Some Seattle SuperSonics fans could argue Rich King has the ultimate gig.
He plays a little three-on-three on the Tacoma Dome floor a few hours before tipoff, showers, changes into something comfortable, then takes a courtside chair to watch the best basketball players in the world.
As his teammates endure the monotony of extended plane rides and the bleak inevitability of another room-service sandwich, he enjoys home cooking and the comfort of his own bed.
Primo seats at Sonics games without the drudgery of the road. Nice work if you can get it, eh?
Look again. What might seem like a real-life fantasy camp is, in REAL real life, not a fantasy but an odyssey - with an emphasis on the odd. Imagine a dreamboat cruise off Paradise Island sabotaged by hail and high water and fog and an utterly abysmal five-day forecast.
“I realize there are lots of people in worse predicaments than I’m in. I realize I have to keep things in perspective,” says King, keeping things in perspective. “But this year’s been kind of tough.”
For King, coping with aches and pains has become quite more a job than an adventure. Since NBA superscout Marty Blake rated the 7-foot-2 center from Nebraska “the steal” of the 1991 draft, he has played in a grand total of 70 games.
The Sonics’ “Big Hurt” has missed action with injuries ranging from the hard-luck simple (an infected toe) to the anatomy-class esoteric (a temporal mandibular joint sprain). A stress fracture in his right foot wiped out his second season with the Sonics; last year, he had a bad back.
Still, King was daring to be optimistic about a summer-league assignment in Salt Lake City when he glanced at the grotesque balloon that had become his right knee.
“I was on my way to the airport last July,” says King, “and I just happened to look down and see my knee. It was swollen twice its size.”
Just when it seemed as though King’s star-crossed career couldn’t take a turn for the worse, his career took a turn for the worse.
“A bad knee,” continues King, “is different from a fracture. A doctor who’s seen 100 broken feet before can tell you it’ll take six months to heal. But with a knee, it’s all speculation. The doctors have no idea. I don’t, either.”
As recently as two weeks ago, King felt good enough after a three-on-three scrimmage to suspect the arthroscopic surgery he had in October was a success. Today, he’s not so sure.
You might say all is swell with Rich King’s knee. He plays, it swells.
Meanwhile, King is a member of the Seattle SuperSonics in the sense that he’s got a nameplate over his locker-room stall. But in terms of the club’s collective soul, he is an outcast.
“If you don’t participate in a game, or contribute in practice, if you don’t feel part of the joy a team goes through - and part of the hell, too - it’s hard to feel close,” says George Karl, whose own, career-ending knee problems found him isolated from his teammates at San Antonio.
King concurs: “I’m here, but I’m not part of the battles everybody else is going through day and night. I feel kind of like a front-office person. I’m this guy hanging around the team, with nothing else to do.”
Last year, he traveled with the Sonics; these days, King doesn’t even do that.
“He and I used to hang out a lot on the road,” says fellow center Sam Perkins. “It’s too bad Rich isn’t around on trips this season. He’s got that cool, happygo-lucky personality.”
Which is ironic, because Perkins’ pal isn’t happy - and most certainly isn’t lucky. But instead of brooding, King, a tireless fixture in the weight room, is investing time and sweat in a rehabilitation project that carries no warranty.
And what of the future? His four-year contract expires after the season, at which time, says Karl, “we’ll sit down at the table with him and evaluate the situation.”
King, a native Nebraskan, has grown to love Seattle, a city he now calls home. But if a career with the Sonics is not in the cards, he’s not adverse to reshuffling the deck.
Either way, he understands destiny can be fickle about its darlings.
“Dana Barros is a good friend of mine,” says King of the former bench-sitting teammate, who today leads the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring. “Seeing Dana’s career take off this year has been an inspiration. Detlef Schrempf, too. Detlef was in Dallas for four seasons, but he didn’t really become an All-Star player until he went to Indianapolis. So I realize it doesn’t always happen overnight.”
Four years and a score of injuries ago, he had designs on tearing up the league instead of his body. In 1991, Rich King was, well, a rich king: Tall, smart, handsome and healthy, he’d never been made to practice such a virtue as patience.
If some higher authority is determined to school him in hard knocks, the lesson hasn’t been lost. “I was the 14th player taken in the draft,” says King. “When I came to the Sonics, the world was my oyster. I’d never been injured; everything had pretty much gone my way. I guess I had sort of a star mentality. Now, I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I’ve gone through some adversity.
“Who knows? Ten years from today, maybe I’ll look back and realize that all these injuries were meant to build my character. Maybe there’s a reason.”
“But I sure didn’t ask for it.”