EMPEROR OF THE AIRSKY KING FLYING HIGH AT MICHIGAN

Who is that guy? What’s keeping him up there, floating toward the — look there he goes again, up and slam! — he’s gotta be jet-propelled or something. He comes out of nowhere, and then — wait, there he goes again uuuuuppppp annnnnd slam! Whooee! Those long arms, the grip, the way he sucks the ball in then floats toward the hoop. He just hangs there, waiting, living in the breeze. He looks so natural, so right. It’s the look of a guy who has become the game, rims in his eyes, nets in his ears, that kid who sticks around when the other kids go home and the sun goes down and it gets dark and cold and still he keeps dribbling, thumping, moving, until he can imagine where the rim is and he drives and shoots like an invisible force. The joy of movement. The freedom of flight. There he goes again, uppppp annnnd . . .

Who is that guy?

That was the question after Michigan’s win over East Tennessee State on Sunday, a game that catapulted the five freshman starters into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Although it was mostly a big man’s afternoon, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard collecting the big numbers, the buzz afterward was all about the speedy guard with the loose, lean body and the scar under his eye and the gap-toothed smile that spreads slowly, like a flame across paper. Jimmy King? That’s his name, right? Jimmy King? This kid can play!

“It was fun,” he says now of the stir he created Sunday. It was an eruption, a rumbling, it was like, it was like . . . Like father, like son

It was like that day in Texas six years ago, inside a nearly empty junior high school gym, when he took the ball and headed for the basket, like thousands of trips before, but this time he felt something extra explode beneath him and suddenly he was up there, above the rim, with time to think, time to move, time to sweep the arm and . . .

“I did it!” a voice inside him squealed, as he dunked the ball for the very first time. “I did it!” He fell to earth with the thud of adulthood. You don’t know what this meant to Jimmy King. He had been trying for months, years, really. He was tall enough, old enough, 14 — OK, at least he felt old enough — but he could never put it together. He was dunkless, and so he was incomplete. For here was the son of Jimmy King Sr., whose leaping ability was so legendary in the family (which already featured two older brothers, both basketball players) that it was the subject of conversation at Thanksgiving dinner and weekend barbecues.

“Your father used to hang in the air and wait for the other guy to come down, and then he would release his shot!” the uncles would boast.

“Nah, come on!” Jimmy would say.

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

The child tried to picture this, his dad hanging magically, maybe yawning,

ho-hum, until the defender fell down, helpless. He carried it to school, and on every trip to the basket. Up annnndd . . . nothing. Time after time he finished with the ball in his face, his hands grabbing net.

But suddenly, this Thursday afternoon in the junior high gym, he had broken through imaginary glass. A dunk! It was all he could do to keep from flying away.

“Y’all never guess what I did today,” he told his parents that night at the dinner table.

Two days later, he entered a pickup game and unleashed more dunks than you could imagine — backward, two-handed, 360 degrees. His friends were astounded. Where did all this come from? The kid couldn’t even slam it last week, and now, what, he’s Michael Jordan?

“It was like I was meant to be doing it all that time,” King says.
“Suddenly, I was just so comfortable up there.”

Emperor of the Air.

He has yet to come down.

Charging out of Texas

“How high?” I ask.

“Aww, you know,” he says.

He laughs and tosses the ball into the basket, his long arms dropping all these short, fluid shots.

“Really,” I say. “How high?”

“How high?”

He looks at the glass backboard and points to the box above the rim.
“Between that box,” he says, “and the top of the backboard.”

“Come on.”

“I’m serious.”

I look in his face, the lazy eyes, the smile that falls somewhere between David Letterman and Magic Johnson, and I believe he is. Serious. We are talking about how high Jimmy King can jump, and never mind that at 6-feet-5 and 19 years old he shouldn’t be reaching such heights. This is one of those athletes, like Dennis Rodman, who doesn’t make sense. The body is like coil inside muscle inside fatless skin. It can do anything.

Which is why they all came after Jimmy King — Notre Dame, Georgetown, Kentucky, Kansas, so many schools. And this was something, because Texas, until recently, was known more for football than basketball. King’s school, East Texas High in Plano, outside Dallas, has “it’s own football stadium. It’s like a college stadium. Turf. All these seats. Everything. Football is huge there! I hated the fact that basketball was always second in Texas. It really bothered me.”

Well, naturally. He was not born a Texan. His family moved there when he was five from — ready? — South Bend, Ind. Basketball heaven. Maybe you never get that Hoosier stuff out of your system. The scar below King’s right eye is from a football game he played in junior high in Texas. He jumped into a pile and a kid stuck an elbow through his helmet and ripped open his skin. So much for football. It was like a symbol, a marking of his fate: You, Indiana kid, you play basketball, OK?

He played. And played. And eventually he was named second- team All-America. He won the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-America Classic. And here, as a freshman at Michigan, where he averaged nine points, three rebounds and two assists per game this season, he has blossomed into perhaps the most pleasant surprise of this surprising young group: a scorer, ball handler and all-around leaping highlight film.

“We all knew he was a great athlete,” says coach Steve Fisher. “But to be honest, he was a bit out of control up to a month ago. He might rush downcourt and run straight into a charging call.

“But for some reason, it began to change. He’s playing much smarter now. I’m really glad to see him come around in the other parts of the games too. He’s . . . well, he’s gonna be something special.”

You can’t miss him

Back in the gym, King’s friend and fellow guard Jalen Rose notices the interview and yells, “King of the court! Prime Time King!”

Jimmy King explodes in laughter. He has an infectious charisma, a slow way of talking — words like “losing” come out “loooozing” — that somehow puts you at ease, like an old chair by a fire. Fisher is right. He is going to be something special, this kid. You just feel it. There is no telling what he and his teammates will do come Friday against Oklahoma State. But I’ll bet you this: I’ll bet there are some highlight moments.

And a few more people saying “Who is this guy?”

“The most fun thing in basketball,” King says, eyeing the rim, “is when you’re going for a dunk on the break. You’re just up there all alone, you got the ball in your hands, you can do anything — backwards, forwards, sideways. It’s your choice, and when you come down with it, you gotta let out a little yell, just a little one, so they’ll turn around. And then you can go” — he points to himself and laughs — “right here. I’m right here.”

As if we could miss him. KING’S CAREER High school
* East High, Plano, Texas . . . named Texas’ Mr. Basketball . . . second team All-America by Parade magazine . . . senior-season stats: GAMES REB AST PTS

33 8.4 4.0 25.5 University of Michigan Regular-season stats: GAMES REB AST PTS

28 3.3 2.1 9.0 NCAA tournament GAMES REB AST PTS

2 4.0 6.5 14.5

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