He was ready to have a great game.
That is how Bernard King remembers feeling as he drove to Madison Square Garden on Christmas morning 36 years ago. He had goosebumps. He was excited. He was ready.
"I was at the height of my basketball career and profession," King told Newsday in a phone interview this week. "It was Christmas Day and I felt it was an honor to play. You knew all your peers around the league would be watching."
On Friday, the NBA again will showcase its best teams and players on Christmas Day, giving fans a full slate of games starting at noon and running deep into the night. It is doubtful, however, that anyone involved in those five games will come close to touching the Christmas Day performance in 1984 by King, who scored 60 points for the Knicks in a 120-114 loss to the Nets.
The incredible scoring explosion by King, who had 40 points in the first half, stands as arguably the greatest individual performance in the history of the holiday game.
With King finally starting to get his due as both a great player and a great inspirational story — celebrity Knicks fan Ben Stiller has just joined the production team that is making a movie based on his autobiography — it seemed like a good time to revisit that game and one of the most underappreciated periods in Knicks history.
In the gray days that were Knicks basketball between 1973 and 1992, there was a brief shining moment in the mid-1980s after the Brooklyn-born King was acquired in a trade with Golden State for Micheal Ray Richardson. He blew out his knee in his third season for the Knicks, but the electricity he brought to the Garden every time he touched the ball hooked a generation of Knicks fans.
The 6-7 King was at the peak of his professional powers that Christmas morning, coming off a 1984 postseason in which he averaged 34.8 points per game and nearly eliminated Larry Bird’s Celtics in the second round after knocking off Isiah Thomas’ Pistons in the first.
In a league that featured Bird, Magic Johnson, Dominique Wilkins and a rookie named Michael Jordan in 1984-85, King won the scoring title with an average of 32.9 points per game.
"He was one of the few people I would pay to see play," said sports journalist Harvey Araton, who then covered King’s Knicks for the New York Daily News. "He was right up there in terms of showmanship. His game face scared the [expletive] out of me. He looked like a demon."
King said he always began preparing for every game in his head the night before. The Knicks were missing a couple of players in that Christmas Day game, most notably center Bill Cartwright, who had a foot injury. King came into the game looking to put up some big points.
"The Nets didn’t have elite defenders and allowed me to catch the ball wherever I wanted," King said. "Being an elite scorer, whenever you are allowed to catch the ball wherever you want, you can make any move you want. It’s just a question of how well you are shooting the ball."
King shot well from the get-go. He scored 21 points in the first quarter, shooting 6-for-9 from the field. He wound up shooting 19-for-30 from the field and 22-for-26 from the line.
The Nets threw all kinds of defenders at him, including Buck Williams and Richardson. After King finished the first half with 40, they even went to the end of the bench and tried 6-11 center George Johnson.
Starting point guard Rory Sparrow said the biggest challenge for the rest of the Knicks was to keep playing their game and not "sit back and watch" like everyone else at Madison Square Garden.
"He was phenomenal the whole game," Sparrow said. "I played with Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan. I played against all the other great guys. Bernard was the most efficient scorer I have ever played with or against. He would get the ball in certain spots and it was either a quick turnaround and boom, or one, two, three, boom. He was just a fierce, fierce competitor."
King became the 10th player in NBA history to score 60 points. The mark remained both a Madison Square Garden and franchise record for years. Kobe Bryant broke the modern Garden record — Wilt Chamberlain scored 73 at the old Garden in 1962 — by scoring 61 points on Feb. 2, 2009, and Carmelo Anthony set a franchise and MSG record with 62 points against Charlotte on Jan. 24, 2014.
King’s performance stands apart from Bryant’s and Anthony’s in that he didn’t attempt a three-pointer. Bryant was 3-for-6 from downtown and Anthony was 6-for-11.
The three-pointer was relatively new in the 1984-85 season, having been introduced in 1979, and it was a rarely used weapon wielded primarily by specialists. For the game, the Knicks attempted one three-point shot, which Sparrow made. The Nets were 0-for-5 from beyond the arc.
"Bernard would never take a three unless the time was running out and he had to heave the ball at the end of the game," Sparrow said.
Araton said it’s hard to overstate the excitement among Knicks fans after that game.
"There was this buzz. It was like we finally had one of the chosen ones," Araton said. "A guy had just scored 60 points in the Garden. There was a sense that we got this guy and we’ll build around him. We’re OK because we have Bernard. There was no sense that this was a one-off."
Three months later, however, King attempted to block a shot by the Kansas City Kings' Reggie Theus and suffered a devastating injury, breaking a bone in his right leg and tearing the ACL in his right knee.
At the time, a torn ACL was considered a career-ending injury. King said four doctors told him he would never play again, but he found a fifth doctor who performed major reconstructive surgery.
King made a groundbreaking comeback and is considered the first player to return from a torn ACL and play at a high level.
He returned at the end of the 1986-87 season but played only six games. He never got to take the floor at the same time as Patrick Ewing, whom the team drafted in 1985 but was injured during King’s brief return.
The Knicks did not re-sign King, who regained his All-Star form while playing for the Washington Bullets and was voted back into the All-Star Game in 1991.
During the 1990-91 season, King had a 52-point game eight days after his 34th birthday and lit up the Knicks for 49 points in a game at Madison Square Garden that left the crowd cheering for their former star. He averaged 28.4 points per game that season.
After averaging 22.5 points per game in 14 seasons, King was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2013.
In his memoir, "Game Face: A Lifetime of Hard-Earned Lessons On and Off the Basketball Court," King detailed that comeback and his other life challenges, including racism, problems with alcohol and growing up in a physically and emotionally abusive home in the early 1960s and 1970s.
The book is being turned into a biopic produced by Protégé Pictures’ Rodney Henry, Ted Field of Radar and Stiller’s production company, Red Hour Films.
"Bernard’s story of never giving up against impossible odds when you’ve fallen from the pinnacle of a stellar career due to a devastating injury . . . and then regaining that pinnacle again, can be inspiring for all of us in our lives," Field said in an email.
Henry, who first met King at one of his basketball camps as a teenager, said King changed his life. "This story can be an inspiration to many others as it was to me," Henry said.
King, 64, now lives with his wife, Shana, and daughter, Amina, outside of Atlanta. He said that every Christmas Day, he gets the itch to go back on the court, but for the most part, he is at peace with his life and his career. Decades removed from his playing days, he said he finally can enjoy what he accomplished.
"My one regret is that I never played with Patrick," King said. "We would have won a championship."
NBA scoring leaders in 1984-85
Bernard King, Knicks: 32.9
Larry Bird, Boston: 28.7
Michael Jordan, Chicago: 28.2
Purvis Short, Golden State: 28.0
Alex English, Denver: 27.9