While it's not surprising that King hasn't played much while getting down to his present, near-svelte 231 pounds, what is astonishing is that Eddie (Scrap Iron) Nealy is the Kings' starting power forward. Nealy was the 166th player taken in last June's draft, the lowest pick to make an NBA roster this season. The fact that Nealy's sister is engaged to Kansas City's P.R. director and that he played at Kansas State, where Fitzsimmons once coached, probably had as much to do with the Kings' choice as any promise he might have shown. But when Thompson held out and missed all of training camp, King showed up fat, and Kenny Dennard had to undergo surgery during the preseason for testicular cancer, Nealy got his shot.
Nealy wasn't even going to bother to try out for the Kings, hoping to get an offer from a team in Europe, but nobody over there wanted him. With big square shoulders and a body that was once described as looking "as if it should be up on blocks," Nealy isn't exactly in the mold of the game's great forwards, but he embodies the spirit of the new can-do Kings. Nealy may also be the first player in history to use the Lakers' Kurt Rambis, new champion of the gawky underdog, as his role model. "People look at him and say, 'If he can do it, I can do it,' " Nealy says, almost misty-eyed. "I guess a guy like me gives the people somebody they can relate to."
It may have been more than a coincidence that the Kings started a four-game road winning streak—the best such in the club's history—when Nealy started against the Phoenix Suns in the fifth game of the season. Matched against the formidable Maurice Lucas, Nealy got a quick introduction to intimidation NBA style. During one rather emotionally charged interlude, Lucas turned on Nealy and said, "Hey there, young meat, now I'm gonna show you the meaning of rough." Lucas proceeded to do just that, and after several verbal exchanges between the two, Nealy was taken out of the game. From the bench he continued to cudgel Lucas in his loudest voice.
On one level or another, the Kings are a team of Nealys. "We've just got guys that get in there and scrap and fight," says Joe C. Meriweather. "Sometimes it doesn't take big names, it takes people working together." New Jersey Guard Foots Walker, who got his first look at the Kings last week in a 112-103 Nets victory, is even more blunt. "With the overall team that they've got," Walker says, "I'd say Cotton's doing a hell of a job."
Fitzsimmons isn't altogether unwilling to admit this. "Joe C. is a backup center who's now starting," Fitzsimmons says, "and Detroit wouldn't have given us Drew if they didn't think he was a backup. New Jersey wouldn't have traded Mike Woodson if they didn't think he was a backup-type. You can go right down the line with us and all you see is backups. Ray is the only one who's in a different category. But that doesn't mean you can't win with them."
Williams' slow start has been the most confounding aspect of Kansas City's performance. "Ray took the Knicks to the playoffs; he took the Nets to the playoffs," says Fitzsimmons, "and I'm hoping he can take us there, too."
Williams, who grew up in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, claims that blending in with the Kings has been a snap compared to blending in with the community. "Kansas City ain't no great place," he says. "It's not bad, it's just slower. After a game when you want to get something to eat, it's nice to have a choice. Ain't nothing but pizza places, though. K.C. is the pizza-eatingest town I've ever been in. Within a mile of my house there's about six places to eat—a Hardees, a McDonald's, and the rest are all pizza places."
During Williams' slump, Eddie Johnson has given the Kings a scoring threat both inside, where he's an effective post-up player, and outside, where he's a real threat with the jump shot. "We have to play well as a team every night to win," Johnson says. "On a team like the Lakers, two guys can play well and the rest of them can just coast and they can still win. We know we can't do that." So far, among the good teams the Kings have played and beaten are Milwaukee, Phoenix, San Antonio and Seattle.
The Kings have two players named Reggie (Johnson and King), two Eddies (Johnson and Nealy), and three Johnsons (Eddie, Reggie and Steve), which is why they also have a lot of nicknames. Reggie Johnson has the most confusing name, and he's called Grady, although nobody can remember why. This year the team drafted a Brook (Steppe) and a LaSalle, which sound more like the names of a couple of fashion models than of guys who tote their lunch pails to work. Thompson's great-grandmother was a runaway slave who took the Underground Railroad to French Canada and named her first-born son LaSalle, which means "the room." LaSalle III is almost as big as a room, and when he learns the plays, Fitzsimmons hopes to use him at forward. "I can move LaSalle over there once he figures out what league we're in," Fitzsimmons says. "When he does, guys won't want to put their bodies on him. He's an animal."
Ah, well, chic doesn't necessarily put pizza on the table.