Three For Springfield

By Dennis D’Agostino

For Richie Guerin and Bernard King, the long wait has finally ended. For Rick Pitino, it’s the most glorious chapter in a story that has yet to be fully written.

On the second Sunday in September, three of the seminal figures in Knicks history will take the ultimate step in their careers with their induction with the Class of 2013 into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Guerin, whose hard-nosed style of play epitomized the Knicks of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was elected to the Hall back in February under the new “direct elect” system via the Hall’s Veterans Committee. His long-overdue election to Springfield came after several prior nominations and near-misses. This time, there was no question.

As a Knick, Guerin was one of the game’s most prolific scorers, averaging 20.1 points over eight seasons in New York (1956-57 to 1963-64). An NBA All-Star in six of his seven full seasons in New York, he posted four 20-plus scoring seasons, and led the team in assists five times as well.

Guerin authored 13 40+ scoring games as a Knick, including a then-club record 57 points against Syracuse in 1959, the first 50-point game in franchise history and the first of three he would record as a Knick.

A three-time All-NBA selection --- in 1959, 1960 and 1962 --- the Iona product and New York native earned an aggressive, hell-bent reputation that befitted his background as a Quantico Marine. Guerin’s play was a constant bright spot amid an era of Knicks misfortune during which his team advanced to the Playoffs just once, in 1959.

“It was very frustrating because, as good as the seasons I had individually were, it seemed like by the first of the year, we were always eliminated from the playoffs,” said Guerin in 2002. “I always felt that you had an obligation to your franchise, to the people of New York, and obviously to yourself and your family, to do the best you can and contribute the most that you can. It was tough to do that four or five nights a week, when you knew that you had to have supreme efforts from you and the other guys if you were gonna win.”

Nearly 50 years after playing his final game as a Knick, the 81-year old Guerin still holds a prominent place among the greatest of the great in club history. On the all-time Knicks franchise lists, Richie ranks sixth in total points (10,392), sixth in scoring average (20.1) and fifth in assists (2,720).

Guerin found more success as a player and coach with the St. Louis-Atlanta Hawks, winning NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1968 and leading the Hawks to the Playoffs in each of his eight seasons as head coach. He’s still the winningest coach in Hawks franchise history with 327 wins (current Knicks coach Mike Woodson ranks fourth with 206).

King ---- Brooklyn’s own out of Fort Hamilton High School ---- also endured several near-misses for the Hall prior to getting the call in April. Bernard’s career spanned 14 NBA seasons in which he played 193 games as a Net, 160 games as a Warrior and 296 games with Washington. But he will always be defined by the 206 games in which he wore a Knicks uniform and became perhaps the most devastating offense force ever to wear the orange and blue.

An All-NBA First Team selection as a Knick in both 1984 and 1985 and an overall four-time All-Star, King averaged 21.9 points in 1982-83, his first season in New York. The following year, he notched 26.3 points --- including the unforgettable back-to-back 50-point games in San Antonio and Dallas --- in leading the Knicks to a memorable first-round Playoff win over Detroit prior to a bitter seven-game loss to the eventual champion Boston Celtics.

In 1984-85, he put on one of the greatest offensive showings the game has ever seen, averaging 32.9 points and standing alone -– until Carmelo Anthony joined him just last season --- as the only Knick in the franchise’s long history to lead the NBA in scoring. The benchmark of King’s spectacular season was his 60-point explosion against the Nets on Christmas Day, still a Knicks club record.

But on March 23, 1985 in Kansas City, with the scoring title already clinched, King suffered the injury that would haunt him, and the Knicks, for years to come: a torn right ACL that would sideline him for two years while the team’s fortunes plummeted. The very manner in which the injury occurred --- while blocking a Reggie Theus shot in an otherwise-meaningless game --- pointed to King’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners style.

“That is, in fact, how I played my entire basketball life on every single level,” said King in 2003. “If you’re on the court, you’re expected to give 110 percent of your effort. Because the game was basically over and we’re not contending and we’re not a playoff team, none of that matters to the fans who are sitting there in the arena. They expect to see you at your very best, and that’s what I expected to deliver. That’s something, I think, that coaches and my teammates respected about me.”

King would play only six more games as a Knick, in a late-season comeback in 1986-87. Departing as a free agent, he resurrected his career in Washington with three more 20+ scoring seasons and yet another memorable night at the Garden, dropping 49 points on his former Knicks teammates on January 31, 1991.

“He had three years of his career cut off in his prime,” says former teammate and current assistant coach Darrell Walker. “Now, I’m from Chicago and Gale Sayers is also a Hall of Famer and he played seven seasons, max, when he tore his leg up. Both of their careers were messed up in the middle because of the injuries they had. Now, if Bernard doesn’t tear his leg up, what does he do? Think about what he would have done to the League.

“He’s a Hall of Famer. Did he perform in the Playoffs like nobody else? On top of everything, he was a Playoff performer. One of the best closers I’ve ever played with. I’ve always thought he was a Hall of Famer.”

Pitino, yet another New York product, enters the Hall on the strength of three decades of college coaching climaxed by national titles at Kentucky in 1996 and at Louisville last season. But it was a youthful, energetic Pitino who kickstarted more than a decade of excellence at the Garden by leading the Knicks to back-to-back Playoff appearances --- and a 1989 Atlantic Division title --- in his two seasons as head coach in the late ‘80s.

Pitino, who had earlier served as a Knicks assistant under Hubie Brown, took over a team that had won 24, 23 and 24 games in the three seasons prior to his return and was still reeling from King’s knee injury. Employing a pressing defense and a fast-breaking offense led by youngsters Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson and (later) Charles Oakley, he made the Knicks an Eastern Conference power again after years in the doldrums.

In 1988-89, Rick’s Knicks won 26 straight home games, a team record that still stands. But his even-more-enduring Knicks legacy are the Playoff runs of 1988 and 1989, the first two links in a chain of 14 consecutive post-season appearances which eventually spanned two NBA Finals and the eras of both Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy.

Three men, three eras. Now they can all call Springfield --- as well as New York --- home.