BOWIE -- An audience fit for a King crammed into the Washington Bullets bandbox practice gymnasium at Bowie State yesterday. And that was precisely what attracted five area television crews who were on hand to witness and record Bernard King's first intra-squad scrimmage since undergoing arthroscopic surgery 16 months ago.
The media event marked the second improbable comeback of " his 13-year NBA career. In 1985, as an All-NBA forward with the New York Knicks, King sustained his first career-threatening injury, blowing out his right knee and losing his anterior cruciate ligament.
It took two years of torturous rehabilitation with his self-appointed crew of doctors, physical therapists and strength coaches before he would play again. And it was another four years before he miraculously regained All-Star status for the Washington Bullets, who signed him as a free agent in 1987.
Having been through it all before only helped motivate King, 36, to push himself to return to NBA competition.
"I had this sign over my treadmill in my New Jersey home that read: 'There are no limits. I will not be denied,' " he said yesterday. "This is how I conduct myself as a pro. I never doubted from Day One that I'd play again. I believed it in my heart and mind, and now God has given me the chance."
King, who is in the final year of his guaranteed $2.5 million contract, never considered the possibility of simply collecting his money and beginning a new career.
"Sure," he said, "I could have stayed home and sat in my easy chair. But I'm a proud man, and I'm contracted to do a job. And I have the skill, talent and spirit to do it. And, more than anything, I want to do it."
All told, King, who was sidelined the last 14 games of the 1990-91 season with a lower back problem, has missed a total of 126 games. And he also will miss the Bullets' games this weekend against the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. He probably will be reactivated before Tuesday's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Neither Bullets coach Wes Unseld nor general manager John Nash were prepared to pinpoint the day of King's return, which will necessitate a roster cut. "When Wes thinks he's ready to contribute, we'll make a move," Nash said.
But King, appearing extremely fit and playing without any encumbrances on his knee, declared himself ready to play and )) saw no useful purpose in delaying his return.
"I'm in pretty good shape, and I don't expect to wait a long time," he said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel ready to play 20 or 30 minutes a game. My knee is not an issue. I'm prepared, and I've studied tapes and know all the team's plays.
"A few more practices won't mean much. How many games have I played over the last 15 years? You're not talking about a novice. You're talking about a pro. Some guys practice like All-Stars, but don't perform in games. I always perform my best in games."
King did his best to downplay the delicate issue of taking playing time away from the Bullets' young forwards -- Harvey Grant, Tom Gugliotta, Larry Stewart and Don MacLean, who are key pieces in the team's rebuilding plans.
"I'd like to believe the Bullets are committed to winning -- a message they constantly deliver to their fans. And any player, like myself, who can help a team win games and become an asset to it, should have an opportunity to perform. There is no other criteria."
When he was last seen in a Bullets uniform in March 1991, King was finishing off an All-Star season in which he averaged 28.4 points and rekindled memories of his vintage years with the New York Knicks. But that was then, and now the Bullets seem fully committed to their nucleus of young players.
Everyone acknowledges King, at the top of his game, can win some of the close decisions that have eluded the Bullets this season. But that consideration must be weighed against the development of promising, front-line performers.
King views himself as being only a positive addition and making the younger forwards that much more competitive. "When you have a number of guys competing for the same spot, the guy who is skilled enough to help the ballclub and create a cohesive unit should be playing the most minutes. If that's me, it's me. If it's someone else, so be it. That's Wes's decision, not mine."
Unseld acknowledged there are pluses and minuses involving team chemistry to consider in reactivating his former scoring leader, but said, "What intrigues me and concerns me, I'll keep to myself. I'll just say, there are a number of things on each side."
Unseld recognizes that King is a liability on defense, then quickly added: "I always felt that the best defense is a good offense. My first priority is to win games, and I have to judge the best way to do that."