Tight, lonely, disappointed—"Lefty and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things," King says—concerned with what his teammates would think if 1) he shot the ball or 2) horror of horrors, he missed. King went on his frustrated way during two seasons in which Maryland won 15 and 19 games but had a total of only nine victories in regular-season ACC competition.
Then he began to have different feelings: scared and nervous. "I kept asking people, 'What's wrong? Why don't I play well?' But I wasn't asking them, I was really asking myself," King says. "It hit me that my years were running out and I wasn't improving. I wasn't going to be as good as I'd thought I'd be." In the summer of 1979, on a college all-star tour of Europe, King rode the bench. He came home disappointed but determined to work harder. Every day he exhausted his shooting arm. He hit the weights. Got up to a mammoth 190. He ran the Cole Field House steps. He gained back his confidence. He became assertive, a team spokesman.
As a result, Maryland is now the defending ACC regular-season champion and a threat for the national title. King, meanwhile, may have become the best two-way player in the sport.
In his first two seasons he scored 25 points or more in four games. Last season he did it in nine. Most of these baskets came off a picture-perfect face-up jumper, which King delivers from such a height the shot appears to need no arc. "Line-drives?" he says, smiling. "What line-drives?"
While his leaping and scoring have led people to compare King with David Thompson, even Baryshnikov, his ability to blend his personal skills into the larger design of his team, to inspire, to lift the games of the people around him, best recalls the vintage Bill Bradley.
King's exquisite passing sets him apart from many another honcho forward. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith was so preoccupied with King's passing in Maryland's delay game last season that he had his defenders actually slough off King to overplay the other Terrapins. From the high post King merely faked the pass and winged in 28 points as Maryland beat the Tar Heels, 92-86, for the first time in 10 meetings. "There are no more question marks in Albert's eyes," said Carolina's Mike O'Koren.
King then cracked the whip from the middle of the devastating Maryland fast break as the Terps crushed Duke 101-82. "In 25 years I've never seen a team better than that," said Driesell. In the semifinals of the ACC tournament King put on a dazzling show (38 points and 10 rebounds) as Maryland beat Clemson 91-85. The Terps finished the season with a 24-7 record and King was the ACC Player of the Year and a consensus All-America.
The most pronounced facet of King's transformation was his new emotionalism. Watching films of his performance last season, King himself can't believe that it is indeed he up there on the screen jumping around, slapping high-fives and carrying on like, well, like Buck Williams, his roommate, or Ernest Graham, the Hollywood Henderson of college ball, who once said the Terps would be the "Ernie and Albert Show" and later scored 44 points against North Carolina State to try to prove it.
Graham calls King "Mr. Dig 'Ems," after Dig 'Em, the frog in the Sugar Smacks commercial. "Look at them legs on the dude," says Graham. "Frog legs. Dig 'Ems struggled and struggled just like me. But now he's getting around to feeling his oats. I'm proud to say I know Al King."
About his rejuvenated game, King says, "I had to prove to Albert that Albert could still do it." He occasionally talks like this, referring to himself as if he were someone he wished to observe from afar. The fourth of six children, he never liked arguments or fights and he always gave in to his brothers. He was the soft one, the thinker. In college, Albert had played less than his best because Albert wanted to be liked.