—Former New York Knick and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe
At seven o'clock on the night of April 10, 1987, I was getting ready to step onto the hardwood for the first time in over two years. The first time since the injury that was supposed to end my NBA career. No one had come back from it before, and most of the experts said it couldn't be done.
It felt like forever.
I'd worked tirelessly, relentlessly, to come back, pushed myself to defy all expectations. Throughout my rehab, I insisted it wasn't enough just to return to the game that I loved. I was determined to return as an elite player and compete at the highest level. Nothing less would satisfy me, despite all the questions about whether my goal was even achievable.
I couldn't begin to answer those questions until I plunged into the fast-paced action and physicality of a pro basketball game … a challenge that was now only minutes off.
The night my knee exploded, I was in my third year with the New York Knicks and playing the best basketball of my life. My All-Star appearance in 1984 was the springboard that elevated my confidence and my game, leading to what I call my Season of Ascension. That year I entered a zone, locked in, and never left, establishing my ability to match up against Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, or any of the top players in the world.
Representing the Eastern Conference alongside Bird, Julius Erving, and Isiah Thomas, and competing against the likes of Magic and George Gervin, I reached a new level of confidence. Whether I had one man guarding me, two, or three, I knew I could have my way offensively on the court.
That roll continued into the next year, becoming a new personal standard. In 1985, I was the league's leading scorer and could put the ball into the hoop almost at will.
I was twenty-eight years old. At the peak of my career.
I felt unstoppable, and I was.
Then one night in Kansas City, I jumped to block a layup after hustling down the court on a fast break, a situation I'd been in countless times, and a split-second instant later everything changed. Not just for my career, but for every facet of my life.
The crack of my knee blowing out was heard throughout the arena, but I didn't hear it. I didn't hear the horrified gasps from crowd or really even know what had happened to me.
But I knew it was bad. As bad as it could be.
I screamed—"Oh my God!"—and landed in a heap, then curled into a semi-fetal position and couldn't get up. The pain was excruciating, more intense than any I'd ever felt. I repeatedly banged my fist on the floor, clutching my right knee with my opposite hand.
Imagine being in midair, soaring above the rim, and simultaneously knowing your career is over.
It was like I'd been struck down by a stray rifle shot.
Yet it would prove to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Some might find that hard to believe, and it's understandable. I certainly didn't realize it while awaiting diagnostic surgery at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital. All I knew was that my prospects looked grim.
I would soon learn I'd suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn knee cartilage, and a shattered bone in my right knee. The damage was so severe I was unable to lift my leg off my bed without a therapist's assistance, and I was bound to a wheelchair for months. But during my journey back, through all the obstacles I faced, I had evolved as a player and person.
Now, two years later, two long years, I was gearing up for the most important game of my life.
Arriving at the Garden, I broke my silence only to say hello to the security people, attendants, ushers, and other arena personnel. They had treated me well throughout my time in New York, and I always considered them to be very important to the organization. That night I especially wanted to let them know how I felt.
Everything was the same as the last time I'd played. Yet nothing was the same. Hubie Brown, my former head coach, was gone. He'd been replaced by Bob Hill, someone with a very different manner and style of play. I had new teammates, and a new, surgically rebuilt knee.
I'd been away for quite a while.
When I finished dressing for the game, I did some stretches, then decided to go out onto the floor for pregame warm-ups, concentrating on the special drills I had learned from my physical therapist, Dania Sweitzer.
You'll hear much more about Dania later on, and with good reason. Throughout my rehabilitation, she worked with me five hours a day, six days a week, making countless personal sacrifices to bring me back. Again, not just to playing form, but All-Star form. I do not have the words to adequately express my debt to her.
The arena was filling up as I started my exercises, and although I normally blocked out the crowd noises, I could hear a murmur spreading through the stands. New York is a basketball town, and my return was being met with tremendous anticipation around the area. A legion of Knicks fans had left work early that day to find bars where they could watch the game on television. I was the team's captain and high scorer, and my presence on the floor had been greatly missed.
They were exhilarated, and I shared their feelings.
During my warm-ups, I noticed Don Nelson, the Bucks' head coach, quietly observing me from courtside. Nelly was a shrewd tactician, and I knew he was sniffing for an edge like a hound dog on the trail. He had a way of casting sidewise looks at players when sizing them up, so that you couldn't really catch him at it. But I felt his eyes on me and stayed clear of his side of the court. I didn't want to expose any vulnerabilities in my game.
About seven o'clock, I returned to the locker room for the pregame meeting. At those talks, you studied the scouting reports, discussed the opposition's strengths and weaknesses, and reviewed your overall game plan as a group. Then the coaches would toss questions around the room, asking each player about the man he was going to guard, and how he intended to go about it.
You couldn't get answers shorter than mine. A question about the player's tendencies? "He goes left." How was I going to stop him? "Block every damn shot."
I didn't give those clipped responses out of disrespect for my coaches or teammates. On the contrary, I wanted to be ready to do my best. For myself, the ballclub, and our fans.
So, minutes before game time, I hung a figurative Do Not Disturb sign from my locker, dropped my head to my chest, and went within, once again walling myself in silence. My expression twisted into a glowering, threatening scowl.
This was the face I'd worn as a kid growing up in Fort Greene, one of Brooklyn's toughest neighborhoods. The face I'd worn fighting off bullies and predators at school, standing up for myself and my siblings. The face I'd worn on the cracked asphalt courts near my housing development, where I played pickup basketball with kids much older than myself.
My Game Face.
I was more than focused. After years of playing the game, focus was natural for me. I could flip a switch and it was there. When my Game Face was on, I was tapping a deeper well of concentration.
As we went out onto the floor, I felt the charged atmosphere in the arena. The murmurs I'd heard before had become a loud, electric buzz. Normally I didn't hear it when I was locked in. But I couldn't block it out. Not that night. I was nervous, giddy with eagerness.
I stood there in the lights, trying to stay loose. Heel and toe. Side to side. My parents were in the crowd. Dania and her husband. My ex-wife and friends. And Diz, of course … all of them among the nineteen thousand fans in the arena.
"I think we've waited long enough! Here's the captain …"
It was incredible. John Condon, the legendary voice of Madison Square Garden, was announcing me. I wasn't even among the starters, and he was announcing me first. It gave me goose bumps.
"… Bernard King!"
I'll never forget the noise from the rafters, the swelling roar of the crowd. The fans, my teammates, all were on their feet. People were cheering, applauding, and waving handmade signs.
I breathed once, twice, deep breaths to fill my lungs with oxygen. I started to clap my hands, wanting to let everyone around me know how I felt about their reception. But then I caught myself and awkwardly rubbed my palms together. I was fighting to control my emotions.
WELCOME BACK BERNARD.
The words flashed from the auxiliary scoreboard on the first promenade.
Suddenly a smile broke through my Game Face. That had never happened to me on the court. But I couldn't keep from letting the crowd in. I needed to honor them.
I looked around, glancing up at the seats, and brought my hands together in applause.
The crowd had taken me out of my comfort zone. I couldn't play like that. But I had to. I had to find a way.
I'd risen from the schoolyards to the legendary court at Madison Square Garden. I'd gone from a shy, lonely kid longing for my mother's embrace, to having thousands of people take me in, touching my heart with their raucous show of warmth and appreciation.
I owed it to them… owed it to myself … to take the ultimate test and see what I could do.
It was now or never.
Let's go, I thought, a flood of memories blurring through my mind. I can do this.