He's been retired for 16 years now. He will be 53 in December-and he looks it. He's had some serious health issues over the last two years. But in the you-tube of my mind, he is forever young. He is streaking down the left side of a basketball court, carrying the hopes and dreams of a city on his back alone. His city. Our city. He was one of us, Brooklyn's best and brightest.
At its core, basketball is a game of rhythm. The dribble, the cut to the hoop, the game within the game-there's a rhythm to it.
It's also a game of ritual. John Wooden used to start the first practice of every season by teaching his players how to put on their socks. And sneakers. Ans how to tie the sneakers. Why? Ritual.
One modern day ritual (started in 1974, I think) is that the Final Four is played on a Saturday, and the NCAA Championship is played on a Monday night.
But the day of the Championship has its own ritual. You, see that afternoon, the Basketball Hall of Fame announces its new inductees.
For eleven years now,on that day, he has been eligible to be a Hall of Famer. And for eleven years, the phone has never rang.
That's not to say that the phone has not rang-for others. You heard of a Who's Who list? This is a Who's You? List.
Last year Cathy Rush was inducted. In 2007,Van Chancellor got in, along with the unforgettable Pedro Ferrnandiz. How bout Hortencia Marcari? The immortal Dino Meneghin? Oh,I don't want to leave out Mirko Novosel.
They all have gotten the call in the last few years. But no love for Bernard King? How can this be? Don't they know? Have they forgotten?
Well, I know. And I have not forgotten. Consider this a shout-out to the King.
The Genius of Bernard
There are three things that made Bernard a wickedly great basketball player. The first one was the most important, as the other two flow from it.
No. 1: Bernard's ability to break a man down was peerless. He would show no mercy to any opponent. He always went for the jugular. Always. If that meant torching his little brother for 60 points in front of the whole nation on Christmas Day, then so be it.
Bernard would have been great at Gitmo. He would break a terrorist down without batting an eye.
He refused to speak to his opponents; he thought it would compromise his mission, which was to humiliate the man trying to defend him.
What really set Bernard apart from other sports assassins is in how he killed his quarry. You know that old adage "take what the defense gives you?" Bernard did not take what the defense gave him. He took what he wanted, which was usually the defender's soul.
If you played off him, he would not take the jumper; he would go by you, or through you. If you played up on him, he would shoot over you as if you were not there.
Another thing that separated Bernard from the mere mortals and even the all time greats is his shot release. The whole world shoots the ball when they reach the top of their jumper; Bernard released the ball on the way up. He had a quicker release than Bill Clinton signing pardons. It made his shot impossible to block; Manute Bol on stilts couldn't block or change Bernard's shot.
The last thing that set Bernard apart is so incredible, it has to be not seen to be believed. I urge you to go to you-tube and check out Bernard's numerous highlights. Watch every move, one after the other. Watch how he flies down the left side of the court on a fast break. Watch the arched back, the blank stare at all opponents, the unstoppable turn around jumper, and impossible straight on forays to the hoop. What won't you see? You won't see Bernard use any type of head fake, shot fake or ball fake to get his man off balance. The whole world plays basketball by trying to get a defender in the air, yet, Bernard could not be bothered. Its like it offended his sense of justice by trying to trick an opponent. Like tearing the wings off of a butterfly.
Think this total package did not scare and intimidate his opponents? Think again.
Here is Hall-of Famer Dominique Wilkins, talking about the only player who intimidated him:
"Bernard scared me! ‘He truly made me sorry I had to play that night! We’d set up for the opening tip and you might as well put 40 points next to his name. He was unstoppable. I’d reach out to shake his hand and he wouldn’t even look at me. He’d have that evil game face on. I’d turn my back to him and say to myself, ‘Aw, spit, I can’t believe I got to cover this guy.’"
If Bernard got in the head of an all time great like Dominique, what do you think he did to your average NBA player like Kelly Tripucka? Well, we actually know what he did to Tripucka,and we will get to it in a minute.
