NEW YORK -- In the early 1980s, Bernard King heard the cheers of New York fans time and again as the backbone of the Knicks and one of the league's most feared scoring machines.
But the standing ovation King received from the crowd of 14,227 at Madison Square Garden last night was truly exhilarating and memorable. It came as a visiting player after his stirring, 49-point performance led the Washington Bullets to a 107-98 victory over the Knicks.
This game was full of pathos and plot twists. The Bullets looked beaten at halftime when they trailed, 56-47. They had lost point guard Darrell Walker to a sprained knee and reserve forward Mark Alarie with a lacerated eye.
But a pumped-up King had talked earlier in the week of his desire to return to New York as an All-Star. Knicks management had abandoned him six years ago, after a career-threatening knee injury that kept him sidelined for close to two seasons.
If he wanted to make a statement to Knicks general manager Al Bianchi, who chose not to sign him as a free agent, he did it with a string of exclamation points.
The veteran forward saved 23 of his points for the final quarter, hitting 10 of 13 shots and adding three free throws.
It did not matter who was guarding him. The Knicks tried Kiki Vandeweghe, Kenny Walker and Gerald Wilkins. They double- and triple-teamed him. But he made every conceivable shot -- jumpers, floaters in the lane, scoop layups and post-up spinners.
Said veteran Knicks guard Maurice Cheeks, an opponent of King's during parts of the past two decades: "I've seen Dr. J [Julius Erving] have fourth quarters like that. But this performance by Bernard has to rank in the top three I've witnessed."
Having helped build a 104-94 lead with 28 seconds left in the game, King was fouled and stepped to the line.
The New York fans, who earlier had been chanting "Al Must Go" to express their displeasure with Bianchi, rose in tribute to the former Knick.
"I never milk applause," said King, "but after I made my first free throw, I stepped back from the line. I wanted to relish the moment."
L King said he was not thumbing his nose at Knicks management.
"No matter what anyone says, this is my home," said King, 34, a native of Brooklyn whose mother and father were cheering him from courtside and who later embraced Dr. Norman Scott, who performed the surgery to rebuild his shattered knee.
"Growing up, I loved New York and the city, and playing for the Knicks was a dream come true. I'll never say anything negative about the organization. It is just that a lot of people never felt I could reach this level of competition again."
With his team battling the Knicks for third place in the Atlantic Division, Bullets coach Wes Unseld urged his players to hang together at halftime after the injuries to Walker and Alarie had increased the odds against mounting a comeback.
"I just told them to make the game hard to play for the Knicks," Unseld said. "Then I turned the ball over to Bernard in the fourth quarter. That was as focused and determined as I've ever seen anyone. Tonight, I would have paid to watch him. But I did a great job of coaching," Unseld said with a laugh. "When a man is as hot as he was, you've got to get him the ball."
No one could have taken it from him. In one torrid stretch in the fourth quarter, King accounted for 11 straight Bullets points.
"He was yelling, 'Clear out, and get me the ball,' " said forward Harvey Grant. "Bernard had that special look in his eye. I knew this was going to be his night."
King, who has scored 40 or more eight times this season, was on a roll.
"Going into the fourth quarter, I said I was going to focus on shooting the ball. If we were going to lose it, it would be on my misses. But I had a great feeling. All the shots I've practiced in the gym for a number of years were working. My adrenalin was going. My emotion was up. I took it to a higher level.
"If I had a jump shot, I took it. If I saw an opening, I made a layup. If I beat my man to the baseline, I made a post-up move. Everything was working for me."
Still, the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing's 29 points, remained in contention, 94-89, with 4 minutes, 15 seconds remaining. But King finally stopped them with three straight jump shots to stretch the lead to 100-90, and the fans now were clearly on his side.
When the cheering ended, King said: "I think I've proved to all the critics that you can't question a man's heart, desire or will. To play this way again . . . it was just wonderful."
Opponent: Detroit Pistons
Site: Capital Centre, Landover 8 p.m.
Radio: WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: The Pistons, leading the Central Division, have won four straight without point G Isiah Thomas, who underwent wrist surgery this week and will be lost for the season. Joe Dumars, the team's leading scorer (18.9), has assumed the playmaker's role. F Dennis Rodman paces Detroit in rebounding (11.4). G John Long, signed last week to replace Thomas on the roster, has played a vital reserve role in victories over Washington and Cleveland. The Pistons have won two of three meetings with the Bullets, who won at the Capital Centre on Dec. 1, 94-83.