The man with the ugliest right knee in the NBA is not far away from showing us all what he's capable of doing with a basketball. When that time comes, when Bernard King begins producing serious points for the New Jersey Nets, here is the next wonderful thing to look forward to: the sound of people shutting up.
For some, King's arrival in New Jersey last Saturday was as popular as the addition of another penny on the sales tax. Oh, my God, you began to hear, what will happen to team chemistry? How many shots and minutes and sneaker contracts will he take away from younger Nets? He left the Washington Bullets under a cloud; what if he brings that cloud to beautiful Meadowlands Arena?
The chemistry complaint is my favorite. The New Jersey Nets, who raced past the Detroit Pistons, 109-86, last night, have the fourth best record in the East, and already scare the Knicks plenty, and "I don't know that we have great chemistry anyway," says Chuck Daly, the wise old coach.
The Knicks, by the way, are a first-place team with the maximum number of strangers and a minimum amount of chemistry, unless it's the guy in the Armani lab coat. The hottest club in the league is San Antonio and its coach is determinedly anti-chemistry.
Really, it's too simple. The Nets are a team in desperate need of points from their bench, and any reason to get people talking about them. The 36-year-old King, a four-time All-Star, a scoring machine, was available. The cost to the Nets, because the Bullets were responsible for the biggest part of King's check, is about $70,000.
"I am a steal," King said yesterday. The line made him laugh.
He played a total of 21 New Jersey minutes last night, scoring eight points. The first time King touched the ball, 33 seconds after stepping on the floor at the start of the second quarter, Bill Laimbeer was between him and the basket. King, slightly off balance, put up the ball. He was skidding on the court when it went through. "My timing is a bit off," he said later. "But that will come with time."
King said there were "no twinges, no pain, no soreness." When the crowd cheered that first basket, he said, "It made me feel comfortable."
During the game he wore a knee pad, which probably made the crowd comfortable. His right knee, the one that cost him almost four NBA seasons, is a brute.
There's a curved four-inch scar to the left of the kneecap, a 17-year-old reminder of open knee surgery to remove cartilage after his freshman year at Tennessee. (Arthroscopic surgery would fix it now, without a scar, "but it didn't exist back then," King said.)
The worst scar is almost a foot long, a small street with potholes. That came in March 1985, when he was averaging 32.9 points a game for the Knicks; reconstructive surgery that cost him his anterior cruciate ligament, the knee's most important rubber band, and kept him from putting up shots until the last half-dozen games of the '86-87 schedule. For those six games, he averaged a remarkable 22.7 points.
The third knee operation, to remove more cartilage, no scar, was 18 months ago. Before last night, the last NBA points he scored came in the spring of 1991. This latest return with the Nets, he says, is "a wonderful situation for me." He doesn't sound like a worried man.
"I'm confident I'll be a strong contributor to this team," he said. "It's just a matter of conditioning and skill and obviously I believe I have the skill."
He says coming off the bench, a contributor, not the star, excites him. "I'm not going to be responsible for scoring a lot of points for a change. I'm looking forward to that role."
It beats the lonely life of conditioning, which began with the operation by Dr. Norman Scott, and the rehab with Ron and Dania Sweitzer in Pleasantville, N.Y., a daily three-hour roundtrip for King.
Last summer, when about all he could do was swim, he had a pool built into his Franklin Lakes, N.J., home. He pointed to one of the Meadowlands' baskets, "and I bought one of those." His wife, Collette, rebounded and kicked the ball back out to him.
"I'm in better shape, physically, than when I came back with the Knicks," he said. "I have greater mobility. But the fact that I've been out of basketball for 21 months has sort of been lost in the shuffle. Anyone out that long needs time before they feel comfortable. So each day is like a puzzle and you add a new piece as you go along.
"A lot of people are expecting me to do from the beginning what I last did in in Washington. The reality is that's not going to happen; it's going to take a little time."
He doesn't want to guess how long and he certainly doesn't want to talk about his exit from Washington.
"I really don't want to discuss it now," he said, "simply because I'd prefer to think ahead. I never looked back when I left New York and I don't want to look back now. This is a new situation, a different time, a different place."
But not a different Bernard King. Just give him a little time. "I'm here to play, and play well," he said. "I didn't come here to retire."