If there is such a thing as pro basketball chic, the Kansas City Kings don't have it. Here are players with names better suited to hod carriers than power forwards, names like Tank and Grady and Scrap Iron. There are no Icemen and no Skywalkers on the Kings, whose leading scorer, 6'7" Forward Eddie Johnson, is known to his teammates as Spud, Spud being short for Potato Head, which, as nicknames go, isn't much to hang your hat on, unless it's an itty bitty hat, of course, about the size of a potato.
Here's a team whose top draft choice doesn't know the plays, has been asked by the coach not to shoot, and for reasons known only to him, hasn't done his laundry in more than a month. "In college I didn't wash until I ran out of clean underwear," says rookie Center LaSalle Thompson, who is out of Texas U. and nearly out of clean socks. "I figure I've got about two weeks left, unless something happens and I've got to wear two pairs of underwear in one day." The sound you just heard was LaSalle Thompson's mother fainting.
That the Kings were able to struggle through their worst spell of the season last week (beating Chicago and Seattle, losing to New Jersey and Golden State) and still be 10-6 and in first place in the Midwest Division by half a game over San Antonio, is a measure of just how far they've come in a year. At this point last season the Kings were 5-11 on their way down a 30-52 drain. After going to the Western Conference playoff finals in 1981, Kansas City had lost Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman, its two best players, through free agency. That set in motion a series of trades that eventually left the Kings with only two of 12 players from the 1981 playoff team.
Some of the bodies that came and went during the interim weren't always the ones that Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons wanted. He was able to extract Forward Cliff Robinson from New Jersey in exchange for the rights to Birdsong, for example (Birdsong having signed an offer sheet with Cleveland, so Kansas City's hand was forced), but Fitzsimmons' plan all along was to fatten up Robinson's scoring average and then trade him. "Having to put up with Cliff last year went against everything I believe in," Fitzsimmons says. "He was always taking shots when I knew he wasn't open. Now all my guys know if they have an open shot, they'll get the ball."
Kansas City won its final three games last season after Robinson had been dealt to Cleveland for Forward Reggie Johnson, and despite all the hard times, Eddie Johnson says, "We wanted the season to continue."
Another new player acquired last year was Point Guard Larry Drew, brought in from Detroit to back up Phil Ford, the incumbent at that position and a great favorite of Fitzsimmons'. Cotton had come to Kansas City as coach the same season that Ford had been Rookie of the Year, and they had transformed the 31-51 Kings of a season earlier into division champions. So when it became apparent last season that Drew was outplaying Ford, Fitzsimmons admits, "It bothered me. Everybody gradually contributed to the success of the franchise, but nobody more than Phil. When I gave Phil the ball and said, 'Do it,' he did it. He was the last piece we needed to be successful." Despite his misgivings, when the Nets offered Guard Ray Williams for Ford, Fitzsimmons jumped at the deal.
Williams had often carried the Nets last year, averaging 20.4 points a game, and the Kings desperately needed him to fill the shooting guard role that Birdsong had left vacant. So far Williams has played erratically, shooting only 36% from the field and averaging 4.8 turnovers a game (including an errant in-bounds pass with 10 seconds left that could have doomed what would turn out to be a 106-103 victory over the Sonics last Sunday night), yet in spite of Williams' slow start, the Kings have won. "I have never brought my teams out of the gate quickly," Fitzsimmons says, "but [K.C. General Manager] Joe Axelson and I thought it was vital to the franchise to win early. So I cut the roster down quickly in preseason and worked everyone hard. That part of it was planned. But you can plan all you want and still be 5-9."
One thing that losing 52 games accomplished for the Kings last season was to give Fitzsimmons' younger players plenty of game experience. "We took the beatings last year," the coach says. "I don't know of a game in which we didn't try to win, but after we got into them, there were a lot of games I knew we weren't going to win. So I would leave guys in, let them get their 20 minutes, and I think we're reaping the benefits of that now. This year if a guy's going bad, I don't have to stay with him."
One player Fitzsimmons had counted on heavily last year was Forward Reggie King, who established himself as one of the league's best power forwards during the 1981 playoffs, in which he averaged 21.3 points and 10 rebounds a game. Instead, after having his contract renegotiated in the off-season, King showed up overweight and never regained his earlier form. "I don't know why he got heavy," Fitzsimmons says, "but I have to question his incentive. I wanted to go to Reggie, I did go to Reggie, but it was a waste of time. Guys who had never gotten close to him before were knocking the ball back in his face."
This season King rumbled into training camp at 248 pounds, more than 20 pounds overweight, despite having put himself on a strict tuna fish diet after gorging on junk food all summer. All the diet did was put King into the hospital. "I had to lay down for four days, man," he says. "They said my potassium and my electric lights were out of balance." You'd be fat, too, if your electric lights were out of balance. Meanwhile, the Reggie King diet book, tentatively entitled How to Eat Your Way into a Coma and Out of a Job with 300 Pounds of Tuna Fish and One Big Twinkie is expected in the bookstores by Christmas.