G – Magic 
G – Isiah
F – Larry
F – Bernard
C – Kareem/Moses

No last names are necessary.

These men make up the 1st team All-NBA stars in Bernard King’s last two Knick seasons before he blew out his knee in March 1985 – the same year he led the NBA in scoring. This is the company King kept.

In 1984, King would produce a half-season scoring tear never duplicated in NBA history; upset the Pistons in the greatest playoff series performance in NBA history, and almost single-handedly upended the 1984 Celtics — one of greatest teams in NBA history.  In 1984, Bernard could be found in dated Converse commercials, rap songs, and Sports Illustrated covers which bowed to “His Royal Highness”. It read: “Bernard King Raises the Game to a Whole New Level”.

Bernard King, Basketball, New York knicks

With an unstoppable Carmelo Anthony balling like its 1984, and reports of Bernard’s induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, The Invisible King will receive another bow this week.

While starving King fans will naturally celebrate, something just isn’t right. King’s 15 minutes of crumbs come too little, too late – 15 years to be exact. We could only hope this week will help raise the debate to a whole new level.

Bernard’s rightful place is in the Hall of Legends.

Where did The King stand amongst the greats? Let’s ask them

“Bernard King was the toughest matchup of my career. And I say that from the heart.” – Julius Erving [HOF 1993]

“Bernard King… is the best forward in the league, hands down”.  — Larry Bird [HOF 1998]

“We are just in awe of Bernard” — Isiah Thomas [HOF 2000]

Now consider that Larry and Isiah’s praise came before the 1984 playoffs and epic Showdown in Motown where


No other player in NBA history has ever averaged over 40 playoff points on 60% shooting in the playoffs – not Wilt in ‘62, not Jerry in ‘65, and not Michael in ‘88.  Not Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, or Lebron.

Only Bernard King.

King also did it while battling Isiah, the flu, and dislocated fingers in both hands.

Afterwards, King was asked about his “hot streak”. Bernard asked back:

“At what point is it no longer considered just a roll?”

Answer: The rest of your life Bernard. The rest of your life.

King’s perceived eruption on a national stage was no hot streak.

What happened right before it was even more incredible:


Lebron, please read that again.

No other player in NBA history has likely ever matched this half-season stretch [2].

In the playoffs, the unstoppable King simply took more shots. That’s all.

For the few mesmerized souls who watched those games on WWOR Channel 9, King’s “30@60for40” validates that we aren’t suffering from nostalgia gone wild.

Bernard King was who we thought he was.

Unlike Knick legends Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed, no one more than Bernard transforms grown Knick fans into babbling children, gets stuffy 50 year old accountants to jump around like Spike Lee, and elicits reactions of: “I swear I saw Jesus in shorts”. No, not “Black Jesus” ala Earl Monroe’s other nickname — just “Jesus”.

Truth be told, here is what many Knick fans in bars swear to this very day: at his pre-injury peak Bernard King was a better small forward than Larry Bird and a greater scorer than Michael Jordan.

If that sounds crazy to you, please consult his peers again:

“I have never feared anybody that I’ve played against – Bird, Magic, Doctor, Michael – and I respect and love all of those guys… Bernard King is the only guy that ever scared the hell out of me.”  — Dominique Wilkins [HOF 2006]

Listen to Dominique. Few in media will publically utter such words for fear of ridicule or straight-jacket. But we are not the crazy ones.

It is the rest of the sports universe that has gone insane.

Unless long dead, there is no other athlete in any sport whose gap between greatness and recognition is larger — even after this week.

The humiliations are endless.

Will Bernard make the Hall of Fame this year? Should King have made the NBA’s 50 greatest players list? Will the Knicks finally retire his iconic #30 jersey?

The questions themselves demean NBA history. What about media?

In February, Lebron had six straight games of 30 points on 60% shooting, and ESPN.com lost their efficient minds, but no mention of King. Last year ESPN issued its 25 greatest playoff performances since 1978, and no King again. Sorry B, your 42 @60% and legendary Game 5 just weren’t dominant enough.

