Once, Bernard King's goal was to be "the best basketball player -- ever."

Six years ago, he got within sight -- top 10, maybe -- for a split second. He was NBA scoring champion for the Knicks and the league MVP in the players' vote.

Then, his knee exploded. He missed more than two seasons in rehab.

Now, in an obscure but inspiring NBA afterlife, the Ghost of King is trying to become the best ancient, one- legged war horse ever to carry a decimated team to respectability on his swayed back.

He's succeeding. (But don't blink.)

On Saturday night, King scored 44 points, his most since hurting his knee. The Bullets beat the Bulls, 103-102, as, for one night, King showed Michael Jordan who the king used to be.

On Sunday morning, King called Dania Sweitzer, the physical therapist with whom he worked five hours a day, six days a week for two years to rebuild his knee and reclaim his career.

"I wanted to share it with her. I knew how hard we'd worked," he said.

Why had they worked six days a week?

"She had to have a day off," said King. "On Sundays, I worked out alone."

King's new role has so much dignity, and even pathos, that it may actually suit him better than the old Knicks flash-and-dash days when he was a home-grown New York product who could light up the Garden for 60 or turn in back-to-back 50s. This is a fellow of such breadth, consumed with the process of growth in all areas, that a simple story of health, wealth and stardom hardly seems worthy of him.

Bullets Coach Wes Unseld, generally considered the NBA's Least Effusive Man, said, with just slight exaggeration: "Bernard King might be the world's best guy. I haven't met everybody in the world, but there aren't many better in the NBA. . . .

"I admire his preparation. I admire his performance. And he's totally team-oriented. He's taken so many charges he's scaring the hell out of me.

"You know what to expect from most great players -- like Karl Malone is going to bully you. But Bernard can come at you every way there is. You know he'll show up. You just don't know what the hell you're going to get. Except effort."

King will slam you in the low post, run you to death on the break or undress you on the wing. He'll be the first to dive for a loose ball or elbow you in the mouth. He's tough but he's graceful. He's mean enough but he's sweet. And, maybe, nobody's ever come back further from such an injury. He's a coach's dream, a teammate's ideal and he can go years without talking about himself. "I have a small ego," he said, "except on the court."

All in all, he's a man who makes people shut up and think before they talk about him. John Nash, the new Bullets general manager, corrects himself after using the word "typical" in a sentence about King: "There's nothing 'typical' about Bernard."

King was born in Brooklyn nearly 34 years ago, but, along the way, decided to live in the whole world. "People tend to pigeonhole others with words like 'deprived,' " he said. "Regardless of the community where you grew up, at some point in your life you are going to have to decide where you want to go and who you want to go with."

King decided he would love to visit Venice and Paris. He wanted to spend time in fine art museums and at jazz concerts. The bars he likes serve sushi. His idea of fun became dinner at a French restaurant with his wife, Collette, and then a good book. While others watched movies, he acted in them. When King says he admires Sidney Poitier, you get the feeling that Sidney should be looking over his shoulder.

And while others play in laid- back, jack-it-up summer leagues, this was King's regimen one summer as a Knick: bike five miles to a park; run five miles on the park trail; ride a mile to a college gym; work out for two hours alone, perfecting moves and running sprints; then lift weights.

The two hours alone -- a career-long tradition -- is pure King.

"When I first came in the league, I was a post-up player who couldn't put the ball on the floor or shoot. I've forced my game to evolve. That's why I don't believe it's over for me by any stretch. I'm continuing to improve," said King, whose stats in three Bullets years have gotten better across the board, including scoring averages of 17.2, 20.7 and 22.4 points. This year, with Jeff Malone traded, Ledell Eackles unsigned and John Williams rehabilitating his tummy and his knee, King is being asked to score more.

"You can always take yourself to another level. . . . I am where I am today because of my work ethic and because I want to learn from others." King laughed and added "steal from others."

In those hours alone, King imagines, steals and invents. From Gus Williams, he mimicked moves in the open floor. From Moses Malone, he adapted the "bump and fade" shots in the low post. King's trademark wrong-foot, off-balance bank shots while drifting left belonged to John Williamson. James Worthy's swooping attacks from the wing became King's own. And, like Larry Bird, King does all his moves at different speeds, even making slowness work for him. For five summers, he went to guru Pete Newell's camp to study -- get this -- how to read the defensive reactions of wing men.

"The defender only has five choices: play loose, play tight, deny the ball, force me baseline or force me to the middle. So, I've developed five moves to counter each style. No matter what he does, he's sending me toward an area of strength. From any spot within 15 feet, I should have a way to get to one of my sweet spots with two dribbles or less.

"Then you learn to disguise what you're doing, so that you can go to the strongest of your strengths."

What we have here is a man who now even practices falling down -- so he lands "on the soft parts" of his body. He's missed only one game in two years.

For such a proud perfectionist, with such astronomical ambitions, the knee could have been a personal as well as professional disaster. Yet in retrospect King now wonders if that injury wasn't, to a degree, the making of his life rather than the ruination of his career. "Those were two of the best years of my life," he said. "I got closer to who I am and closer to friends. I made rehab the most important hours of my life. But outside those hours I didn't think basketball. Before, I was too tunnel vision."

Now, it's his breadth of focus that sets King apart. Some even see him as a member of that endangered species -- the role model. Especially in light of his charity work and $50,000 in season tickets donated to children. King dismisses that as elemental "social conscience" and little more than "an obligation" for a $1.5 million-a-year player.

"I'm not a role model," he said. "Teachers, doctors, parents -- those are role models. In a lot of countries the people who are admired are those who make a difference in the daily lives of other people. As for musicians and athletes, there's nothing wrong with that. But let's not confuse the two."

King's probably right. With at least one exception.