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When Bernard King threatened Wes with a gun

Unseld and Pollin, a few years after the gun threat. (By John McDonnell - TWP)

On New Year's Eve, The Post published a Tom Boswell column praising Flip Saunders's get-tough approach to his underachieving team. This was, of course, when we all thought Gilbert's guns had been sitting peacefully in a Verizon Center locker, and when the actual ridiculous story couldn't have been imagined. So I didn't blink when reading this passage from Boz's column:

With the Wizards franchise, only one coach, Dick Motta, actually relished being disliked by his players. His personality started at prickly, then trended toward unprintable. To Wes Unseld's credit, he once rode a star player so hard that the guy left practice and came back with a gun. Other than that, every Wizards coach has been Kevin Loughery, except some were named Gene Shue, Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff, Doug Collins, Eddie Jordan and Ed Tapscott. All the same guy: Please Tread On Me.

Haha! Unseld was such a hardass that one of his players wanted to shoot him! Oh, for the day when our games were fun!

Actually, the episode involved star Bernard King and a threatened gun, not an actual gun. And it involves all sorts of other issues that have come into play this month: contracts versus cohesiveness, anonymous sources, suspensions and Abe Pollin's moral standards. The story centers around a scoring star, signed as a free agent and eventually given a massive contract extension, who then missed 16 months of action because of a knee injury. The real drama began Jan. 1. And the most explosive and dramatic account was written by Peter Vescey, at that point a columnist for USA Today.

Needless to say, you should read this, because it's weird.

According to several similar accounts, on the first day of 1993, King showed up in Wes's office, refused to take a physical, and said if he wasn't activated when he pronounced himself ready, he would become a disruption. At his second practice, Unseld said King wasn't going to be activated. King went to work out by himself and refused to join his team, so Unseld told him to leave practice. Quoting Vescey:

King screamed at Unseld to cut him, over and over again. Said he was being mistreated. Said Wes didn't have the courage to cut him. Perhaps, but the man bigger than a handball court did muster the strength to forcibly remove Bernard from the floor.

''You're a thug. You always try to settle things with violence,'' ranted King. ''Don't ever (mess) with Bernard King. I'll come back with a gun ...'

A pushing match ensued. It's still a mystery how Unseld was able to restrain himself and not kick the third person out of King.

While Vescey had the gun drama, David Aldridge first broke the news of this confrontation. His report in The Washington Post, the day before Vescey's, was considerably different. I'll quote the key passage:

The incident allegedly occurred shortly after Unseld told King in a pre-practice meeting that the Bullets would not be activating the veteran off the injured list, as he had requested after his first workout with the team last Thursday. This could be the reason why the entire practice was closed to the media. Usually, the last 30 minutes are open.

According to team sources, this is what happened: The Bullets had just begun practice when King started shooting by himself instead of taking part in warmup drills with the team. Unseld told King to join the other players. The forward said, "[Bleep] your drills." Unseld then came over and demanded King join the team, and King repeated himself.

The two then started shoving each other before players stepped in and broke them up. King shouted, "Well, cut me then!" over and over. Unseld then told King to leave the court, but he refused, saying "I've earned the right to be here." He also, reportedly, called Unseld a "thug." After the two were separated, the practice continued, with King grudgingly taking part.

But soon after the story broke, Unseld went on WUSA-9 and seemed to downplay the incident, saying "Basically I thought he was being disruptive in practice, and I asked him to get off the court. That was really it. Nothing really happened. Words were bandied about and things were said in anger. Some were said in jest. That was really it."

The Washington Times followed up a few days later, quoting eyewitnesses who said King screamed "I'll shoot you" at Unseld, which hardly seems jest-like.

"I was stunned," Tom Gugliotta said, according to The Times. "From what I've seen, there hasn't been anything positive about it [King's return]. There's a lot of tension."

The day after the confrontation, King issued a demand to either be activated or traded through the media. Two days later, the club suspended him without pay for four days. King didn't appeal, and lost $30,487 in pay. The Bullets issued a statement at the time of the suspension:

''Bernard King has been suspended for actions detrimental to the Washington Bullets, including but not limited to threatening our coach and threatening to be disruptive if his demands were not met immediately.''

The Post also quoted a statement:

Bernard stated he would disrupt the team if his demands were not met. When he subsequently carried out those threats during Monday's practice ... we decided that suspending Bernard was the appropriate action to take at this time. The Washington Bullets will not be held hostage by threats by Bernard King.

And yet, in a later interview with Aldridge, Abe Pollin left open the possibility that King could return. The owner said that King would have to act professionally, and he defended the suspension.

"The Bullets have done what is the honorable and correct thing to do," Pollin told Aldridge. "Some people would disagree. But there isn't anything I would do differently. I'm disappointed that things have worked out the way they are, but let's see how it works out ... I'm one of those people who always says never say never."

Regardless, the gun story quickly entered into the historical record, appearing in numerous papers around the country. Within a few days, people were joking about it; several papers quoted a humorous radio interview with Unseld's former teammate Mitch Kupchak:

"Mitch, we've only got 20 seconds left. Tell us who would have won the Unseld-King fight," [the host asked him]. Kupchak chuckled. "It won't take 20 seconds. It will take two seconds. Wes Unseld," Kupchak said. "Well, what if Bernard had gotten a gun?" the interviewer asked. "I'll still pick Unseld," Kupchak said. Unseld, a Hall of Fame center, weighs about 300 pounds. King weighs 205.

