When young Billy King considered where to play college basketball, having watched Michael Jordan in the 1982 NCAA Championship, he had Jordan fever. But attention from UNC dropped a little as better recruits surfaced. When he told Mike Krzyzewski about his attachment, the coach told him if he wanted to play for the Tar Heels, he’d better get after it. Realizing Krzyzewski wanted what was best for him, King chose Duke. King happened to join the Blue Devils when they were loaded with talent: Alarie, Amaker, Bilas, Dawkins and Henderson. How do you break into that group? He realized if he ever wanted to crack the line-up he had to have a specialty.
Well, King was a pretty resourceful kid and in a late-season game against Georgia Tech, coach put him in for five minutes to give Dawkins a breather. He strained every muscle in his body to contain the Tech star, Mark Price, and he shut Price down. As he walked back to the bench, he thought, “Hey, I think I can do this!”
Billy King was not a great scorer though he could score in a crunch. He was a poor free throw shooter, averaging only 48 percent, but now he believed he could defend. From that moment, King began devoting himself tirelessly to becoming the best defensive stopper on the team. He was a lengthy 6’6, weighed only 205, and had the smarts and quickness to contain opposing guards. His height was a natural advantage. It had to be intimidating for 6’1 and 6’2 guards to face. Shooters get a high from scoring; King began getting pumped by denying a shot, making a steal, taking a charge—he saw that it could ignite a team.
But how exactly did King become a defensive standout? Well, in scrimmages he was attempting to shut down some of the very top players in the nation. He learned a lot there. He tried everything in the book to stop these guys, and, eventually it began to work.
Second, he developed his quickness—his conditioning had to be excellent, his lateral quickness had to exceed that of the best guards in the nation, his hands had to be fast enough to snag a ball without getting called for a foul, and he had to know the opposing player exhaustively. Before every game he watched hours of film on his assignment. He learned his matchup’s weaknesses, he learned which side he favored when going to the rim. He learned if he tended to shoot off the dribble, did he often fade back, fake a shot, look for a pick, sidestep, etc. Whatever mode made the guard comfortable King tried to disrupt. He forced the player out of his game.
Third, King knew the crucial importance of communication. Coach K said that he and Shane Battier were the guys who could communicate best all-time in a group situation. On the defensive end, you could always hear him calling a switch, warning a teammate, psyching out the opposing players, because eventually King seemed to know what they were about to do on the court. They were thinking, ‘where does this guy gather his intelligence, our locker room?’
Especially during his junior and senior seasons, King began getting assigned the opposing team’s top guard. Dennis Scott of Georgia Tech averaged 21.5 points per game and King held him to 3 of 13 shooting. Vernon Maxwell of Florida averaged 18.8 points and King held him to 7-18. David Rivers of Notre Dame averaged 17.4 points and King limited him to 3-17. UNC’s Jeff Lebo averaged about 12 points and King held him to 2-14. And probably King’s very best game of all was against Temple. Their freshman guard, Mark Macon, had been averaging close to 24 points per game and Vitale compared him to Oscar Robertson.
When Duke collided with Temple in the NCAA regionals, Temple was 32-1, having only lost to UNLV 59-58. Duke was 27-6. King knew Macon was fast on the trigger, he liked to move to his left and he loved shooting off the dribble. King’s goal was to make him go places he did not want to go. The game was a nightmare for Macon. He shot 6-29 for 13 points and 7 air balls. The Blue Devils won 63-53. At the buzzer young Macon was crushed and in the locker room the freshman began to sob.
In the end, just how good was King? Billy King could steal a smile off a kid’s face at Christmas. He played guys so tight they required a tetanus shot at the end of a game. He knew their moves so well, he could have made a living as a psychic. Defensively, they don’t come any better than King, and that’s why he was voted 1988’s Defensive Player of the Year.