But first, they say that every President gets one line in history; Lincoln freed the slaves; Clinton banged the intern. So I can't waste time on Bernard's legendary high school and college careers,with numbers that dwarf even Walter Berry's; his miraculous comeback from a knee that was more torn up than the Shea infield after the last out in 1969, or the countless other accomplishments that have gone unrecognized.
Instead, I will focus on the Spring of 1984- the playoffs.
Knicks-Pistons First Round Best of Five
Newspapermen eating candyHad to be held down by big police.Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rentWhen I paint my masterpiece-Dylan
Bernard's performance against the Pistons was more devastating to Detroit than the decline of auto manufacturing. It may have even caused it. Who can forget? The first game,he went for 36-it turned out to be his lowest scoring game in the Series. This was the Isiah-Tripucka Pistons, that played uptempo. After Bernard,Chuck Daly had to scrap that plan, and went bad boy.
Bernard was at the height of his powers and talents in the Spring of 1984. He was 27, he had teammates that recognized his greatness, and a coach that knew Bernard was the Secretariat of the NBA. Which added up to bad news for Isiah, Chuck Daly, and poor Kelly Tripucka.
The Series went to the full 5 games. Bernard scored 213 points in 5 games. It comes to 42.6 per game. He hit 60% of his shots. Kill shots. Duran attacking your kidneys shots. In one quarter, it took him 5 minutes and 29 seconds to score 23 straight points. He shattered record held by Wilt. He shattered records held by Elgin. And he did it with splints on both middle fingers, as they were both dislocated!
Tripucka was never the same.The poor bastard. In game one, he sported one of those white guy Afros. By game five, he looked like he was wearing a bird's nest-like toupee. His hair was a declining graph of the Piston's chances against Bernard. Onward to Boston.
Knicks-Celtics Second Round Best of Seven
Well you heard about the Boston... The Rolling Stones
These were the Celtics you all remember. With the Hall of Fame Front Line of Bird-McHale & Parrish. DJ & Ainge. Maxwell off the bench. And these are the Knicks that you have mostly forgotten. A point guard who arguably one of the worst starting point guards in NBA history in Rory Sparrow. A way past his prime Truck Robinson. Medical Bill Cartwright. Not the most memorable bunch. But we had Bernard.
The Celtics,like the rest of the world, saw what Bernard did to Detroit, and vowed it would not happen again. "Bernard has scored his last 40 points. We've got somebody who can stop him" said ML Carr.
Cedric Maxwell boasted on the day the Series began: "He ain't getting 40 on us. We're going to stop the bitch."
"The bitch is back"- Bernard King after torching Cedric Maxwell and the rest of the Celtics for 43 points in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden.
The Series that the Knicks had no business being in went 7 games. It was an unbelievable time to be a basketball fan. The Celtics went on to win the championship,and no one gave them a tougher time than the Knicks. All because of one man. Our King.
I first became aware of Bernard when I was about 8 years old. Bernard was at Fort Hamilton High School. I had the honor of following his whole career. Did he have problems as a young man? He sure did. He was born in Brooklyn in 1956, and who do you know that was born in Brooklyn between 1956-66 that did not have some learnin to do?
But he learned. And once he did, there was no stoppin him. With Bernard, you got the total package. There was no showboating in his game. His misson was to destroy his opponent, not mock him. No Latrell-like crotch grabbin. No giving out gang hand signals. Nothing that would embarass you as a fan.
He is always in my list of top 10 athletes,and is never lower than 5. In fact, on Facebook, I even list Fast Break starring Bernard and Gabe Kaplan as one of my favorite movies.
I'm on a mission to make sure that certain people, certain events are always remembered. It could be Emanuel Celler, Rick Rescorla or Bernard King, who in the Spring of 1984 made you believe anything was possible.
F**k the Hall of Fame.