In 1984, The New York Times closely chronicled King’s nuanced brilliance in “Mysterious Moves” and “Never a Knick Like Him””, but on the 25th anniversary of that magical season, another small forward stole the show with a 10,000 word profile: Shane Battier:  “The No-Stats All-Star”. [Author note: Going for cute here, but may have failed. NYT has consistently provided tremendous King/Knicks coverage].

What about the greatest player in Tennessee history, half of the famed Bernie and Ernie Show, and legendary Kentucky killer? When Kentucky coach John Calipari told his 2010 team that Bernard was talking pre-game trash in Tennessee’s locker room, the youngsters responded:

“Who is Bernard King?”, ”What number is Bernard King?”, and  “I’m guarding him?”


How did we get here?

Has there been some vast hide-King conspiracy? Not likely, but corporate interests have reduced the NBA’s Golden Era to “Magic vs. Bird”, and lesser victims include Kareem, Julius, Moses, Isiah, and the great small forward of the 1980’s.

Bernard’s knee injury alone doesn’t explain it either. No one adds up career stats for Sandy Koufax, Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Bill Walton. We know what happened to them.

Reasons for King’s vanishing includes playoff-lore hijackings by Isiah, Larry, and Michael [see BK2: Genius Unchained]; his unspectacular style, his early-career substance abuse and off-court problems, his forgotten Warrior years, his teammates, and his plodding coach Hubie Brown [see BK3: Genius Contained].

It also involves a dysfunctional Hall of Fame and sports media largely incapable of recognizing historic greatness without historic teammates. Despite being voted Most Valuable Player by their peers, King (1984), young Michael (1989), and Lebron (2006) were all denied those awards by media, and had their status as “winners” questioned. Where players see lack of support, media perceives lack of maturity, but only a lack of imagination could deny King as champion beside Patrick Ewing [see BK5: The King of Peers].

King’s past has been forgotten, a healthy future rarely imagined, but most of all, his present genius was never fully realized too far beyond his own peers, local fans, and a few journalists [3].

Bernard’s game was historically unique, but he often gets lumped into a sea of history’s high-volume scoring forwards. While The Tennessee Terror stormed on the NCAA scene with 42 points in his very first game as a freshman, his truer legacy can be found in his nation-leading 62% shooting.

Lebron James is receiving great credit for shooting 56% this year, but King shot 56% over a 5-year pre-injury prime (1980-85) and did it without any all-star teammates. The playoffs are where shooting percentages go to die (see Karl Malone), but King shot a stunning 58% in 18 Knick playoff games. Only the greatest ones maintain accuracy against playoff defense — our very best test for “unstoppability” across eras.

King also defied every selfish scorer stereotype. He was not a one on one player, never needed isolations, never took bad shots, and did it all within the game’s flow. He was a scoring scientist whose quick release, midrange mastery, and disciplined shot selection have gone the way of Kareem’s skyhook [see BK4: Genius Explained].

King also suffered from a pre-Jordan era where it was thought impossible to score like Mike, but win like Magic. If Jordan is any indication, Bernard was too unselfish. Jordan had more athleticism, style, and shot attempts, but not accuracy [see BK6: The Jordan Rules].

Today, Bernard is mostly remembered for his 60 points on Christmas Day, and scoring 50 points on back-to back nights in 1984. Mr. Hot Streak has now become Mr. Hot Game, and The King of Efficiency has been largely reduced to Jamal Crawford – a career 41% chucker.

Before Lebron’s February outburst, the last great scoring streak came from Kobe Bryant in 2004. Back then, Scoop Jackson tried to educate the youth when he asked the obvious:

“What’s up with the love? [Bernard] had scoring stretches that lasted seasons, not just games.”

Jackson continued:

“He was a genius interrupted… The universal love that evaded his career was found scrolled inside a book penned by his peers.”

Jackson’s question was ignored, so a decade later the kids want to know:

“Who is Bernard King?”

Have a seat son and move over Mr. Battier, King’s invisible genius must be explained.

