Unsung Knick History – The King’s Court(room Battle)

This is the twentiteth 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.

This piece is interesting in the sense that it ties together two past installments of Unsung Knick History, the recent discussion about the troubles that the Knicks had to go through to sign Chris Dudley and the even more recent discussion about the troubles that the Knicks had with their salary cap during the mid-80s, spotlighted by their inability to re-sign Bernard King. This story is even about a King! Just not Bernard, but rather, his brother Albert.

So sit down and discover how the New York Knicks went to federal court in their efforts to sign Bernard King’s younger brother and how their failure to do so created a salary cap rule still used to this day!

Albert King was the Lebron James of his day, a celebrated high school player who was starring in nationally televised news segments when he was just 13. In 1977, he was named the number one prep player in the country, ahead of a point guard by the name of Earvin Johnson. Johnson, by the way, would later say that King was the only player who ever intimidated him (granted, Johnson was only in high school at the time, but still!). King would go to play four successful seasons at the University of Maryland. Here he is on a Sports Illustrated cover from the period…

In 1980, as a junior, he was named the ACC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year in 1980.

A six foot six inch small forward/shooting guard, King was drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the tenth overall pick in the first round of the 1981 NBA Draft. The Nets had two picks in the first ten picks that draft, and with their first pick, the third overall, they selected King’s Maryland teammate, Buck Williams. The new additions helped lead the Nets to the playoffs under coach Larry Brown, and by their second year together, King and Williams were leading the Nets in scoring per game (17 points per game each).

Following the 1984-85 season, the Knicks suddenly found themselves without their star small forward, Bernard King, who was injured at the end of the season and would miss the entire 1985-86 season (and for all the Knicks knew at the time, he might never return).

However, the Knicks felt that they had a perfect choice to replace him – his younger brother, Albert! You see, power forward Leonard “Truck” Robinson missed most of the 1984-85 season due to injury, so the Knicks planned to use Robinson’s $545,000 salary slot to sign King (that’s what you were allowed to do at the time – if you were over the salary cap, you could still sign free agents, so long as you gave up one of your own players making an equal or greater amount of money). So the Knicks signed King to a five-year/$3.3 million dollar contract, with a first year salary of $450,000 and a hefty signing bonus of $400,000, all with the intent of making it nearly impossible for the New Jersey Nets to match the offer. The Knicks were already beginning to debate internally what they should give to the Nets if the Nets matched the offer with the intent of dealing the player (which teams often would do – ostensibly match the offer, but only so as to pry something from the signing team).

It never got that far, however, as the NBA ruled that Robinson was not, in fact, a free agent. Instead, Robinson was deemed retired (and it is true that Robinson never played in the NBA again), so that the Knicks only had half of his salary available to offer a free agent.

With this devastating news, the Knicks quickly regrouped and re-did their offer to King. This time, the offer would still be five years, $3.3 million, but the first two years would only be $75,000 each with the last three seasons being significantly higher, and the signing bonus would now be $960,000.

As you might imagine, the NBA took issue with this offer, as well, deciding that it violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement that the League had signed in 1983. The NBA took it to federal court.

The federal courts first appointed a “Special Master” (a sort of quasi-judge used in very specialized types of cases) to hear the case, and the Special Master ruled in favor of the Knicks, determining that while they may have violated the spirit of the salary cap, they did not violate the rules themselves.

The NBA appealed the case to Federal District Court (in the meantime, King went back to the Nets, who temporarily matched the Knicks’ offer while awaiting the decision of the courts), where a federal judge determined that the Knicks did, indeed, circumvent the salary cap, and thereby the contract, although it was “artificially and formally within the salary cap limitations,” was against the “purpose” of the salary cap (a fairly nebulous definition, really), so the offer sheet was ruled void.

Now an unsigned free agent, King eventually re-signed with the Nets for roughly $425,000.

He played one more year with the Nets before departing for the Philadelphia 76ers. He was out of the league before the 1980s ended, finishing his professional career in Europe (where he actually won an Italian League championship playing with future Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni).

In response to the Knicks’ attempt at circumventing the salary cap, the NBA instituted a new rule that contracts can not have raises of more than 30% from year to year (this eventually evolved into a 10.5% limit with the current Salary Cap).

Those King brothers sure were eventful for the Knicks!

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 cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

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4 thoughts to “Unsung Knick History – The King’s Court(room Battle)”

  1. So it looks like the start of the salary cap was a series of efforts to skirt loopholes followed by litgation to close them.. hahahaha just like real life.

  2. I actually kind of like the concept of “salary slots” rather than a salary cap. Do you think they could work, if done right, Brian?

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