Stephen Curry scored 54 points for the Warriors last night in a losing effort against the New York Knicks. It reminded me of one of the greatest individual performances I had the good fortune to witness in person.
For a short while, Robin worked for a car dealership in Berkeley that had season tickets to the Warriors. Good seats, too, first deck, right at half-court. They were given to salesmen who had done something special … I don’t remember the details. What I do remember is that the tickets often went unclaimed, and when that happened, Robin would scarf them up, which explains why there was this period in the early-80s when we went to a lot of Warrior games. (It also explains why Joe Barry Carroll was Robin’s favorite player. Or maybe it doesn’t.)
So it was that on Saturday, January 3, 1981, we went out to catch the Warriors hosting the Philadelphia 76ers. There was one reason in particular we wanted to go to that game, a reason that made me wonder why no one else had taken the tickets: the 76ers were led by the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
That night, the Doctor scored 21 points, including, if memory serves, one monster dunk that started around the free throw line. The Sixers’ leading scorer for the game was rookie Andrew Toney with 24. Among their other players: Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, current Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, and Maurice Cheeks.
The Warriors that season had a lot of rookies, partly due to an off-season trade that gave them two first-round draft picks, including the #1 pick. Perhaps this is one reason Joe Barry Carroll became such a hated figure with local fans. He was the #1 pick that year, and he became a consistent, 20 PPG center who didn’t do much more than that, which is to say, he didn’t reach the expectations for a #1 pick. Due to the trade, they also got Rickey Brown in the 13th slot … you’re forgiven if you don’t recall Brown, who played a few years in the NBA as a backup center. The details of the trade were fairly simple: the Boston Celtics gave up the #1 and #13 picks in the draft (they turned into Carroll and Brown); the Warriors gave up the #3 pick and their starting center. The #3 pick was Kevin McHale, who played his entire career for the Celtics and is in the Hall of Fame; the center was Robert Parish, who played for 17 more seasons and also made the Hall of Fame. (Carroll was unfairly maligned; it wasn’t his fault McHale and Parish were so good. Carroll also wasn’t much for interviews, and he played with an emotionless look on his face that people assumed meant he didn’t care.)
The Warriors also drafted Larry “Mr. Mean” Smith, a rebounding stud who was a fan favorite, and Lorenzo Romar, who didn’t have a great career, but who has become a very successful college coach at Washington. But the team’s personality was changed immeasurably with two pre-season trades. In one, Phil Smith (who had played on the team’s only NBA championship squad) and a future #1 pick were traded for flamboyant shooter Lloyd Free, who had scored 30 PPG the previous season. Free, known as “All-World” (a year later, he legally changed his name to World B. Free), was a lot of fun to watch, and he led the W’s in PPG that season. In the other trade, the Warriors gave up a backup center and a 2nd-round draft pick who didn’t pan out, for a troubled forward named Bernard King. King was one of the league’s brightest lights, a young player with a seemingly limitless potential, who had missed most of the previous season being treated for substance abuse (alcohol). This wasn’t the first time King overcame troubles, nor was it the last, but overcome he did, finishing his NBA career with a total of almost 20,000 points scored.
That Saturday night in 1981, we saw some of the most colorful players in NBA history: Doctor J, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free. But when I close my eyes, the person I see is Bernard King, flying down the wing, driving to the basket, and scoring. And scoring. And scoring.
The Warriors had a 3-point lead at halftime, but the Sixers pulled away in the second half on their way to a 119-105 victory. And, as the 4th quarter rolled towards its increasingly obvious conclusion, the Warriors really had only one weapon left at their disposal: Bernard King.
And so (again, if memory serves … the data on NBA games from that era isn’t as detailed as what we have in baseball), they went to King again and again, and he kept delivering. The game was out of reach, but the crowd was enthralled nonetheless. And when the final buzzer sounded, Bernard King had scored 50 points.
At the end of the season, King was named the Comeback Player of the Year. He only played two seasons with the Warriors, and is most famous nowadays for his years with the Knicks. But, thanks in part to that night in 1981, he remains one of my favorite all-time Warriors.