[In 2017, NBA great Bernard King published his autobiography titled Game Face: A Lifetime of Hard-Earned Lessons On and Off the Basketball Court. In the book, King talks about his battle with alcohol in the late 1970s (“the darkest period of my life”) and his will to overcome the addiction and reclaim his life and career:
“I was a star forward in my prime. I’d gone toe-to-toe with Julius Erving. Not once, but for two full seasons. I’d also made some terrible mistakes. I knew I still could be one of the best players in basketball. But first I needed to win back the league’s respect. I had something to prove, like when I’d been a kid playing with the older players, demonstrating I should be on the court.”
Check out his book for more, if you haven’t already. But if you’d like to read a more-contemporaneous account of King’s remarkable comeback, what follows is a good one. The article comes from writer Barry Bloom, who is best known for his work with the San Diego Union-Tribune and Bloomberg News. But here, Bloom was just starting out in the business, finishing up his masters in Communications at San Francisco State University. His article about King appeared in paperback The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1982.]
Adversity and courage. They have become a way of life for Bernard King.
Each day when he awakes, King faces the world as an alcoholic. That’s adversity. And each time King takes the court as a professional basketball player, he is putting his problems on the line for public scrutiny. That takes courage.
“I thrive on adversity,” King says. “I really don’t start fighting until my back is to the wall.”
And since January 1980, King has been engaged in the fight of his life—a fight not only against alcoholism, but a fight to clear his name of a once-reckless reputation. “That old reputation thing, that’s history,” King says. “Let’s talk about what’s happening now.”
OK, let’s talk. When the King takes the court again this fall in his second season with the Golden State Warriors, he will take his place as the team leader—a man who fought off his adversity to win the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year award last season. He did it by not only averaging 21.9 points in 80 games, he did it by NOT being all those things he’s SUPPOSED to be.
Gone is the King who sowed his oats during those trouble-filled years at the University of Tennessee. Gone is the King who drank his way through two seasons with the New Jersey Nets and one ill-fated year in Salt Lake City where, as a member of the Utah Jazz, he faced serious sexual charges brought by a Mormon woman and suspension without pay by the club.
In his place is an introspective 24-year-old man capable of this amazing restitution. And the common thread through it all has been King’s explosive talents as a basketball player. “Through it all, I never lost confidence in myself as a ballplayer,” said King. “I knew that if I got another chance, I’d make the most of it. When people congratulate me for a great comeback, I have to wonder—a comeback from what? In my mind, I’ve never been gone.”
In King’s finest NBA season, he also became his own best public relations tool. A man who used to maintain a ceaseless adversarial relationship with the press, King was almost always available for interviews about his trip along the rocky road to sobriety. He became a pillar in the Oakland community, where the Warriors play their home games, visiting the local children’s hospital regularly. He plans to talk to groups of teenagers about the endless traps that alcoholism dangles before a young mind.
An articulate young man, King has expanded his career off the basketball court, recently signing a cable television contract to host a local Bay Area sports show. When plans to marry his longtime fiancé, Colette Caesar, come to fruition, King says his life will be nearly complete.
“In the past, my life was basketball,” King says. “Now basketball is just one of the things I do with my life. I have a love now, a purpose. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t tackled alcoholism.”
But King’s basketball prowess shouldn’t be minimized, either. A euphoric player—“perhaps the best practice player I’ve ever seen, “ says Warrior coach Al Attles—King gave the club amazing stability in a season which was filled with inexperience, injury, and off-court problems as the Warriors nearly missed the playoffs.
Nobody in the Golden State front office dared dream of the dividends when the Warriors stole King from the Jazz in exchange for mediocre forward Wayne Cooper and a second-round draft pick last September 11. The Warriors had gambled by picking up two “troublemakers” in King and guard Lloyd “World” Free after a season in which the team won only 24 of 82 games. The acquisitions paid immediate dividends. Despite the suspension of guard John Lucas with seven games left in the season, Golden State finished at 39-43, only one game behind Houston and Kansas City in the race for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
King was a joy all season, and only a dislocated thumb suffered by Free probably kept Golden State out of the playoffs, as Free was able to play in only five of the final 18 games. In the final analysis, the “gamble” paid off handsomely.