II.   Genius Unchained: Bernard King vs. Isiah, Larry, and History
III.  Genius Contained: Bernard King vs. Hubie Brown 
IV.   Genius Explained: Bernard King vs. Youtube
V.     The King of Peers: Bernard King vs. Media
VI.   The Jordan Rules: Bernard King vs. Michael

Or you can always just ask his peers:

Man, Bernard King, he was the truth.”  — Bob McAdoo [HOF 2003]


[1] Beginning on January 14, King scored 1219 points (482-808) over the next three months spanning 40 regular season games averaging 30.5 points at a 59.7 average  (ending right before regular season’s final meaningless game before the playoffs)

[2] It is highly unlikely that King’s 40 games of 30 points on 60% shooting has been duplicated – even when factoring eFG. The highest FG% for a 30 PPG season is Kareem Abdul Jabbar who scored 32 points on .577 shooting in 70-71 and an incredible 35 points on .574 shooting in ’71-’72. Adrian Dantley also scored 30.3 points on 57% shooting in ’81-’82.

[3] Many journalists have helped keep King’s memory alive. Special thanks to  Dennis D’Agostino,  Alan Hahn, Scoop JacksonBobbito Garcia and AliBruce Jenkins,  John HareasBill Simmons, Dave ZirinIra Berkow, Harvey Araton, Spike Leeand others.

10 Responses to Bernard King: The NBA’s Invisible Genius

  1. Temple3 says:

    Great post. Overdue recognition for a true master.

    He definitely was the most efficient FG scorer I’ve ever seen. The game was a bit different then, but his fluidity and grace were comparable to Jordan’s in many respects. MJ clearly was an above-the-rim talent, but King’s mastery on the ground was unparalleled. He certainly seemed to score more easily than MJ, but perhaps it was only his injury in 1985 (and being in a separate division) that precluded the Pistons from forming a King’s Court to corral BK long before they ever came up with the Jordan Rules.

    Hopefully none of your younger fans construe this as an argument that King was better than Jordan overall. Either way, as a scorer Bernard King was simply superb. He made it look easy.

  2. Temple3 says:

    The player whose efficiency and understated approach to the game that reminds me the most of Bernard King — even though they had totally styles — is Alex English. King was like a thunderstorm. English was like a warm spring day.

    Here are their respective numbers: http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=1&p1=englial01&y1=1991&p2=kingbe01&y2=1993

    It’s hard to tell them apart — until you get to the post-season.

  3. MODI says:

    Thanks T3. For the record, I don’t believe King was a better player than Jordan. Jordan’s incredible talent at the defensive end is what really separated him from King, Magic, and Bird.

    In future parts of the series, the argument will be made that King was a better scorer than Michael, and that his unstoppability transcended eras the way it transcended playoffs because it wasn’t rooted in superior athleticism, but superior skill.

    I definitely think Alex English is underrated outside of Denver, and was fun to watch. At the same time, given his prowess on the fast break picturing Bernard King in a fast-paced Doug Moe offense sends chills down my spine.

  4. Chris says:

    Excellent post, Modi! Looking forward to parts 2-6. I know you’ve touted BK for a long time, but never really understood his level of greatness.

  5. mike says:

    Very impressive Chuck. I remember many jaw dropping evenings seeing BK on WOR on a little black n white TV.. if only, if only Patrick had him.. EVEN after the injury… had no idea of his magnitude til saw your research. Well done.

  6. Ben Brung says:

    I want to start by saying that I think this is a great post and you really nailed the often ignored stats and peer reactions that get to the heart of what separated Bernard from other scorers.

    Because of the overall level of your insights, I’m kind of surprised at your dismissal of legitimate questions about how far great players can ascend and, most especially, your ironic use of Jordan and Lebron as examples to prove the point.

    I don’t have an issue with peers anointing a player as the best but they don’t usually do that (nor should they be expected to) from the perspective of historical greatness. Once the NBA grind starts, every player is under the game film microscope. Any and every weakness will be exploited to the fullest in an effort to get a player out of their comfort zone and into an area of weakness. A player’s development through this cat-and-mouse game is way bigger and more complex than simple maturity and has routinely resulted in peers lowering their estimation of a player’s greatness. In fact, while many people saw Jordan score 63 while the Bulls were being swept by the Celtics and decided all of the Bulls’ problems fell on his supporting cast.

