When Bernard King threatened Wes with a gun
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."
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