Bernard 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.