“I’ve never been one to go on past reputations,” said Attles. “I deal with a guy on how he treats me. That’s it. But I’ll be honest with you. If you had told me before the season that Lucas would be the problem, I’d have laughed. I figured Luke would be a stabilizing force.”
But Lucas , who missed six games, three plane flights, and at least 16 practices for what he said were “contractual problems,” became the enigma. Ironically, King emerged as the stabilizing force—the quiet leader who led a group which included four rookies, by example.
“I respect Bernard more than anyone else on this team for what he’s accomplished,” said Purvis Short, who began the season at forward, but was switched to guard after Free was injured. “If Bernard hadn’t been out there,” said Free, who, like King, is a native of Brooklyn, “I don’t know where we would have been.”
King emerged as a dynamic force in January, when he ripped through the league with grace and aplomb. King had spent the first 2 ½ months of the season fitting into the Warriors’ style and taking a passive role. “If Al wanted me to shoot, I’d shoot,” said King. “If he wanted me to pass, I’d pass.”
But after Free missed several games during the Christmas holidays because of bruised knees, Attles came to Bernard and told him to shoot, to take control. King responded by scoring 112 points in three games—80 in one weekend against Boston and Philadelphia at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Against the Celtics, King scored 30 points as the Warriors ended a long Boston winning streak. But King saved his best for Julius Erving and the 76ers. King burned the league’s MVP with a career-high 50 points, shooting 20-for-25 from the floor. Though the Warriors lost, the vaunted Erving, who had to be taken off King defensively midway through the contest, was no less impressed. “It looks like he’s playing for his life,” Erving said about King that night. “And maybe he is.”
King was named Player of the Week for that barrage in which he shot an incredible 81.9 percent from the field (59-of-72). Making a run at the all-star team, King continued that play through January as he scored 356 points in 13 games (a 27.4 average) and made 141-of-194 field-goal attempts, 72.7 percent. Though the Western Conference coaches didn’t pick King for the all-star team (he was not on the fans’ ballot), the NBA named the 6-feet-6, 210-pound forward as its Player of the Month.
Attles was the least surprised of anyone. “We were just a recipient of all this maturity,” said Attles. “Bernard had a choice to make, and we had nothing to do with that. I don’t know what Bernard was like before he came here, but all those horror stories—I never saw anything like that. If Bernard had another personality, he didn’t bring it with him to our organization.”
King left that personality for dead January 1980, when he gave up demon booze for good. “Admitting I even had a problem was the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Once I did that, I could deal with alcoholism as a disease, which I know I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
King’s alcoholism contributed heavily to his “troublemaker” reputation. At Tennessee, he was arrested a half-dozen times, twice in one week at one point—for burglary (he borrowed a videotape system from the school’s athletic department) and then possession of marijuana and resisting arrest. All his collegiate charges were eventually suspended or dropped.
After he signed with the Nets as a junior-year collegiate hardship case in 1977 (he was in the same draft as Milwaukee’s Marques Johnson and the Suns’ Walter Davis), there was the December 1978 incident in Brooklyn when he was found asleep behind the wheel of a car during the early-morning hours and charged with possession of an infinitesimal amount of cocaine. That charge was later dropped in lieu of two traffic citations.
Then, after the Nets traded King to Utah in the fall of 1979, there were the charges brought by a white Mormon woman that she had been sexually abused by King at his Salt Lake City apartment on January 1, 1980. That serious incident brought five counts of forced sexual abuse and sodomy and was perhaps the catalyst which prompted King to seek help for alcoholism.
Upon learning of the charges, the Jazz suspended King indefinitely. But on May 28, 1980, King won a binding arbitration hearing held on his behalf by the Players’ Association, and the Jazz had to reinstate King to the roster and restore all back pay.
