The King of New York is headed to the Hall of Fame, and that is perfectly fine. There is no harm in Bernard King, one of the NBA’s most thrilling players from the 1980s, joining peers like Sidney Moncrief, Alex English and Tom Chambers in the hallowed, spherical halls of Springfield.
In case facetiousness is not your forte, you should know that two of those guys are not in the Hall of Fame. Moncrief, the ’80s version of 2013 inductee Gary Payton, and Chambers, a high-flying precursor to Blake Griffin, appear to be nowhere close to Hall of Fame invites. And it just makes things messier for a Hall of Fame that is already decidedly suspect among fans, even as the fickle nature of Hall of Fame enshrinement goes.
King is not undeserving of the honor. He capitalized on the furious pace, drug-addled culture and nonexistent defense of the late 1970s and early ’80s to average 22.5 points per game in his career, including a league-high 32.9 in 1984-85. If only for his remarkable comeback after missing essentially two full seasons due to a torn right ACL — at that time a death knell for a professional athlete — King would be more than worthy of a “contributor” honor. To a ’90s teenager who always heard King named among that era’s greats, it was strange that his eligibility came and went without a call from the Hall.
But with each passing Hall of Fame class, the criteria for enshrinement get harder to understand. This problem is not unique to basketball, of course. Many supposedly pre-steroid sluggers and strikeout pitchers have been called to Cooperstown in the last few years, on the rationale that their numbers look better outside the context of the video game statistics of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As for football, Canton overlooked wide receivers for decades, with only Jerry Rice and Steve Largent making it on the first ballot since the merger, but since Rice’s induction in 2010, the committee’s prejudice against wideouts has softened a bit. Three all-time great receivers — Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown — were under consideration this year, and Carter was selected.
None of the Halls are as disheveled as basketball’s, though. Aside from Payton, the 2013 class is filled with players who apparently got better without playing a game in decades. Roger Brown, a teammate of 2012 inductee Mel Daniels on the legendary Pacers teams in the ABA, is finally getting in 16 years after his death. Richie Guerin, who at 6-foot-4 amounted to a “big guard” in the early NBA, had the misfortune of playing his prime simultaneous to Bill Russell in Boston, dooming the Knicks guard to a ringless career even as he averaged 29.5 points per game in 1961-62. Now King, long a cult hero, joins the New York-themed class of 2013 (Brown and King were born and raised in Brooklyn. Guerin was from the Bronx. Rick Pitino, another of this year’s inductees, grew up on Long Island).
When induction extends beyond the elite of the elite, the “if-then” games start, and that is always dangerous. Bringing together college, international, women’s and American professional players is sweet, but problematic. At the same time, the inclusion of “contributor” labels, while a nice idea, has muddied the issue even further. Wayne Embry, Don Barksdale and Satch Sanders made it as contributors, but their playing careers were just impressive enough to warrant confusion among some fans that they could be in the Hall off their talents alone. Yao Ming, whose brief yet impressive career was comparable to King’s and whose cultural impact was even greater, will surely make it as a contributor at some point.
All this confusion over what constitutes a Hall of Fame career is unfortunate, because it will be fun to see King and Payton get their due this September. If Spencer Haywood had been part of the class, it would have been even better. King’s legend has grown with time — Carmelo Anthony claims he idolized King in New York, which is definitely apocryphal, since Anthony was two years old when King played his last game as a Knick — and Spike Lee will surely be front and center for BK’s induction speech. But it is worth wondering what happened in the last 14 years that made King go from a cult figure to a legend whose plaque can hang on a wall with contemporaries like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Such is the hole the Basketball Hall of Fame continues to dig for itself. The basketball hall will forever be a great museum of the sport’s storied history, but as a shrine to the game’s greats, it still deserves to be acknowledged with little more than a respectful nod and a basketball-sized grain of salt.
Photo via Facebook/Bernard King