I wasn’t courtside for either of Bernard King’s consecutive 50-point games in 1984 (the Knicks won both), or the 60-pointer the following year (a game they lost). As a Knick freak, I feel as if I must have been, but the calendar says otherwise. I was in Miami. But I do remember that a few years later, when I interviewed him for The Miami Herald one day in an empty Garden before practice, when I tried to bring up what had happened back in Utah he told me, quite emphatically, that we weren’t going to go there.
I had to try. Maybe, as a sportswriter, I shouldn’t have. But I’ve never been good at separating the sportsman from the man when it comes to his treatment of women, whether it’s Bobby Cox (shoe-in for the MLB Hall of Fame, 2014), whose wife retracted the charges she’d filed about how he’d hit her in 1995, as long as Bobby undertook “violence counseling,” or Michael Irvin (inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, 2007), whose parties in 1996 at that Texas motel were intense enough for a policeman to take out a hit on Irvin’s life. (True, there was no evidence that either of the “topless models” who partook of his regular parties was coerced; it was just the cop’s common-law wife whom Irvin allegedly threatened if she testified about said parties.)
In team sports, hall of fame inductions are the penultimate reward, outranked only by a ring (ask Patrick Ewing, who would gladly give up the Hummer he received on his appreciation night [the car kind, not the Gold Club kind; see court testimony, 1999], and probably his right leg, to have one). They are generally judged by statistics.
These are Bernard King’s statistics as a member of the Utah Jazz: five felony forcible sexual-assault charges; three for forcible “sodomy,” two for forcible “sexual abuse.” Convictions after the arrest? Just one, after King pled down to misdemeanor to “Attempted Forcible Sexual Assault.”
I do not pretend to know what happened in Utah. I do know that, reportedly, he was passed out from the use of alcohol after police subsequently went to his apartment after the woman’s complaint. He reportedly pled down after six different lie-detector tests said that he was telling the truth when he said he had no recollection of what happened that night.
I do know that alcohol sometimes allows inner demons to emerge. And that, never having had a multi-millioned career at stake over the actions of a drunken evening when I had acted feloniously, I can easily imagine pleading down, given that the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor could be fairly significant for my career. His sentence was suspended, and he underwent treatment for alcohol in California. He came home and went to meetings. And five years later, became the basketball player he’d once promised to be. He averaged 33 points a game in 1985 for New York. The Knicks finished that season 24-58.
He would play for seven teams (twice for the Nets). None won a ring.
Then, in 1994, now 37, one year after he’d retired, according to a report in the Associated Press, he was arrested for allegedly choking a 22-year-old woman while intoxicated. The wire-service account states that when police arrived, King was asleep; that he was charged with third-degree assault, and that the woman was treated at New York Hospital.
In 2004, now working for Bruce Ratner, King was arrested and charged with three counts of assault and one count of harassment after security at a hotel in lower Manhattan were alerted to alarming noises in a hotel room at 4:30 in the morning. The court report, according to the AP, said that King’s wife “suffered a cut with bleeding, and bruises, swelling and redness to her eye and forehead.”
The New York Daily News’ account , citing her “swollen” face, read, in part, “‘He pushed me down to the floor three times’” a bruised and trembling Shana King told cops, according to court documents. ‘This has got to stop. I want him arrested.’”
She subsequently declined to proceed with the charges. King was ordered to attend 10 marriage counseling sessions.
I am not condemning Bernard King if he’s innocent of all of these charges. I’m just using Bernard King the basketball player, whom I did see, several times, perform amazing feats of basketball-ism, as an example. Because if we continue to celebrate men who are even suspected of the cowardice that hitting a woman entails, voting them into institutions which are meant to celebrate character as well as athletic prowess, we’re devaluing sport.
That King and Cox might have had substance abuse problems is irrelevant. That’s between the man and the substance. That they hit women, if they did, is unconscionable.
If you Google “Bernard King” today, you will see photographs of him wearing a crown and a cape, like a king. If you read his Wikipedia entry, you will find no mention of his arrests.
I have visited Naismith’s hall up in Springfield several times. I’m not sure I ever will again.
Is Lou Whitaker a Hall of Famer? The case is very compelling, especially when compared to Hall of Fame contemporary Ryne Sandberg. Unfortunately, consideration of that question came to an abrupt end when an inexplicable lack of support from the BBWAA resulted in his name being dropped from the ballot after his first year of eligibility.
Unless the Hall of Fame decides to reinstate Whitaker, the only hope for the Tigers’ second baseman will come from the Veteran’s committee. And, that’s probably just as well. In 1980, Ron Santo was dropped from the ballot in his first year of eligibility, and reinstatement did little to help his chances at enshrinement. From 1985 to 1998, the BBWAA continued to pass over Santo, and then the Veterans’ committee upheld the snub for 12 more years until his posthumous selection in November.
