BILLY KING left the Sixers with the same class he displayed for a decade as a team executive.

King, who was hired in 1997 as vice president of basketball operations and rose to become team president, was blindsided in December 2007 when the Sixers fired him and replaced him with Ed Stefanski.

King had been allowed to direct the most important draft for the Sixers in a decade. He had been allowed to formulate and implement a rebuilding plan for life after a decade of Allen Iverson.

But if King was bitter, he never let it show.

The smart professional doesn't burn bridges. He doesn't do things that might cost him future opportunities.

For 2 1/2 seasons, King waited for a chance to get back in the game. He did guest appearances on talk radio and television shows for the NBA Network - anything to keep his name out there.

It finally happened for King yesterday, when he was hired by the New Jersey Nets to replace the retiring Rod Thorn as general manager.

"I'm happy to be back," King told me not long after news about his hiring broke. "I feel blessed to be joining the Nets."

By the end, King had become a polarizing figure for Sixers fans. Some remember him only as the president who held on to Iverson a season or two too long and gave center Samuel Dalembert a ridiculous contract that was a millstone on the team's salary cap until he was finally shipped to Sacramento last month.

But the other truth was that King did a pretty good job of clearing up much of the salary-cap hell the Sixers created while trying to extend the Iverson era.

When he was fired, King had positioned the Sixers to be able to take significant cap space into the free-agent class of 2008. Now, a lot of fans question how that money could have been used to give forward Elton Brand a contract worth $79.8 million and Andre Iguodala one worth another $80 million, but King had nothing to do with either.

Honestly, I wondered whether King ever would get another shot. His resumé with the Sixers featured some highs and lows.

Still, the NBA can forget about you quickly, and, after nearly 3 years, you had to wonder whether King fell into a black hole.

But King apparently hit a grand slam in his interview with new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov - especially if it's true the decision came down to him and former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry.

Ferry might not have put together an NBA champion with LeBron James, but he got James enough help to get him to the NBA Finals, the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA's best record in each of the last two seasons.

King comes in at an interesting time for the Nets.

New Jersey not only finished a distant last in the sweepstakes for James, but also couldn't lure any of the big-ticket free agents, even with Prokhorov's deep pockets and a pending move to Brooklyn that challenges the Knicks for top status in New York.

Still, the Nets, who are coming off the worst record in team history (12-70), are one of the NBA's intriguing franchises.

This is the rebuilding opportunity King tried to set up for the Sixers.

The Nets just added 18-year-old Georgia Tech power forward Derrick Favors to a team that already had versatile guard Devin Harris and center Brook Lopez, who looks like one of the game's best young big men.

The Nets won't challenge anyone in the next season or two, but if King has the right plan, he is in a position to lay the foundation for a nice squad down the road.

"I want to thank Mr. Prokhorov and his executive team for the opportunity to oversee a franchise that has such a vibrant owner, an outstanding coach in Avery Johnson, and possesses the combination of young talent, cap space and draft choices that will allow us to build a squad that will be able to contend for an NBA title," King said.

It took nearly 3 years, but King finally got another shot in the game. *

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