    This may still be the hindsight consensus but, in actuality, Jordan said he felt embarrassed by that performance and began to ask some of the same questions he had initially dismissed and that you are currently dismissing. It was not easy for Jordan to find and accept the answers and it took something akin to an intervention from peers, friends and past greats. Larry Bird, who had earlier declared Jordan the best he had seen, saw his game moving in the wrong direction and backed-off of his earlier proclamation, responded with a disappointment and essentially said Michael was becoming a chucker.

    To be sure, Michael continued to express his frustration that he did not have the personnel to achieve his goals, but he had already accepted that he also had work to do. The Bulls’ inability to win was not Michael’s fault alone but it is to his credit that he recognized that simply getting better at what he was already doing was making his team mates worse. He still didn’t think he had the right team mates (and he didn’t) but he understood that he would ultimately need to head into unfamiliar territory to win a championship. Rather than dismiss questions about the consistency of his jump shot and his inability to use his talent to create opportunities for team mates he started to address them for himself. Again, it wasn’t easy, and he was still complaining even after the team assembled the group that helped him win his first championship but he slowly stopped reverting to full chucker mode out of frustration with his team mates.

    It’s easy to say that Jordan’s supremacy was evident from day one but he understood, better than anyone, that winning at a high level was a prerequisite to even being part of the conversation. The Jordan who kicked the ball out to a wide-open Paxson or Kerr was miles away from the Jordan who dropped 63 on the Celtics and had already been anointed as the best by some. Thank God he didn’t hold on to the same dismissiveness you are perpetuating here.

    Lebron left Cleveland for lack of support personnel but he was also quick to realize that he wasn’t going was not going to get to the top if an opponent could neutralize him for even 3 or 4 minutes of the fourth quarter without having to leave his team mates open. The question about how he could be the best player on a championship team if he couldn’t get a high percentage shot or create one for a team mate is not Lebron-hatred or denial of his supremacy. This question from his critics was the exact question he attacked in the off-season (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9109245/how-lebron-james-transformed-game-become-highly-efficient-scoring-machine). Part of his greatness is the direct result of his realization that he hadn’t achieved it by 2006 when many were insisting that everyone acknowledge that he had.

    You may be right about the MVP argument but it’s not really relevant in terms of the legitimacy of critical questions about winning. Regardless of what anyone says in the short-term no one joins the conversation about history’s best by replacing high-level team success with an argument about inadequate team mates. There is plenty of evidence that the 2 players you used to dismiss the importance of questions about winning the big one would disagree with you.

    Perhaps this point seems less trivial when things don’t go the way they did for Michael & Lebron. Despite being prematurely foisted into conversations about the NBA’s greatest big men, the level of Dwight Howard’s historical greatness is on the decline and his window is closing. The validity of his complaints about support in Orlando will not have much impact on whether history drops him from the conversation. Anyone who thinks Blake Griffin can avoid a similar fate without addressing questions about playoff teams exploiting his woefully inadequate footwork has no understanding of how historical greatness is achieved.

  7. Ben Brung says:

    Sorry, I realize proofreading should come before submitting but I guess I have come to rely on having an “edit” option after the fact. I hope my main points aren’t completely obscured by my careless writing.

  8. MODI says:

    Ben, thank you so much for your well-thought out response which deserves one in kind. Will drop back in later today and much will also be addressed particularly in parts 5 and 6.

  9. […]  Part II of Bernard King: The NBA’s Invisible Genius […]

  10. Joe Carroll says:

    Thank you for this amazing article! I watched my first NBA game on channel 36 out of San Jose during 1980-81 season. I remember watching the Golden State team which included BK, World B Free, and my namesake JBC. Bernard was amazing to watch then and would have averaged more than 22.5 if They did not havethe disappointing JBC. Being able to watch BK followed by Purvis Short (after BK was traded the NY) led to my great love for hoop.

    One last point is that a Bernard King came back from an ACL before they had the current technology they have now and was very good. I think that probably says more about BKs grit than anything. Thank you for the awesome article!
    Joe C. Sacramento

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