CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The overhead scoreboard flashed the image of Bernard King and the ovation began. The public address announcer reminded the crowd of what it already knew, that he was returning to the All-Star Game after what was thought to be a career-ending injury. The ovation swelled until virtually every one of the 23,530 people in Charlotte Coliseum was standing and paying the most respectful tribute King could hope for.
Magic didn't receive such an ovation, neither did Barkley nor the Mailman. Only North Carolina native son Michael Jordan was showered with such appreciation before the first pass was made, and if Bernard King has to share pregame standing ovations with Michael Jordan, doesn't that say it all?
King made just two of eight shots and scored only eight points, but his numbers, his performance once the game began, didn't matter. "I'm the first man to play in the All-Star Game without the benefit of an anterior cruciate ligament," said the man with the rebuilt right knee, an impossibly radiant smile taking over his face. "To be introduced as a starter, then to get the reception I got . . . it was an exhilarating feeling, it's what I've been looking for. I guess the reception was their way of recognizing what this ballgame meant to me."
King played 26 minutes, but he reveled in every millisecond of the entire all-star weekend. It was a coming-out party for a 34-year-old. The old-timers, Dr. J and Bill Walton and Rick Barry and the Big O, paid him compliments. So did the new kids such as David Robinson, who said after the game: "The injury he suffered is one that makes you shudder. And his return is one of the most positive things imaginable."
You know how much King enjoyed being here with the Magics and Jordans? He even got tickled just sitting on the bench watching men in a cavalier way he is never afforded during a regular NBA season. Asked if the actual game were anticlimactic, King preferred to call it "icing. . . . The selection process was the big moment for me. It was the crowning moment. It finalized, cemented all I had worked for."
King's appearance, even for those who don't remember him in his prior incarnation, was one of two touching moments in the afternoon. The other was an instrumental "Star-Spangled Banner" by pianist Bruce Hornsby and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis so sweetly and delicately played it was appreciated in a strange, moving silence. For so many here, it recalled the greatest Anthem ever performed, by the late Marvin Gaye, at the 1983 All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
What followed wasn't your ordinary all-star game either, right down to the end when Karl Malone committed the weirdest offensive goaltending offense, knocking what appeared to be Kevin Johnson's game-winning, three-point shot out of the basket.
Malone, however, had to share the LVP Award (least valuable player) with Dominique Wilkins, whose miss of a double-clutch, up-from-the knees dunk attempt ended with Wilkins crumpled on the floor, staring at a doubled-over- in-laughter West bench after the dunk hit the underside of the rim. This prompted the line of the day from Nike's Jordan, who said of Reebok's Wilkins, "Looked like 'Nique forgot to Pump up."
It's not the usual all-star game when there are nearly as many blocked shots (15) as dunks (18, unofficially). The winning East team shot 43.1 percent. Not even the 76ers' Charles Barkley, the third-best percentage shooter in the league, could break 50 percent (seven for 15). "Was it that the defense was that good or that the offense was that bad?" Kevin McHale asked. If you take away the fact that the Celtics shooters (McHale and Robert Parish) missed four of five (all from close range), the defense was that good.
The game, thankfully, was devoid of end-to-end, three-on-nobody rushes. Each team double-teamed the opposing low-post center. Each team pressed some, though the East did more of it. There were jump switches and crisp defensive rotation. "There was a lot more defense," King said. "Really a lot more than you usually see in an all-star game. The score reflected it too."
Kevin Johnson tried to draw a charge from Jordan at midcourt late in the game with the West scrambling to stay even, a no-no in most of these recent exhibitions. Earlier, Jordan and Philadelphia's Hersey Hawkins pressed after a made dunk. Unheard of.
This might not have produced the cheap thrills dunk maniacs crave, but it made for a much better game. McHale called the whole affair "basic basketball," and Portland's Clyde Drexler said: "It was more like a real game than an all-star game. You saw slamming and jamming, but they were legitimate."
Afterward, MVP Barkley made a stirring appeal for people to put sports in proper perspective during wartime. That said, the all-stars went their separate ways. King packed his bag for San Antonio, the Washington Bullets' next stop. Someone asked how it's possible for him, in the second half of this season, to top these last two weeks. "I don't think of one thrill as topping another," he said. "I think of every day as being an improvement."
Nearby sat McHale, expressing his admiration for King. "As individual accomplishments go," he said, "it's not believable. But Bernard's a great team player. He'd probably much rather be on a championship team than play in another all-star game. He's got so much desire. I bet he's still looking for that rainbow."