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Who would have thought that the Kansas City Kings would be where they are a quarter of the way through this NBA season? That the Kings—a perennially slogging, losing, nearly invisible outfit, absent from postseason play 11 of the last 12 years and a sorrowful 31-51 last year—would be 13-8 and three full games ahead of Denver in the Midwest Division?
Beyond that, who would have thought the New Jersey Nets would be mainly responsible for this renaissance on the Missouri? But it's true. Two first-round draft choices the Nets gave up in 1976 for Tiny Archibald have turned into gold for the Kings. The first pick, a year ago, brought Otis Birdsong, the 6'4" scoring machine from the University of Houston. Birdsong served most of last season as an apprentice to starting guards Ron Boone and Lucius Allen, though he did manage to scrape together a 15.8 scoring average. This year the Nets' largesse yielded a mother lode in the person of North Carolina's 6'2" Phil Ford, last year's college player of the year and the best all-round guard to come out of college since Maryland's John Lucas two years before.
After 21 games Ford ranks third in the NBA in assists (9.4 per game), fifth in steals (2.4) and is averaging 14.8 points. Moreover, his confidence and his natural capacity for leadership have pumped new life into the Kings. As Ford's steady backcourt mate and off-court running mate, Birdsong has never sung better. Now that he no longer has to worry about where the ball is ("No one worries with Phil out there," he says. "You just get open and it comes to you"), Birdsong is leading the club with just under 20 points a game.
The most wondrous change to those few who have watched the Kings in recent years—their average attendance last season was 7,700, fifth worst in the league—is that the team is running now. No more of the slow, set-up, clog-up, mess-up offense that they ran for four years under Phil Johnson.
At last season's end, General Manager Joe Axelson hired Cotton Fitzsimmons, who despite his hard-driving, motivational approach to coaching is loose and amenable and extremely popular with the young Kings. He had been a coach at Phoenix and Atlanta and director of player personnel at Golden State before returning to coaching last season at Buffalo under meddlesome owner John Y. Brown. The Braves were weak already; ravaged further by bad trades and injuries, they finished 27-55. Even before Brown began dickering to buy the Boston Celtics, Fitzsimmons asked out.
On May 10 of this year he signed a two-year contract with the Kings. "I was tired of being a vagabond," he says. "The book on the Kings was that if you can stay close you can beat them at the end. But I liked their potential. I loved Birdsong and Scott Wedman. I thought Sam Lacey had an unfair reputation for being lazy. Their offensive rebounding was pathetic, their defense was weak. Their ball handling was awful."
Part of the turnover problem was eliminated by trading away Boone, the main culprit, but the Kings still needed a point guard to replace the aging Allen. With the second pick in the draft, they hoped and prayed that Ford would be available, which was a big question indeed. Indiana had the first pick, and Philadelphia was trying desperately to get it—and thus Ford—in exchange for George McGinnis, but the deal fell through. On draft day Indiana traded the No. 1 pick to Portland, which was clearly going for Minnesota's center, Mychal Thompson. That meant Ford was Kansas City's for the taking. But would Ford take Kansas City?
Conferring with Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith and agent Donald Dell, Ford decided that Kansas City was not one of the teams he would play for. On the day of the draft Dell called Axelson and Smith called Fitzsimmons. Their messages were the same: "Don't draft Phil. He'll never play for you."
Fitzsimmons told Smith, "Ford is the only guy we want in this draft and we're going to draft him."
And they did. And in the end, after a good deal of persuasive talk plus a five-year, million-dollar-plus contract, they signed him. Next day Ford practiced with the Kings for the first time. "Well," Fitzsimmons told reporters, "I became a much better coach today."