This is the eighteenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
Last week, we finished up the countdown of the Top 25 Favorite Knicks of the Modern Era, and Bernard King was #7. In the comments section of King’s entry there was a discussion over King’s departure from the Knicks. Different commenters remembered the situation quite differently, so I figured this would be a nice topic to re-visit.
As we all know too well by now, Bernard King tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee near the end of of the 1984-85 season. This terrible injury (which is still awful today, but was even worse back in the 1980s) caused King to miss all of the 1985-86 season and all but six games of the 1986-87 season. The 1985-87 season also marked the final year of King’s five-year contract with the Knicks. Now a free agent, King ultimately signed with the Washington Bullets, where he slowly revitalized his career, eventually making an All-Star Game as a Bullet in 1991.
So what was the deal in the fall of 1987? Did the Knicks not want Bernard? Did he not want to be a Knick? What sent the Knicks captain packing?
Let’s find out!
To best understand the situation the Knicks were in entering the 1987 offseason, you have to first understand the various intricacies (and oddities) of the salary cap of the NBA during the 1980s. I have written in this very column about how the Knicks had problems with the salary cap right from the start in the early 1980s (you can read about it again here), but I’ll refresh your memory about the strange sort of salary cap hell that the Knicks (and other NBA teams) were in during the 1980s.
The NBA had a set salary cap (it rose dramatically throughout the 1980s) of roughly $4.95 million dollars per team in 1987. Many teams were over this figure, and the NBA actually, more or less, rewarded teams for going over this figure. You see, while you could not spend over the cap to sign other free agents, you could go over the cap as much as you wanted to re-sign your own free agents. That is true today, as well, but during the 1980s, whatever your new payroll was would become your new payroll, so that you could then later sign free agents to contracts, so long as you stayed within your new payroll figure. For instance, let’s say the Knicks’ payroll was at $6 million. They then re-sign one of their own players for $700,000. The next season, then, the Knicks payroll could remain $6,700,000, even if they then released that player or traded him for a draft pick. They would be able to use that extra $700,000 on a free agent – but only that $700,000 (or less, of course). How crazy of a system was that? That’s why so many teams in the NBA would re-sign their own players to contracts for more money than they were really worth – doing so was one of the only ways that teams over the cap would have money to ever sign free agents. This is why guys like Jawann Oldham and Pat Cummings had (for the time) exorbitant salaries. It gave the Knicks room to maneuver in the offseason. As you might imagine, though, this led to teams getting more and more over the salary cap with terrible contracts, and this ultimately led to salary cap reform.
But in 1987, the Knicks were still in salary cap hell, and they had three free agents – Trent Tucker, Rory Sparrow and, of course, Bernard King. King’s five-year deal saw him get paid $874,000 in 1986-87, or $4,084.11 per minute played that season. Tucker was making $300,000 a year and Sparrow was making $500,000. In addition, the Knicks had two draft picks, Mark Jackson and Ron Moore, to sign. Because the Knicks were over the salary cap, they were only allowed to add $75,000 to their cap for each rookie. If they wanted to pay them more than that, they would have to get the money by trading/releasing one of their own players. All free agents at the time were restricted free agents. The Knicks could match any offer sheet that the players could sign with other teams.
The restricted nature of King’s free agency made the 1987 offseason particularly awkward. King felt that he should get a raise on his $874,000 salary. He believed that he was fully recovered from his knee injury and that he should get paid at least a comparable salary to the Knicks’ second-highest paid player, Bill Cartwright, who was making about $1.1 million dollars (Ewing was the highest paid player on the Knicks, making roughly $2 million dollars). The Knicks, meanwhile, were pretty confident that no other team would offer King such a salary, so they were pretty content to sit back and see what kind of offers King could get, and if they were reasonable enough, the Knicks would match it. In addition, the Knicks wanted King to get a physical and he refused. He believed that whatever the result of the physical, the Knicks would spin it in such a way to scare other teams from making him a sizable offer. Months passed without any movement at all from either side (it did not help that the league and the players agreed on a moratorium on free agency signings for a couple of months).
When they finally began talking, there was little more than a month left before the season would begin, and they were pretty far apart.
