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Old Times Are Forgotten In The Land Of Cotton

The bad old season of '81-82, that is, all because Cotton Fitzsimmons has K.C. cruising in the Midwest

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.

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.


Drew, in from Detroit, wheels and deals an average of 8.1 assists per game at guard.


Rookie Steppe, no preppie, exemplifies the Kings' newfangled blue-collar work ethic.


Eddie Johnson has his shooting eye this season, averaging a team-leading 19.8 ppg.


K.C. is waiting for Williams to regain his soft touch.


Fitzsimmons' youth movement has paid dividends.


Nealy is the lowest pick to make the NBA.