Another King, Another Struggle
This year’s recipient of the National Civil Rights Museum’s Sports Legacy Award, Bernard King’s rocky road to stardom provides an example beyond the hardwood.
Photo by Andrea Zucker
Bernard King and I know Knoxville. I was born in Fort Sanders Hospital — essentially on the University of Tennessee campus — in 1969. My family moved to Atlanta while I was in preschool, but we returned to Big Orange Country (after a year in northern Italy) in 1977, five months after King played his final basketball game for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Three times the SEC Player of the Year and an All-America as a junior when he averaged 25.8 points and 14.4 rebounds for the SEC champions, King was chosen by the New Jersey Nets with the seventh pick of the NBA draft that June. He spent the next 16 years lighting up scoreboards in the NBA. At least when he wasn’t struggling with addiction or fighting his way back from a crippling knee injury.
Cut to 2014 and Martin Luther King Day in Memphis, Tennessee. As part of the Memphis Grizzlies’ annual salute to civil rights leaders from the world of sports, Bernard King received the Sports Legacy Award (along with former Boston Celtic JoJo White). Add King to a list of honorees since 2003 who could now occupy a wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, David Robinson. Among that group of living legends, though, have any made the journey Bernard King did?
Raised in the projects of Brooklyn by a single mother who considered a hug beyond boundaries, King found himself a timid recluse with otherworldly talent on a basketball court. Unlike other New York City high school stars like Abdul-Jabbar (who went to UCLA as Lew Alcindor) and Erving (UMass), King made the long trip south — deep south, he’d learn — when college ball came calling. Tennessee coach Ray Mears convinced the prize recruit that if another New York prodigy — Ernie Grunfeld of Queens — could thrive as a freshman at UT (as he had in the 1973-74 season), King could, too.
What ensued came to be known as the “Ernie and Bernie Show.” Sixty-one wins in three seasons, top-20 rankings in 1976 and 1977, and All-America status for each of the star attractions. It seemed the only blemish on King’s time in Knoxville was the lack of an NCAA tournament win. The Vols lost in overtime to Syracuse in the famous pair’s last college game.
But there were blemishes for King in Knoxville. For the first time in his life, the color of his skin made him a minority. Even as King starred for the Vols, his white co-star often stole the spotlight. And nightlife in college wasn’t healthy for King. He found himself turning to alcohol for comfort and, too often, came under the scope of Knoxville police. In the ESPN documentary, Bernie and Ernie, King describes the night he was bloodied by the butt of an officer’s gun. A large portion of Knoxville may have come to love Bernard King, but the feelings were hardly mutual.
Trials followed King to the NBA. He averaged 24.2 points as a rookie with the Nets, but found himself traded to Utah — the whitest of NBA destinations — before the 1979-80 season. Having played just 19 games for the Jazz, King was suspended amid allegations of sexual assault. Utah traded him to Golden State, but King didn’t truly settle until a 1982 deal sent him home, to the New York Knicks.
With the Knicks, King was twice named All-NBA, scored 50 points in consecutive games, and led the league in scoring with 32.9 points per game in 1984-85. But even in the Big Apple, glory for King shared a taxi with pain. A catastrophic knee injury in March 1985 sidelined King (then just 28 years old) for more than two years. He made yet another comeback, though, and played in the 1991 All-Star Game as a member of the Washington Bullets. Had it not been for that knee injury, I’m convinced we’d remember Eighties basketball with a proverbial Rushmore of Bird, Magic, Dr. J, and King. Last September, the timid recluse from Brooklyn was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
We tend to associate the American civil rights movement with the word struggle. In the world of sports, you’d be challenged to find a success story with as many struggles — some self-inflicted — as Bernard King. I left Knoxville for good two years after King did the same. Needless to say, our memories of my birthplace diverge significantly. My life has been a veritable cakewalk compared with the inner and outer demons with whom King has had to wrestle. But he’s been a familiar friend, of sorts, as we each climb in years. I was awed when Bernard King displayed what a human being could be on a basketball court. Today, I’m that much more impressed by what King’s life off the court teaches us. A man can indeed — no, must — overcome.
Postscript: Bernard King returned to Knoxville in 2007 when Tennessee retired his jersey number (53). He was the first Vol player to be so honored.