With Santo’s pending enshrinement, Whitaker may now be the best player not in the Hall of Fame (excluding those players who have fallen under the cloud of steroid vigilantism). However, my objective isn’t to regurgitate the same argument that has been made so convincingly by many others. After all, considering the case of Santo, there will likely be plenty of time to debate Whitaker’s Hall of Fame credentials. Rather, what interests me most about the Tigers’ second baseman is not the overall value of his career, but how strongly, and quietly, it ended.
In terms of OPS+, Lou Whitaker’s last five seasons were his best. Although other spans yielded a higher cumulative WAR, it should be noted that his last two years were shortened because of the strike that ended the 1994 season and an injury that may have been related to the abrupt beginning to the 1995 season. Regardless, in the last five seasons of his career, he compiled a WAR of 19.6, which ranks as the 24th highest total by any position player since 1901. By removing the Hall of Famers from that list, Whitaker moves all the way up to 13th, and three players (Barry Bonds, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Mark McGwire) ahead of him would likely have been enshrined if not for off field allegations of impropriety.
So, if he was still playing well, why did Whitaker decide to retire? Interestingly, for a player of his stature, there is very little information available to answer that question. Following the 1995 season, the Tigers declined to offer arbitration to Whitaker and long-time double play partner Alan Trammell, so both men filed for free agency. Trammell eventually signed a one-year deal with Detroit, but Whitaker seemed to fade into oblivion. A search of the Google newspaper archive revealed one article in which Whitaker mentions that he would use the offseason to contemplate retirement, but an official announcement was never made.
In 1994, amid the MLBPA strike, Lou Whitaker caused a stir by showing up for a union meeting in a flashy suit and white stretch limo. The media immediately seized upon the image, but Whitaker didn’t back down. “I’m rich. I make money,” Whitaker told the assembled reporters. “I got a Rolls Royce, limo, big house. What’s going to make me look bad?” Because of those statements, Whitaker was portrayed by some as being out of touch, and others cited his attitude as a reason why interest in baseball was in decline. Considering this sentiment, maybe it isn’t such as surprise that Whitaker retired in relative anonymity? And, maybe some of that resentment carried over five years later when Whitaker’s name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot?
Who knows why Whitaker’s Hall of Fame candidacy has gotten so little support. Because he walked away near the top of his game, you’d expect the lasting impression of his career to be more positive, but perhaps the images of that white limo erased some of the memories about his Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers? Whatever the reason, hopefully the Hall of Fame will reconsider its treatment of Whitaker so the second baseman can add a plaque in Cooperstown to his already impressive list of worldly possessions.
Consider Tim Raines. He is the poster-child for Hall of Fame advocacy in the age of the internet. He was an undeniably great ballplayer. In Rock, he had a cool nickname. If I voted, Tim Raines would have been inducted inducted already. But for whatever reason—maybe because he doesn’t have those 3,000 hits—Tim Raines remains a long ways from that 75 percent threshold. Leading Expos nostalgist and 21st century baseball maven Jonah Keri has made a million compelling arguments in favor of Raines’ nomination and even helped create a website dedicated to his Hall candidacy. As if anybody outside of a Port St. Lucie hotel bar in March ever had a kind thought about the Baseball Writers Association of America, Keri has called Raines’ stalled candidacy a “damning statement on the cognitive abilities and biases” of the voters.
What’s obvious in all this is that it should not require high-level statistical analysis to appreciate Tim Raines as a special ballplayer. Nor should Raines’ legacy require the paternalistic approval of a bunch of writers who after a long season spent spinning melodrama from banality make it their business in the winter to draw sacred lines at some arbitrary point between goodness and greatness. Like all of the awards in baseball, induction into the Hall of Fame is purely subjective. The wall that Keri and company are banging their heads against on behalf of Tim Raines is invisible. And the best outcome of all that banging exists entirely apart from the Hall of Fame. The best outcome is that baseball fans are reminded—or even informed for the first time—about the dynamo that was Tim Raines.
It’s not lost on me that if the Hall of Fame stakes weren’t there, the Tim Raines appreciation society might not get the same amount of public attention. But that’s exactly the problem. Instead of appreciating baseball for all it offers and enjoying its stars for all they give us—which really is so much—we chose to give ourselves ulcers over the injustices committed by the BBWA. Yes, there is something to be said for tradition. Ballplayers emoting on the podium in Cooperstown in August makes for stirring television. Though not nearly as stirring as the thought that Ron Santo, who by all accounts wanted enshrinement more than anything, had to die before finally getting enough attention to merit entry via the backdoor that is the Veteran’s Committee.
[Illustrations: Aislin, aka Terry Mosher]