Stapleton shares memories of King
Before NBA Hall of Fame forward Bernard King lit up the bright stage of Madison Square Garden as a New York Knick, he took the Southeastern Conference by storm as a member of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
It was there that Salem High School standout Mike Stapleton-a freshman during King’s final season in 1976-77-got to know the superstar before the rest of the country.
“I could tell right away how good he was going to be in the pros,” Stapleton said. “There was nobody else in the country like him, I think he scored 42 points in his first-ever college game. He was 6-foot-7, had a very quick shooting stroke and could explode to the rim. He was unbelievable to watch.”
A recent ESPN documentary focused on King’s college career and showed that his time in Knoxville was far from the charmed life that one might expect for a basketball phenom.
One of the more powerful scenes of the film showed King opening up for the first time about the racism he faced in Knoxville during his career, including an incident where he was struck in the head with the butt of a policeman’s gun.
Stapleton witnessed firsthand the daily struggles King and his other black teammates had in dealing with a white southern society.
“Racism was very prevalent down there,” Stapleton said. “It’s something he and the other black players had to deal with both home and away. I give Bernard a lot of credit. A lot of guys would’ve said ‘Screw this, I’m going someplace where I’m wanted.’ But he stuck it out. I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it as well as he did.”
There were also numerous other off-court issues involving King. A natural introvert who grew up surrounded by poverty and in a neglectful household, King did not revel in the spotlight and increasingly turned to alcohol as a means of escaping pressure and dealing with pain. There were multiple arrests on substance abuse charges. Stapleton said King largely kept his troubles hidden and most teammates did not know the full extent of his drinking.
“Until the ESPN program came out, nobody really knew how bad it had gotten,” Stapleton said. “People kind of knew he drank by himself, but nobody knew how serious it was. He was very quiet about it and never let it affect his play on the court.”
When it came time for basketball however, there was never a doubt where King’s focus lay. With the Knicks he became famous for his channeled intensity. His legendary “game face” was as fearsome a look as there ever has been in pro basketball. During practices, Stapleton saw that burning desire up close.
“Whatever trouble Bernard may have been having off the court, he was all business when he stepped on the floor,” Stapleton said. “Some guys took plays off here and there, but I never saw him do it. He was out there to prove he was the best there was. The court was his domain and he made it clear he intended to rule.”
During team scrimmages, Stapleton was often assigned to guard King, who wound up praising him on his defensive tenacity.
“Believe it or not, I held my own as well as I could,” Stapleton said. “He later told me I did as good a job as anyone of guarding him.”
One of Stapleton’s favorite memories of that freshman season was during Thanksgiving. His family drove from Salem in their camper to celebrate the holiday with Mike in the parking lot of the athletic dorm. King was the only other player who did not go home and Stapleton invited him down to have dinner with his family.
“It was a very nice time,” Stapleton said. “We had a big turkey cooked and were all there in the parking lot squeezed inside the camper. For all of his problems, Bernard was a very nice guy and a terrific teammate.”
During his third season in the NBA, King began to face down his alcoholism and set about turning his life around. He found his way back home to the Knicks in the mid-80s where he became one of the premier scorers in the game for two-and-a-half seasons and one of the most beloved players in New York history.
In 1984, King finished second in the MVP voting to Larry Bird and became the first player in 20 years to score 50 points in back-to-back games. He nearly led New York to an upset over Bird and the Boston Celtics in the playoffs.
A torn ACL the following spring ruined the rest of his prime, but King was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013. He currently owns his own energy business.
Stapleton followed King’s career and couldn’t have been more happy for his former teammate.
“He was in a position for a while where his life could have gone either way,” Stapleton said. “A lot of guys with substance abuse problems saw their lives careen out of control and never recover, but he made it. He really was a great teammate and is very deserving of his Hall of Fame honor.”