sports (2006-44)

Come home, Bernard King

Estranged Royalty

by Tony Basilio

It’s hard to argue with Bruce Pearl’s tenure at UT. After raising the Lazarus of the Southeastern Conference from the ash heap last year, what can the guy possibly do for an encore? Make Thompson-Boling Arena disappear?

With the seat color turning to black and the new luxury boxes, the arena will be unrecognizable next year. So, consider that done. How ‘bout doing the impossible and getting former Vol Bernard King back on campus? No coach before Pearl has been able to get it done. He has a better chance of hanging a national championship banner from the soon to be defunct white elephant’s rafters. Yet there is a move afoot on the Hill to try and entice the man John Ward affectionately referred to as “The King Of The Volunteers” back to campus in the winter of ’07 for a 30th anniversary celebration of the close of the Ernie and Bernie Show .

Hard to believe, but it’s been close to three decades since Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King captured the imagination of East Tennesseans forever in the later years of the Ray Mears era at UT. Locals still buzz when you mention the tandem of Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. The highs were high (a magical win in Lexington where King hit a shot from his back in mid-air to beat the Cats), and the lows were low (not winning an NCAA Tourney Game, including a heartbreaking loss to VMI in which Mears protected King, not allowing his star to play in the game due to a hand injury).

So, imagine the magic: Kentucky is in town late in the season and affable PA man Jeff Jarnigan bellows, “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet and greet our special guests as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Ernie and Bernie Show !’ There they stand, Grunfeld and King at mid-court before a raucous packed house. Back for the first time ever, together in Knoxville. Video clips play overhead to John Ward’s seamless calls. You feel the passion and pride all over again. Tennessee basketball is at last in touch with its past. Ernie and Bernie’s jerseys are retired to the rafters before a tearful Mears.

There’s only been one problem the entire time to seeing this reality. And for a change, it’s not UT’s fault. The fault lies squarely with King himself. When it comes to his relationship with his former school or lack thereof, “The King of the Volunteers” has no clothes. Bernard King hasn’t been cold or icy toward his former school; he’s been loathsome.

This was underscored a couple of years back when I led a research project trying to determine the greatest athletes, regardless of sport, in Tennessee history. I found people at the University and in the media (Bud Ford, Haywood Harris, Tom Mattingly, Randy Moore, Russ Bebb, Ben Byrd, etc.) who filled out ballots. When you start talking history of UT athletics, you’re talking NFL Hall-of-Famers like Atkins and White. You’re talking Manning, Helton, Webb, Majors, Lauricella, Holdsclaw and Catchings.

Needless to say, there’s a bountiful supply of candidates. From all this greatness, Bernard King (25 years after dribbling his final ball in a Vol uniform) was selected  as the “King of the Tennessee 20.” So, through my radio show, it was left to me to get King on the air. Every other living member of the Tennessee 20 had consented to joining me on the show. This was, after all, a celebration of their accomplishment. Still, King was the one who was going to be difficult—though how much so I never dreamed.

We called agents, Grunfeld, former coaches in the NBA, front offices, etc. and nobody had a clue as to how to reach him, so I decided to go to the source. Surely the great Ray Mears could help. Coach Mears was honored that King was chosen No. 1 of all time. So much so that he decided to get involved and help us find Bernard. Mears was able to track down King’s mother, who refused to give him (after consulting with Bernie himself) an active phone number for his once-prized player. Think about how sad that is for a second. King was so isolated and insolent that he wouldn’t even talk with Coach Mears. That’s pathetic.

All of which leads me to this: It would be great to honor Bernard King, but not retire his jersey. It would be wonderful to welcome him back to the family, but only when (as the prodigal son himself did) he decides it’s time to quit playing games. King, who never got his degree from Tennessee, has only been back on the campus three times since leaving school: twice in NBA exhibition games and once on a press junket to promote one of the games. Tennessee’s most famous hoops son has been estranged for 30 years.

It’s wonderful that Grunfeld wants to help his friend Pearl get King back in the fold. It is, however, King who should make the first move. Tennessee is bigger and better than Bernard King. UT’s basketball program is poised in the next few years for a rapid ascent that could take it “Back to the Future.” That’s with or without its King.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.