Based on six polygraph tests, which proved that King was too intoxicated on the night of January 1 to remember the incident in question, he pleaded “no contest” to the reduced charges of two misdemeanor counts of attempted forcible sexual abuse. He was fined $2,000 by a Utah court and given two concurrent one-year sentences that were immediately suspended. A final count of possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) is still in litigation.
Through it all, King’s chief task was curing his alcoholism. He spent nearly a month in early 1980 at St. John’s Hospital and Health Care Center in Santa Monica, Calif., revealing and coping with the problem. Then, alone in Salt Lake City, without friends, family, and career, he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for solace. AA turned out to be the cornerstone of his rehabilitation.
“Somewhere between March and June, I came to a sudden realization,” King said about the early stages of his rehabilitation. “I realized that I have peace of mind now, and that my life is the most important thing. Up until then, I could have never said that.
“I was Bernard the athlete. It was part of the image, I guess. At various times , I thought that as an athlete I should be having a good time, partying, chasing women.
“But really deep down inside, I didn’t enjoy those things. The only way I’d enjoy myself when I went out is if I had a drink. I didn’t have the discipline to say no. But now I do , and I’m glad to be in that elite minority. If someone wants to deem me square that’s fine, especially in comparison to what I was.”
After playing only 19 games in Utah, where he also suffered a badly sprained ankle, King got his career back together during the summer of 1980 in Los Angeles. He was named MVP of the L.A. Summer League, and then so impressed Warrior talent consultant Pete Newell at his pro summer camp that Newell recommended King highly to Golden State.
“I was a little leery of taking King into camp at first,” recalled Newell, who is now a member of the long list of King boosters, “but once he got to camp, I couldn’t believe how tirelessly he worked. At one point, he hurt his foot, and even though he couldn’t play, he sat on the sidelines with a yellow pad taking notes.”
Attles came down to watch some of his rookies in Newell’s practice sessions and was so impressed, he actively began to pursue the trade which eventually brought King to Golden State. “Some players will give you 100 percent in a game,” Attles marveled, “but Bernard gives that kind of the output every time he practices, and that’s amazing.”
But the Warriors almost didn’t get King. After a summer of intense negotiations to move him out of Utah, it appeared that King would go to the Chicago Bulls. But Jazz general manager Frank Layden turned down two second-round draft picks and $200,000 for King, explaining, “You can’t play money.” And when the Bulls turned around and offered a similar deal to San Antonio as compensation for signing Larry Kenon, Chicago fell out of the picture.
That’s when Golden State grabbed at the golden opportunity and consummated the deal just one day before last year’s training camp opened. The Warriors, of course, didn’t realize that they were building the forward line which could be the NBA’s force of the near future. With Joe Barry Carroll and Larry Smith joining King up front, the Warriors are equipped with three young men who have the potential to be devastating.
It was these three players who carried Golden State down the stretch in their aborted run at the playoffs. A rookie, Smith led the team in rebounding with 12.1 boards per game, including an amazing 561 offensive rebounds.
In March, Carroll, the NBA’s first draft pick out of Purdue, finally began to blossom at center. He led the club in total minutes (2,919 to King’s 2,914), and, more importantly, he justified his future value. And the future was the reason why the Warriors swapped Robert Parish and their first-round pick to Boston last spring for the top pick in the draft.
And King was a shining star throughout. After his stellar January, he had another incredible streak at the end of February when he led the club in scoring six consecutive games, totaling 198 points. His final scoring average placed him second on the team behind Free’s 24.1 mark and his .588 shooting percentage tied him with Boston’s Cedric Maxwell for third in the league. It was no wonder that King was almost a unanimous choice for the NBA’s first-ever Comeback Player of the Year award.
The coming season should be just as exciting, as the Warriors try to make the playoffs for the first time since 1976-77. For King, this year will be spiced by the first professional confrontation against his brother Albert, the University of Maryland star drafted this year by the Nets, ironically, Bernard’s first team.But for Bernard King, perhaps his greatest confrontation rests in the past in that struggle with alcoholism.