By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
When he returned to Knoxville he could still feel the cold steel of the gun crashing against his head and the warm blood winding a path down his face. In what should have been one of his greatest moments, all he had was memories. It had been 30 years since he had left the University of Tennessee campus and he returned only to have his number retired.
“You can have your number retired and all of that, but it doesn’t go away. That memory never goes away,” Bernard King said.
If you haven’t seen the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on The Bernie and Ernie Show, do yourself a favor and watch it. It is the best one yet. I know it is not the first time I have said that, but his time I mean it.
Maybe you needed to grow up in the 70s or have an SEC pedigree for this story to resonate. To me it was like watching a piece of my childhood revealed. It was like seeing a family photograph and then finding a picture hidden behind another.
First let’s be clear that 1976 and 2013 are separated by much more than numbers on a calendar. To watch Tennessee basketball, I had to go to the back of the house and turn the antennae toward Knoxville. If your sister was watching another show, you had to do it in secret so she would not tattle. You could deny it, but if there was snow on the ground the tracks would lead straight back to you.
There were not college basketball games on 57 different channels every night. Watching a college basketball game was a treat and the stars became larger than life. All I can compare it to would be my other passion, Southeastern Championship Wrestling. You would cheer for the Fuller brothers to pound the Mongolian Stomper back to where he came from, which was actually Canada although we did not know that. So while wrestling had its arch enemies, so did college basketball. Our enemy was and is Tennessee.
In 1976 Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King exploded into the Southeastern Conference with a brand of basketball we had never seen. King, a black kid from Brooklyn, grew up in the 12th floor of the Walt Whitman projects overlooking one of New York’s famed basketball courts. Grunfeld, a Brooklyn Jew, was raised 10 miles away in Queens after moving from Romania at age 9. Both honed their skills on the hard scrabble courts of New York. Their competitive spirit came from playing games where if you lost you might not get to play again for hours. When King won his first basketball trophy as a child he was punched in the face and the trophy stolen.
They were not typical SEC players, but led the conference in scoring with combined 50-plus points a game.
They were declared cheaters by some of the teams they beat. Joe Hall accused Mears of cheating when Grunfeld was sent to the line for game-winning free throws. Grunfeld had not been the player fouled. Turns out Hall had done the same thing earlier to beat Depaul according to their coach.
The Volunteers were looked down upon because Tennessee coach Ray Mears was flashing stars in what had been a team game. It sounds a lot like what John Calipari faces every day.
King scored 42 points in his first game at as a freshman at Tennessee. Bernie and Ernie would both earn All American honors and earn a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1976-77, they tied for the SEC title with a Kentucky team with players like Jack Givens, Rick Robey, and James Lee. That Kentucky team would beat Duke for the national title the following year.
More than anything, this is the unique story of two friends from very different places that were bound together by a shared path. And it is captivating to see the hardships faced by two athletes that seem to have the world at their doorstep.
King decided he liked basketball the first time he threw in an innocent underhanded shot and was cheered. In the end, that was what he searched an entire life for.