Anyone with a heart had to wince when Baron Davis’s right knee was shredded last Sunday at Madison Square Garden in Game 4 of the ’ playoff series against the Miami Heat. Having once been exactly where Davis was, collapsed in a terrified heap, Bernard King had an even more visceral response.
“I do feel it when I see someone like Baron or any player goes down with a severe knee injury,” King said. “I understand their pain.”
It has been a brief playoff season of agony in the Knicks’ camp and elsewhere — most notably in Chicago, where Derrick Rose sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament — and no one can speak to the emotions and repercussions better than King. A former Knick scoring forward in the pure Carmelo Anthony mold but with a game face that was the utter antithesis of mellow, King is regarded as the N.B.A.’s patriarch of hope and recovery.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, a time practically prehistoric in terms of surgical reinvention, King was hailed as the first player to regain a fair measure of dominance after major ligament damage. Just to step back on the court, it took almost two years of rehabilitation, shrouded in meticulous secrecy that few of us understood, but eventually came to applaud.
, in Kansas City, he was told by several doctors that his chances of returning as an above-average player, if at all, were slim. He retreated into solitary space, created his own timetable and hung a sign in the North Jersey gym where he trained that read “I shall not be denied.” He literally patted himself on the back after each and every workout.
“Someone had to scale Everest for the first time and I thought, ‘Why not me?’ ” King, who returned to the Knicks this season as an analyst on the MSG Network, said in a telephone interview. “But as I look back on it now — and what I would say to the guys dealing with this now — is that we, as athletes, sometimes think we can control our environment, speed up the process. But what you feel in therapy and working out is quite different than what you experience in a playoff basketball game.”
Medical advances aside, this sounded like worthy instruction for the rookie Iman Shumpert, who tore his left A.C.L. and lateral meniscus in Miami’s Game 1 blowout and was said to be out for what sounded like a hopeful six to eight months. As well for , who had the less-invasive arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair a slight meniscus tear and on Tuesday was finally declared out for the remainder of the series should the Knicks survive Game 5 Wednesday night in Miami.
The notion that Lin, who hasn’t played since March 24, was going to test-drive his knee in the crucible of the playoffs was far-fetched to the point of negligent. Lin will be a restricted free agent in less than two months and one who may never have more leverage.
Nor was it in Coach Mike Woodson’s interest to have doctors allow Lin to resume and risk further injury when the odds are prohibitively against the Knicks moving on. No matter how much Woodson said Tuesday that he was thinking only about Game 5 — while denying a report that he has begun negotiations with the team for next season — the long view is presumably best for him, too.
“Lin and Shumpert could be helping the Knicks win for the next 10 years,” King said, mindful of how unlucky he was when he was hurt at the tail end of a season already deep in twilight. He played six games for the Knicks in the spring of 1987 but never did step on the floor as a teammate of Patrick Ewing’s. In his second season, Ewing was hurt when King returned and King was let go by the incoming coach, Rick Pitino, who didn’t think King’s knee would endure the stress of his up-tempo style.
“A mistake,” said Darrell Walker, another former Knick from that time, who was added to the coaching staff in March when Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni.
Walker vividly recalled running back on defense that awful night in Kansas City, and watching King rise to block a shot by Reggie Theus. He came down, clutching the lower part of his right leg.
“Thought it was his ankle,” Walker said. “It was so sad because at the time he was hurt he was the most devastating scorer I’d ever seen and I also played with Michael Jordan, Alex English and Isiah Thomas. His jump shot release was just lightning.”
Walker was a rookie in the playoff series that was arguably the pinnacle of King’s career, a gem with Detroit in 1984 in which King averaged 42.6 points, only to have Thomas erupt for an unfathomable 16 points in 94 seconds and wind up with the ball in the dying seconds of a tied and decisive Game 5.
Walker stole it, King completed a 44-point night in overtime while playing with dislocated fingers and the flu and the Knicks went on to lose a seven-game series to Larry Bird and the Celtics. Sadly for King, there would never again be such magical playoff nights but there would be an all-star game return as a Washington Bullet in 1990-91 and a sweet 49-point explosion at the Garden against the Knicks that made him feel as if he had reached the Everest peak after a six-year climb.
The moral of King’s story? Control your own destiny. There will always be more games. “I would caution any player from coming back too soon,” he said.