Return of Royalty

Long before there was a Thompson-Boling Arena, three-point shots, baggy shorts and shot clocks, there was Bernard King and a time when Tennessee basketball was truly magical.

That's not a term most fans would normally associate with Big Orange basketball, unless we're talking about the women. For over two decades now, Tennessee teams have ranged from solid if unspectacular in the 11-year Don Devoe era. Then there was Wade Houston's misguided five-year experiment as head coach, followed by Kevin O'Neil's painful three-year rebuilding project, Jerry Green's four-years of prosperity puncuated by inconsistency and four seasons of Buzz-Kill Ball.

It wasn't until Bruce Pearl's arrival last season that Big Orange basketball began to recapture some of the spirit of ‘76 when King and Grunfeld were headliners and standing room only crowds were the rule.

But before Tennessee basketball began to wonder aimlessly into the hardwood wilderness, there were the golden days of head coach Ray Mears' flamboyant run-and-gun Big Orange basketball tour de force, led by the incomparable Bernard King and the irrepressible Ernie Grunfeld. This New York duo, known as the Ernie and Bernie Show, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and terrorized the SEC for three seasons before both were taken early in the 1977 NBA draft.

Although Grunfeld got top billing and a place on the 1976 USA Olympic Team ahead of his teammate, it was King who displayed basketball talent never seen before or since at Tennessee.

About five year ago King was selected in a fan poll as Tennessee's Athlete of the Century. We find ourselves in complete agreement with that vote. King's case as the Volunteers' best athlete of the century can be made statistically, but it was his rare athletic gifts, white-hot competitive fire and arresting style of play that will forever set him apart in the mind's eye of Tennessee faithful.

His three seasons as a Vol represent three of the four highest scoring averages in Tennessee basketball history. He missed having the top three in UT history by finishing one-tenth of a point behind Grunfeld as a sophomore. He collected over 300 rebounds during every season at Tennessee and scored over 40 points five times, including a career-high 43 against Florida.

King's achievements are all the more the remarkable considering he was 6-6, 205, which is the same weight and only two inches taller than Dane Bradshaw. Matched up in the low post against bigger, stronger, post players and facing a variety of collapsing defenses, King maintained an incredible level of production during his career.

He was adept at every phase of the game, including defense. And the chief weapon in his imposing arsenal was blinding quickness. Using a bump-and-fade baseline jumper, King's quicker-than-lightning release made his shot nearly impossible to block. He was also capable of hitting the pull-up jump shot and driving the baseline with the best of them. His enormous athletic abilities enabled him to score from anywhere on the floor and in one memorable victory over Kentucky in Lexington he literally shot from a sitting position on the floor to score a basket.

He was lethal in the open court and put the finishing touches on many a fastbreak with his patented two-handed slam. He was equally adept at flashing to post to follow up a missed shot, snatching the rebound out of the air and slamming the ball back through the basket in a single motion. During his three seasons at Tennessee, the Vols amassed a 61-20 record against a high level of competition, qualified for two NCAA tournaments and won the SEC title in 1977. This was during an era when only 32 teams qualified for the NCAA and the SEC had no post-season tournament.

During this era Tennessee basketball was the hottest ticket in town and Stokley-Athletic Center was the most inhospitable venue in the SEC, maybe the nation. The low ceiling contributed to the deafening din and the intensity level from the fans was unparalleled in UT basketball history.

The Vols didn't enjoy the same success in their two NCAA appearances during King's reign, but both defeats can be largely attributed to his absence. The Vols lost to VMI, 81-75, in 1976 in a game King missed because of a hand injury. Then the next year the Vols dropped an overtime decision to Syracuse after both King and Grunfeld fouled out and finished their illustrious collegiate careers watching from the bench.

At the end of the 1977 season, King opted for the NBA draft thus becoming the first athlete in UT history to ever leave school early for the professional ranks. The only other basketball player in Tennessee history to ever leave early for the NBA draft was Marcus Haislip five years ago.

King's sterling performances on the court at UT posed a sharp contrast to some of the problems he had off the court. He was cited for curfew violations, prone to excessive drinking and moody to the point of disenfranchising his teammates at times. King's personal troubles at Tennessee were compounded by head coach Mears' ongoing battles with clinical depression, which finally forced his retirement in 1978.

