There are at least 10 super offensive forwards in the National Basketball Association with the ability to score by land, see, or air - see in this case meaning ''Watch me, I'm showtime!'' But probably no cornerman in the league has a more eye-compelling flair going to the hoop than 6 ft. 7 in. Bernard King of the New York Knicks.
Like most NBA scorers who average in the mid 20s through an 82-game season, the effort King puts into his defensive game is as changeable as New England weather. Considering the number of minutes he plays and where he plays them (usually in close to the basket), his 394 rebounds last year wouldn't get him a seat on the bench in an all-star game.
But when the hour is late, the score tied, and the game on the line, Bernard is going to win most elections held to decide which player should take the last shot. Where a lot of NBA stars would rather go into a burning building with a can of gasoline than be asked to perform in the clutch, King probably would be insulted if he were not given the ball.
Since pro basketball doesn't use a radar gun to measure such things, you have to take it on faith when scouts say that Bernard has the quickest trigger finger in the league. The rest of the story is that he never seems to need more than a sliver of daylight in which to locate the hoop.
However, the mechanics of King's quick release are all wrong according to the shooters' bible, which preaches that a player sacrifices control firing up the basketball before his body has reached its apex. But to Bernard that suggestion has as much credibility as an old wive's tale.
A good part of the Knicks' offense, of course, is getting the ball down low to King, whose multiple talents permit him to drive, dunk, or shoot the pull-up jumper. Players who try to block his shot by going into the stratosphere with him invariably return to earth before Bernard. While no opposing coach so far has asked officials to check for the presence of an invisible steel thread in King's vicinity, a few may have considered it.
Although there have been several NBA players over the years who have scored 50 or more points once or twice during a season, not many have done it in back-to-back road games. However, King wrote himself a little personal history last season by scoring 50 points against San Antonio, then depositing another 50 the following night against Dallas.
''The trouble with coaching a player like Bernard is that you have a tendency to want him to take every shot,'' explained coach Hubie Brown of the Knicks. ''Soon, if you don't deliberately cut down on some of the ball traffic to King and get your other players involved, they begin standing around so much that you lose your continuity as a team.''
Watching Bernard create scoring opportunities for himself during a game is a lot like watching one of football's best wide receivers free himself for a pass. The one-on-one duel is still the most interesting in sports, and when King gets a step on the man guarding him, a deliberate foul is about the only way to stop him..
Anytime the pattern-oriented Knicks can shift to a sustained running game on offense, Bernard's scoring is going to go up, often dramatically.
''Some guys work better in a set offense because they can only do certain things,'' King explained. ''With everything planned ahead for them, they don't really have to think. But if you have the ability to create positive things for yourself off the fast break, all you really need to do to score baskets is run and move aggressively.''
Compared to Boston's Larry Bird, Bernard only has a partial game. Where Bird's ability to pass and rebound and move without the ball helps get everyone on his team involved in the offense, King is chiefly a hired gun who sees only one target, the basket.
While it is easy to criticize Bernard for not expanding his horizons (certainly a man with his jumping ability should get many more rebounds), generally every great NBA shooter these days performs that way. That is until the playoffs, when the importance of team defense is suddenly rediscovered.
But if an owner wants someone who can entertain a crowd, King is the guy. His lifetime scoring average after seven years in the NBA with four different teams (New Jersey, Utah, Golden State, and New York) is 22.6. During last season's playoffs it shot up to 30.5