Kentucky sometimes calls four times before lunch. UCLA is panting. Maryland sent a Muhammad Ali autograph as bait. In fact, just about every college basketball team from Hawaii to Slippery Rock hopes it will land Albert King, a high school star from the streets of Brooklyn who has become the object of the biggest basketball manhunt in years.
"We're interested in three kinds of players—good, great and super," says Kentucky Assistant Coach Leonard Hamilton. "Better than super is where I would classify Albert King. He can deliver the goods."
Those "goods" Hamilton was referring to are the 1978 NCAA finals in St. Louis, which almost any team fielding the talented King could reach. Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian says, "If Albert King decides to go to North Dakota State next year, then North Dakota State will be in the Top 20 next year."
King has been on the Most Wanted list ever since his debut as a sophomore at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn when he scored 36 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. His credentials took on added luster when his older brother Bernard started making headlines as a freshman at the University of Tennessee that same year and ended up leading the nation in shooting percentage. Three seasons of competition in the rugged New York City Public School Athletic League, two MVP awards won with the National Junior AAU team, plus summer tournament experience from Phoenix to Spain, have polished Albert's skills. Now a 6'6�" forward and preparing for the PSAL playoffs, he recently celebrated his 17th birthday by hitting 22 of 28 shots and adding 23 rebounds, a dozen assists and five blocked shots as Fort Hamilton knocked off Canarsie High, last year's champion.
King has wound up his high school career with some prodigious statistics—30 points and 20 rebounds per game. But there are a lot of hotshots around the country with big numbers. It is the way he plays that has recruiters buzzing. His style is simple and economical, yet it is developed to such a degree that he can do almost anything he wants. He can beat you by shooting the lights out, has no qualms about dishing off the ball to the open man and is not shy about fighting for rebounds despite his bony 185-pound frame.
Moreover, Albert has shown a remarkable ability to handle the recruiters' off-court press. He did not come by this knack entirely on his own. Albert has only one close friend, but he could not have chosen a better one. Winston Karim is a 25-year-old native of Trinidad who works as a shipping clerk by day, then turns into a doctor of diplomacy by night. That's the time when one of Lefty Driesell's assistants calls Winston's East Flatbush apartment, wondering if he has seen the child star lately and wanting to know whether Albert has picked a date to visit the Maryland campus.
Coaches have long since given up trying to reach Albert at his home in a rundown section of Brooklyn known as Fort Greene. He doesn't want his parents' lives disrupted at all hours of the day and night. So Albert hangs out at Winston's most of the time, even crashing on the couch after a late date. His uniforms hang from the top of the kitchen doorway, his trophies and press clippings take up an entire living room wall and most of his mail is delivered to him there, in care of Winston. For his part as Albert's confidant and counselor, Winston admits to being something of a voyeur ("Sure, I'm a basketball fan and I never would have gotten to meet some of these people any other way," he says). But Winston has known Albert since he was a lonely, 6'3" 12-year-old, still too young and mixed up to assure Winston that if he offered the boy a helping hand he would be hitching himself to a star.
Some nights the phone never stops ringing—not even by 2 a.m., as though Winston were sponsoring a telethon and Albert were the nation's favorite charity. One evening last week there were calls from Duke, Maryland, Tulane, Kentucky, UCLA, San Francisco and either Washington or Washington State. Winston can't remember the last one because it was so late by the time he heard from that time zone. Usually the guy on the other end doesn't even want anything, he's just checking in.
"Oh, Winston, I'm sorry, I didn't know what time it was. Did I wake you?"
"Naw, I'd just been lying down for a few hours."