The net result was a drop to No. 7 in the first round of the draft where King was taken by the New Jersey Nets. But it took little time for King to prove he deserved higher consideration as he led the Nets in scoring as a rookie with 24.2 points per game. The following season he again paced the lowly Nets by scoring 21.6 points a game. But many of the problems that plagued him off the court at Tennessee continued in the NBA.

King was traded to the Utah Jazz during the off-season, but after only 19 games he was forced to seek treatment for substance abuse, most notably alcohol, and the 1979-80 campaign was a bust. Disenchanted, the Jazz shipped King to Golden State the following season where he averaged 21.9 points per game and was named the NBA's Comeback Player of the Year. It was the start of an upward spiral that would eventually see King become the most dominating scoring force in all of basketball.

In 1982, King averaged 23.2 points per game and was named to his first NBA All-Star team. The following season he signed with the New York Knicks as a free agent and his career started to skyrocket. King led the Knicks in scoring that first season with 21.9 points per game. The following season he averaged 26.3 good for fifth in the league. His efforts earned him a return trip to the NBA All-Star Game, this time as a starter. In the NBA playoffs that year, King averaged 34.8 points per game as the Knicks advanced to the semifinals of the Eastern Conference before losing to the Boston Celtics in seven games.

In the 1984-85 season King's basketball career hit its zenith as he led the NBA in scoring with 32.9 points a contest. During one incredible streak that season, King scored 50 points on consecutive nights against San Antonio and Dallas. Then two weeks later he scored a career-high 60 points against New Jersey. He followed that offensive outburst by scoring 55 points against his former team, the Nets, when they met again 13 days later.

Ironically, at the height of his craft, King was dealt the cruelest of blows. At Kansas City on March 23, while leading a fastbreak, King crumbled to the floor with what would later be described as the most mangled anterior cruciate ligament the performing surgeon had ever seen. For all practical purposes King's playing days were pronounced over, but, against all odds, the brilliant Bernard rebounded yet again.

For the next two years, King drove himself in rehab like a man possessed. He missed the entire 1985-86 season and all but six games of the next campaign. Some 26 months after the devastating knee injury, King returned to Madison Square Garden and averaged 22.7 points over the last six contests.

The Knicks weren't sold on King's comeback and dealt him to the Washington Bullets the next season. King averaged 17.3 points that first season with the Bullets, but increased his offensive output each of the next three years until he reached 28.4 points per game in 1991 to finish third behind Michael Jordan and Karl Malone for the NBA scoring title.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of King's comeback is the fact that he had to alter his style of play completely to compensate for the quickness his knee injury had cost him. He became a player who faced the basket more than he posted up. He improved tremendously as an outside shooter and was outstanding at slashing his way to the basket off the dribble.

Unfortunately, King had to have another knee operation after that season and missed the entire 1991-92 campaign. He finished his career where it started as a member of the New Jersey Nets in 1993. He played 32 games that season before announcing his retirement at age 34.

In 874 NBA games, King scored 19,655 points, grabbed 5,060 rebounds, dished out 2,863 assists, recorded 866 steals and blocked 230 shots. He shot 52 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line. He accomplished all of this despite missing four full seasons and he was struck down in his prime by an injury so severe it would have crippled most men for life. Additionally, he most often played on team's that didn't offer strong supporting casts.

Recently, Michael Jordan was named Athlete of the Century by ESPN and there was little doubt he'd be among the top three all along. Jordan's career figures weren't decidedly superior to King's when you take into account the missing years. And Jordan never had to deal with a serious injury, either.

Is that a suggestion that Bernard King was Michael Jordan's equal? Well no, Jordan is distinguished by his NBA titles which also afforded him center stage for so many years. But if you took King in his prime and Jordan in his prime and let them go head-to-head in a one-on-one game to 100, we'd be tempted to take Tennessee's Athlete of the Century over the World's Athlete of the Century.

No less authority than Larry Bird, who played against both King and Jordan many times said: "Bernard King was the greatest basketball player I ever saw."

Most endearing to Tennessee fans was the success King-led teams had against Kentucky. During his three years in Knoxville, the Vols beat the Wildcats five out of six meetings including the last five in a row. King vowed after a road loss to the Wildcats during his freshman that he'd never lose to Kentucky against. And he didn't. In that remarkable run were some of the most memorable UT games ever such as the 90-88 overtime win in Lexington in 1976 and the 103-98 win in Knoxville in 1975.

A lot has changed in Tennessee basketball over the last three decades, but when it comes to the subject of greatest player ever, Bernard is still King of the Volunteers.

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