Kansas City Kings not to be taken lightly

Somewhere among all that power talent in the National Basketball Association is a hard-working franchise called the Kansas City Kings, defending champions of the NBA's Midwest Division.

If the Kings had two centers -- indeed, if the Kings had even one center -- there might be a temptation to mention them in the same sentence with Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

But when was the last time anyone compared Sam Lacey and his 8.7 scoring average with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Actually Lacey plays good defense, sets excellent picks, and leads the team in rebounds.

The problem is that Sam cannot do this consistently for much more than 35 minutes a game, and when he comes out for a rest, his replacements have all the mobility of a steamroller.

By the time the playoffs arrive each year, Lacey is not best physically and the Kings get blown out (as they did last season in five games by Phoenix).

Still there is a certain player chemistry about the Kings that suggests they should never be taken lightly.

For example, after getting off to a horrible 5-11 start this season, during which they fell 7 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in their division, KC suddenly began playing 700-plus basketball.

Now how can that be, especially with their center situation the way it is?

"Basically this is a team of role players," explained Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "We don't run up big scores, we don't overpower anybody, and we almost never have any easy games.

"If we tried to play one-on-one basketball, we'd have only three players who could do it -- Phil Ford, Otis Birdsong, and Bill McKinney," Fitzsimmons continued. "With us it has to be moving the ball around, taking advantage of turnovers, and playing the very best we know how on defense."

Although the Kings could lose almost anyone in their lineup except Lacey and survive for a while, forward Scott Wedman (Fitzsimmons says) is just as much as catalyst for this team as his guards.

"There are faster cornermen in this league who are also better rebounders," Cotton said, "but not many of them have Wedman's consistency. We look for a lot more from Scott than the 20 points he gives us every night. We look for his leadership. Whe you've got a guy who plays hard at both ends of the floor, it makes your other players want to do the same thing."

The other starting forward can be either Bill Robinzine or Gus Gerard, depending on who happens to have the hot hand at the moment. But Robinzine is so much the better rebounder that life under the boards is a lot easier for Lacey when he's in there.

As a unit, Ford and Birdsong are two of the toughest guards in the league to stop offensively. Phil is that rare combination of a bon fide playmaker and a fine shooter. Birdsong, who leads the team in scoring, creates a lot of opportunities with his quickness and never seems to have any trouble shooting over taller men inside.

Whenever Ford or Birdsong need rest, Fitzsimmons brings in McKinney, a kind of storybook personality, who couldn't make it as a sixth-round pick with the Phoenix Suns in 1978. After sitting out last season, Bill came to camp this year as a free agent and beat out one of KC's high draft choices with his speed and self-sacrificing style of play.

Asked if the Kings could win their division and still have trouble in the playoffs, as they did last year, Cotton replied:

"Well, we can't take anything for granted, or course. But we were new to the playoffs last year and in a lot of areas we didn't adjust as quickly as we should have. But this is another year and, if nothing else, we're smarter."

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