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Ball Don't Lie

Bernard King on his groundbreaking return from an ACL tear: ‘That’s my basketball legacy’

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Bernard King finished third in the NBA in scoring in 1991 behind Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins (Getty I …

He didn’t address his recovery from an ACL tear in the speech that marked his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, but former Knicks and Wizards top scorer Bernard King is aware that his successful return from that injury is the best known part of his storied NBA career. Bernard was leading the NBA in points per game during the 1984-85 season as a member of the New York Knicks when he tore his right ACL in a game against the Kansas City Kings late in the season. In 1985, the injury was considered a death knell; known more as a “blown-out knee” than for the literal reference to the ligament that snapped, and King missed all of the following season.

He nearly missed all of 1986-87, too, as suspected; but King returned to the Knicks to at least approximate some of his prior statistical hallmarks for the season’s final six games, averaging nearly 23 points per game. That wasn’t enough for New York, though, as the team let his contract lapse in the offseason. It took until midway through the 1987-88 exhibition run for the Washington Bullets to take a chance on King, and their commitment paid off over the next four seasons, as King regained his All-Star form.

King considers that return the defining part of his basketball legacy. From a feature by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee:

“You can go back and look at my career — whether it’s back to back 50 [point games], whether it’s first-team all-pro, whether it’s as averaging 32 points a game, whether it’s 60 points in a game, my peers in the NBA in 1983-84 voted me MVP of the league,” King said. “You can look at all of those things, but as a player, strictly as a player, my personal legacy is what I did for five hours a day, six days a week, to come back from an injury that players were not coming back from. That was a death knell for players’ career. That’s my basketball legacy.”

[…]

“I started from here, not being able to move my leg. From that standpoint, it was that much physical as it was mental, because I tried to regain everything that was lost,” he said. “I did a tremendous amount of work with that. The mental part comes into play in terms of the ability to push through that, and push through whatever resistance that you will get. But I was fully committed that nothing was going to stand in my way. I had a sign on my wall, ‘I will not be denied.’ ”

And a piece by Newsday’s Andrew MacDougall:

"My physical therapist, we worked six days a week, five hours a day," King said. "To me, that's the epitome of determination, hard work, self-motivation and discipline. And I did that every single day. I knew I was going to come back. It was not a question whether I was going to come back.

"I'm proud of that, and to me, that's what defines my career."

As someone who has a toe dipped in both eras, it’s important to understand just how significant King’s return was to the era.

My obsession with basketball started in the two seasons following King’s injury, and I had to catch up on a player that seemed to dot the years-old Sports Illustrateds and NBA almanacs I owned, someone who appeared to fall off the face of the earth despite leading the NBA in scoring in 1985. It wasn’t pessimism that pushed most to conclude that King’s career was finished, because he was a groundbreaker of sorts in merely trying to return on a reconstructed ACL.

When he eventually made the All-Star team in 1991? It was a widely publicized occasion, as King’s return to form dotted magazine features, specialized trading cards, and Bernard became the subject of a fantastic piece in the first season of NBCs ‘Inside Stuff.’ Stories like King’s just didn’t happen, which ignited the exposure, and he didn’t stop at just the All-Star game: Bernard went on to average 28 points per game in the 1990-91 season, finishing third in the NBA at age 34.

His Bullets career didn’t end on a happy note, though, to say the absolute least.

King did not play the following season as age and the era-appropriate setbacks from his knee reconstruction limited him. The following year, according to then-Bullets GM John Nash, "he'd been hurt and hadn't played or shown up for over a year and all of a sudden, he comes to practice and demands to be activated," and the ensuing confrontation with coach Wes Unseld may or may not have included the two exchanging shoves and King threatening to come after Unseld with a gun. He was released months later, and finished out his career later that season as a reserve on the New Jersey Nets.

Still, King’s original point stands. For him to return to All-Star status some six years after tearing his ACL, in his mid-30s? At the time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Now, we have cadaver ligaments, Adrian Peterson’s remarkable return, and the expectation that ACL tears, while debilitating, are nothing more than an eight-to-12 month setback that usually leans closer toward the “eight” portion of that timetable. There are rare cases with odd timing and even stranger organization flux, like Derrick Rose’s ongoing recovery, but by and large NBA players are expected to be just fine after such a surgery. So much so that you forget that certain NBA vets – “oh yeah, I forgot Jamal Crawford tore his ACL once” – even work on reconstructed ligaments.

You’ll never forget that with Bernard King. His return is his legacy, and he’s just fine with that. As he should be, because his groundbreaking rehabilitation is as big a part of Bernard King’s legend as anything he did on the court.

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