By late-January, the Bullets released King, and by mid-February the New Jersey Nets had signed him. Chuck Daly, somewhat incredibly, described King as a "gunslinger" after the signing. Nets assistant Brendan Suhr, even more remarkably, said "We got him because he's a hired gun." And Sam Smith, in writing about the signing, said that King had threatened "to go home, get his gun and shoot coach Wes Unseld when Unseld demanded King practice with the rest of the team."

As for Vescey's report?

"I'd rather not comment on that other than to say Bernard King acted in a very unprofessional way," Bullets GM John Nash told Tom Knott at the time. "I don't know where [reporter] Peter Vescey got his information or whether there is any validity to it."

But five years later, in an interview with Harvey Araton of the New York Times, Nash confirmed Vescey's version. This came up after the Latrell Sprewell-P.J. Carlesimo incident, when the Warriors announced they were using the "moral turpitude" clause to invalidate Sprewell's contract. Araton went looking for Nash, because the King incident was back in the news.

"He'd been hurt and hadn't played or shown up for over a year and all of a sudden, he comes to practice and demands to be activated," said Nash, then the Washington general manager. "He challenged Wes. When Wes started to go after him. Bernard said he was leaving to go get a gun."

King never returned with a weapon, or a ball, his intention all along. "He was looking to get himself waived, so he could sign here, in New Jersey," Nash said.

Dan Daly's also re-told the tale during the Sprewell mess, in the Washington Times:

Bernard King had just come back from a knee injury, and he went ballistic when Wes Unseld wouldn't put him on the active roster right away. He got into a shoving match with Wes one morning during practice and at one point shouted at him, "I'll shoot you!"

So that was the incident. Different versions, different threats, a suspension and ultimately a release. The Post and Aldridge never printed King's supposed threat to return with a gun; I believe Tom Boswell's reference two weeks ago is the first time that has ever appeared in our newspaper. And by the way, believe it or not, Abe Pollin was the first owner to come out publicly and say that he'd consider signing Sprewell.

"It's a very unfortunate situation, which I find sad," Pollin told The Post. "I would never close the door on someone forever. ... We took a chance on John Lucas. If [Sprewell] would open his heart and ask for forgiveness, I would consider it. But he would have to show us and the fans he is sorry for what he did. ... Sometimes kids lose their cool and behave irrationally and foolishly. I hope he opens his heart, apologizes and asks for forgiveness. Then he has to get on with the rest of his life."

By Dan Steinberg  |  January 11, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
Categories:  Wizards  
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Next: The Gilbert Arenas purge continues


Holy crap I feel old that this all happened nearly 20 years ago. It's amazing how social networking/blogging have changed the world. Gil's incident is nothing new, but the way it's covered and how he was able to respond are new components.

Posted by: DocHolliday1906 | January 11, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

"F*** your drills, Charlie Murphy! F*** your drills!"

Posted by: EdTheRed | January 11, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Ah yes, twenty years ago a loud mouthed goofball that could score and not play a lick of D, till his knee is gone and then he is just a loud mouth...

Enter Gilbert, 20 years later...same thing...history repeats itself. Insn't that special?

Posted by: nowhine | January 11, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Okay Steinberg, move on. Enough of the Gilbert saga, we all know he was a prankster and his pranks were unlike any other but enough is enough. Gil has been shamed enough and believe me he is down for the count right now. You don't have to keep kicking him while he is down. I remember how before this gun saga you enjoyed his pranks. How about talking about Ovie being named captain, the Ravens winning yesterday, what's going on with the rest of the Wiz. I am tired of you digging up old Gil stories. Until the Grand jury indicts him or what ever, could you please move on!

Posted by: ivyleague | January 11, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Bernard king was 17 years ago? I thought the Chris Webber era began around that time.

King's talk was big city trash talk. Arenas was simply foolish stupidity!

Posted by: oknow1 | January 11, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Apparently BK never felt an Unseld pick before; it has been described as running into a brick wall. It's a good thing Big Wes showed restraint or else BK's career would have ended that day...

Posted by: kahlua87 | January 11, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Makes you wonder what else doesn't get printed.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 11, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

The problem for Arenas has never been about bringing guns to the locker room. That was bad but he raised the stakes when he took it to twitter. He should have just stayed silent. Look at what's-his-name from Cleveland who was caught with several guns and ammo on the beltway. He's still playing while Stern lets the legal drama play out.

Posted by: tundey | January 11, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Too bad Arenas didn't have Unseld as a coach. Maybe he would have made a better decision. Unseld wasn't much of a GM for several reasons, but as a coach he got as much out of no talent (remember Ledell Eckles) as anyone I saw. It was the last time the Bullets/Wizards had any discipline at all.

Posted by: JAMNEW | January 11, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Haha this reminds me of White Men Can't Jump. "Now you're robbing me!"

Posted by: ZeroHero0 | January 11, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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