The two positions could be summed up by quotes from King’s agent, Bob Woolf and the new General Manager of the Knicks, Al Bianchi. Woolf stated, “‘As far as I’m concerned, the Bernard King I’m negotiating for is the same Bernard King who was all-pro two years in a row. I have no reason to believe he’s not the same, or close to it,” while Bianchi opined, “‘We’re very far apart. He wants a long-term contract with a lot of money and we’re offering a short-term contract with incentives such as wins and minutes played.”
A week later, things changed dramatically when the Knicks signed Sidney Green, a power forward for the Detroit Pistons, to a three-year/$2.3 million offer sheet. To make this offer, the Knicks would have to either trade one of the players on their roster or use the salary cap slot of one of their free agents. As you can see from the salary amount, the only salary cap slot that would fit Green’s salary would be King’s. This, then, began an intricate game of cat and mouse between the Knicks, the Pistons, and King. If the Knicks could get the Pistons to take, say, Pat Cummings for Green, then they could keep King’s slot open for King to re-sign. If not, then the Knicks would not be able to re-sign King (as his slot would be gone). There was a lot of offers thrown every which way during this time, as the Pistons had fifteen days to match the offer. It seemed pretty clear, though, that the Knicks were prepared to go to war with second-year small forward Kenny “Sky” Walker as the replacement for King. The Knicks had been dreadful, rebounding-wise, in 1986-87, and Green was a strong rebounder. New Knicks coach Rick Pitino did not seem to be exactly pining for King. When asked about the Green offer, Pitino stated, ”Obviously, I had to agree to anything that was done. What we’re looking to do is to build a team that is a consistent winner, and when you’re doing that, a lot of things come into play. One, we didn’t even know if we’d be able to sign Bernard. And secondly, I looked at the positions where there was a void. If Kenny Walker was not there and we had a power forward, then we would not have done this. This isn’t a matter of us choosing Sidney over Bernard. ‘It’s just that we were last in the league in rebounding and we’re trying to do something about that.”
Ultimately, the Pistons decided to match the offer, but then agreed to trade Green to the Knicks in exchange for the rights to Ron Moore plus a future second-round pick.
With that trade finished, the Knicks no longer had King’s salary cap spot available. This did not mean the end of King as a Knick, though. They still had the right to match any offer he signed, they would just have to find a new salary cap slot for him. Depending on what kind of offers he received, they could still find a way to re-sign him. Of course, though, King was able to get exactly the sort of money that he was looking for when the Washington Bullets signed him to an offer sheet for a two-year/$2.2 million dollar contract. The Knicks actually would not need to find the $1.1 million in salary, as they would be allowed to put the money into King’s old salary slot (as they would be allowed to give him a raise, as he was their own player). Wha they needed to do was find a slot for Green’s $777,000 salary. Finding $777,000 in salary would prove difficult for the Knicks, who had already dumped Rory Sparrow to the Bulls for a draft pick (using the freed-up money to sign Johnny Newman) and Jawann Oldham to the Kings for a draft pick (using the freed-up money to sign Mark Jackson), so there was not a lot of players left who they could dump to free up cash (they had also re-signed Trent Tucker to a slight raise on his $300,000 salary). They originally had tried to trade the Pistons Pat Cummings for this very reason, to keep themselves from having to use King’s salary cap slot on Green, but the Pistons wanted no part of Cummings. So, without any moves to be made, the Knicks ultimately decided to let King go to the Bullets, and the Knicks received no compensation for him.
Green, naturally, was not a great fit for the Knicks, and was a part-time player before the Knicks let him get drafted in the 1989 Expansion Draft by the Orlando Magic. King had a rough first season for the Bullets, but eventually rounded into something approximating his former form (never nearly as good, but still). The Knicks, meanwhile, had problems with the small forward position until, well, really until Larry Johnson was acquired (outside of the one season of the X-Man).
So, who is to “blame” for King’s departure? Seems like it is a pretty equal deal – the Knicks wanted him back and he wanted to return, but both parties felt that the other side was trying to take advantage, and as a result, no meeting of the minds ever took place. It was a real shame to see the captain of the team leave that way, though (especially since the Knicks received no compensation for him!).
Thanks to Roy S. Johnson of the New York Times for the great quotes in this piece!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!