The Tragedy of Bernard King

KingBernard King was royal on the court.  For a year or so in the mid-80s when he wielded power on behalf of the New York Knicks, he was my favorite basketball player.  I still remember him on the right baseline, back to the basket, spinning like a top, rising quickly above earth-bound Larry Bird, and then swishing in yet another two.  Sadly, the ironically named Bird, who did everything on the court but fly, and his Celtics always seemed to have the last laugh in the Eastern Conference playoffs back then.

King was an enigmatic star.  He rarely spoke to the media in those days.  Two years ago, though, ESPN’s series 30 for 30 devoted a 60-minute episode to King and Ernie Grunfeld, whose careers followed similar arcs that crossed on several occasions. They were NYC high school all-stars in the early 70s and then attended the University of Tennessee where they comprised the Bernie and Ernie Show.  After college, the former New York City prodigies played together for a few years on the aforementioned Knicks.

On 30 for 30, King discussed his abusive mother, who beat him for not going to church.  King’s high school coach said his parents never once came to their all-American son’s games.  At Tennessee, King related, racist police verbally and physically abused him.  King also described his loneliness and the solace he found in alcohol.  38 years later, the pain and anger from those incidents and his parents’ abuse and indifference remain visible in his face and audible in his voice.

30 for 30 devoted less time to King’s professional career and its aftermath. But the episode culminated with his triumphant entry into the NBA Hall of Fame and two ceremonies at the University of Tennessee at which first he and then Grunfeld were honored.

After watching 30 for 30 – Bernie and Ernie, I felt great compassion for Bernard King.  My sense was that an abusive childhood and racist police had permanently scarred this intelligent and sensitive man.  Victimized by his parents, the police, and alcoholism, King’s life seemed ineffably sad to me.  I also believed that he had internalized his pain, rather than lashing out at others.

Although ESPN didn’t tell us, this is not the case.  It turns out Bernard King has a history of violence against women.  While playing very briefly in Utah in the early 1980s for the Jazz, King was arrested on charges of forcible sodomy and forcible sexual assault.  According to writer Peter Richmond, King pleaded to one count of attempted forcible sexual assault after he passed six lie detector tests in which he claimed he was so intoxicated that he simply did not know hat occurred during the evening in question.

In 1994, King was arrested for allegedly choking a woman while he was intoxicated.  10 years later, he was arrested on four counts of spousal abuse.  According to the AP and the NY Daily News, a photograph of his wife at the time of the arrest showed her to have been bloody and bruised. The violence that was visited upon Bernard King when he was a child and college student do not excuse his violence against women. But they explain them to a significant extent don’t they?

I understand why ESPN did not want to undermine the narrative in Bernie and Ernie of two high school basketball stars who overcome adversity and ultimately triumph in college and the pros and, at least in Ernie Grunfeld’s case, after his retirement from the hardwood.  Asking Bernard King about his history of violence against women would have made him far less sympathetic and perhaps hurt ratings.  But by only telling us about Bernard King’s understandable pain and self-directed injuries while ignoring his other victims, ESPN simplified what turns out to be an ambiguous and even more tragic story than appeared at first blush.

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11 Responses to The Tragedy of Bernard King

  1. Bob Brown says:

    I agree with you on most all your points… I think this guy has a dark side with his drinking and loneliness that overshadows his success in basketball… His overdramatic description of his arrest in Tennessee was a bit much.. I don’t take lightly any abuse by officers period but this guy had a big drinking problem and I believe the incident that was described by him was overblown…..

    • Krystal Walton says:

      I guess it is easier to distance yourself from someone’s pain and trauma by trivializing it than to understand how deeply the betrayal and physical wounds of racism and police brutality are. Then you would have to acknowledge it and the victim’s humanity and ask what did you do to effect change.

