It felt like being a baby all over again. I felt helpless, like something had been taken away from me.
"I said something about it to a friend and my friend looked at me and said, 'You have always taken playing for granted.' It made me think. I know there are times when I've thought I didn't want to play, after tough losses or in the middle of a road trip. But now, I know I love to play. I mean, dunking is something I've always liked doing. I've been doing it, without even thinking about it, since sixth or seventh grade.
"That's why not starting or not being great right away doesn't bother me. It might have once . . . But now I'm thankful I can play. As long as I can play the game, work at the game, everything will be okay."
Brown also is confident. He works alone with King after practice, trying to get him to slow his release on his shot and improve his defense, long one of King's deficiencies.
"Albert has unbelievable potential," Brown said. "Everyone has always known that. But what I like about him so much is that he's such a good kid, so willing to work. He wants so much to learn, to get better."
King respected Driesell. But the two never were close and Driesell was not a teacher. Driesell talked to King often about his attitude, worried about his intensity. And he always wanted his best player to shoot more.
Brown wants King to shoot more and think less, too. But he also has tried to work with King on his fundamentals. King has reveled in the role of student.
So has Williams. "Coach Brown takes a lot of time to work with you on things," he said. "If there's one little move and you're having trouble with it, he works with you until you get it right. I'm the kind of player, I may have trouble getting something right the first time, but once I get it, I never forget it. It sticks like glue."
Not so with King, says MacKinnon. "Sometimes you watch him in practice and he looks so good, you say, 'He's got it.' Then in the game, he forgets, he starts thinking instead of just playing. He'll get there, though. Because he wants it very badly."
For King, that may be the key. With Williams there never has been any doubt about his desire. By his own admission, he puts a lot of pressure on himself, expects great things of himself. As the rest of the NBA raves about his early play, Williams says, "I'm struggling."
He cannot abide failure. In a recent game against the New York Knicks, Williams was struggling with Maurice Lucas. Finally, fouled and pushed on the same play, Williams took a wild swing at Lucas and was restrained by teammates. The next day he apologized publicly.
"But I made my point to Maurice," Williams said. "I had to do it." His point was simple: no one pushes Buck Williams around.
People often have questioned King's desire. He has been one of those players who seems able to do the impossible with ease. His expression on the court almost never changes. He appears to be unaware of the crowd.
But ask what he misses most about college and his answer is surprising. "I miss the enthusiasm of the people at the games," he said. "I understand why it's different, but I miss it. I loved feeling the people around me.
"I want to have that feeling again someday."
If there is a basic difference between the two friends, it is in the daily approach to life. Williams always has had tangible goals, pressing them into his Bible each year, then going out methodically and reaching them.
With King, it always has been the intangible. For years he has been told what he can become. When he made first-team all-America as a junior at Maryland, people talked about him being national player of the year as a senior. He never has been a person, like Williams, to sit down and think, "I want A-B-C." Essentially, he has tried to live up to others' expectations of him, and that has been a virtual impossibility since he was a teen-ager.
Even though Williams spent a year less in college, he is almost as close to a degree as King. He had a 2.7 grade point average and promised his parents when he decided to turn pro that he would get the degree. He already has made plans for summer school at Maryland.
"I gave my family my word," he said, "and I'm going to keep it."
King would like his degree, but he will not return to Maryland this summer, and talks vaguely about correspondence courses. "I would like it, but not because it will help you in business or anything. I'd like it as an example for my children. So I can say, 'I got a degree, you should, too.' "
That is in the future, though. So is marriage. Both enjoy being bachelors.
Both are quite comfortable now, each living in a nice apartment and talking about buying within the next year. For Williams, this is all new, and he admits being slightly overwhelmed by it.
"That's the biggest adjustment for me," he said. "For the first time in my life I realize I'm an adult. I'm not a baby anymore. I look at some of the older guys on the team and I say, 'What am I doing with these old men?' Then I realize, I'm one of them. It scares me a little."
King has moved in a world of older people since boyhood. He has been pursued, romanced, wined and dined by adults for years. For him, the adult world is a familiar place. Still, he says, he is learning about one thing in his first year as a wage earner:
For the first time in his life, King says he is not worrying about living up to his potential. All he wants to do is play. It has taken turning professional to make basketball a game again.