    • CHIP STANLEY says:

      He went to rehab and stopped drinking and never has had another drink !! His dark side unfortunately was his skin color while at Tennessee !! I am white so don’t reply that this is a racial reply !! If you ever get the chance to watch his story on 30 FOR 30 it will bring tears to your eyes at the strength of this mans will to come back !! He is in the NBA Hall of Fame after an injury that they said would end his career and he would not allow it !! Such an inspiring man and story !!!! God bless Ernie King !!!!!!!!!! AMEN !!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Stephen Clark says:

    There is a veey common theme we see in this story. A focus on how badly one has been treated blinds that person to the bad THEY are inflicting on others. A focus on others sins against us will not allow us to see our own sins against others. We judge others’ sins thinking it will excuse our own. That’s what that often quoted Bible verse actually means, correctly interpreted. We see ourselves as the victims and that excuses our victimization of others. This is a dangerous frame of mind that has eternal consequences without spiritual intervention. I believe God allows certain things in each person’s life to give them an opportunity to choose forgiveness instead of anger and revenge. And Scripture explains that God does not give more hardship than He knows that person can endure and still find the power in Him to not only forgive, but to be able to see the greater sin in ourselves, guiding us to repentance and trust in His Son for the forgiveness WE need.
    My own story went down this self-deceptive path. Thinking I had been dealt a bad hand by life (which God has total control over!) I excused myself to “relieve my pain” in engaging in activities that I knew were wrong and were sins against my wife and family but, most importantly, my God.
    He finally woke me up and opened my eyes to the evil that was residing in my own life. Under that crushing experience God granted me the power to turn (repent) from those evils that had become addictions to find forgiveness and cleansing for my guilt-ridden conscience and to forgive those who had “trespassed against me”.
    He gave me a new birth, a new life. It was God’s grace that got my eyes off of other’s transgressions and taught my heart to fear the wrath of His judgement that was awaiting me for MY transgressions. That same grace that taught my heart to fear was the grace that relieved my fears through the forgiveness I found in Jesus, who took my sin upon himself, suffered that wrath in my stead, and made me His own.

    • CHIP STANLEY says:

      He went to rehab and stopped drinking and never has had another drink !! His dark side unfortunately was his skin color while at Tennessee !! I am white so don’t reply that this is a racial reply !! If you ever get the chance to watch his story on 30 FOR 30 it will bring tears to your eyes at the strength of this mans will to come back !! He is in the NBA Hall of Fame after an injury that they said would end his career and he would not allow it !! Such an inspiring man and story !!!! God bless Ernie King !!!!!!!!!! AMEN !!!!!!!!!!!!

    • CHIP STANLEY says:

      I made a mistake and said Ernie King which I obviously meant Bernard King !!! God bless !!!!!!!!!

  3. Daryl says:

    In. cases (such as Mr. King’s) the physical and mental trauma of his childhood coupled with the radical racial views and treatment of that time, then add to it alcoholism and the lack of mental health support Mr. King was doomed to have some sort of imperfection. Not excusing his actions but there should be a measure of understanding about his failures in life.

    • CHIP STANLEY says:

      I agree Daryl !! Over the years things have changed for the better until obama got in office and stirred up race than any white man could have done !! I believe in looking forward and not backwards !! The past can’t be changed yet we hold the future in our hands now !! Thanks and God bless !!

  4. Michael John says:

    I was in high school in the Knoxville area while King played at the University of Tennessee. I was a huge fan. I remember a couple of stories that were reported as minor run-ins with the law. I also vividly remember an interview with King in one of the Knoxville newspapers in which he explained how people back in New York warned him about how racist folks might be down here in Tennessee and then after he got here he was pleasantly surprised about how warmly he was received. There were no hints of any racism in that story. It also seems odd that Ernie Grunfeld, who was very close to King, said that he never knew of Bernard having to endure anything like what he described in the 30 for 30 program. Then there were the run-ins with the law during his first few seasons in the NBA, and now the revelations have his abuse of women. I understand there are racist cops just as there are racist people in all walks of life, but I have a strong suspicion that he over-dramatized his issues with the police and Knoxville, and it even makes me wonder whether the tales of abusive parents are true as well. I think the man has issues of his own making.

  5. ivan bonora says:

    To be a black successful person in some states like Tennessee can be difficult….black and white people are more similar than we usually think…only envy and money make look them different..

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