Nov. 10, 2009
BY JOSH PATE
The sound from the floppy speaker would be something that rang in minds for years. Huddled around a living room radio, staring at the set as if it would magically display video footage, the light roar of the crowd would grow amid claps from inside Stokely Athletic Center and John Ward's voice would come over the airwaves: "King of the Volunteers."
There was no mistaking when Bernard King made a basket for Tennessee. And he made a lot.
King averaged a double-double in all three of his seasons playing for the Vols from 1974-77 and scored 25.8 points per game over his career. King was one of the best players in Southeastern Conference history, and led the Vols to the 1977 SEC championship with a 22-6 record.
Fans - young and old - simply know him as Bernie from the Ernie and Bernie Show, the nickname of the 1-2 punch Tennessee provided with King and fellow great Ernie Grunfeld.
"I just remember him being, at the time, the most explosive player I had ever laid eyes on," said UT graduate assistant coach Houston Fancher, who grew up near Knoxville. "To watch him, he was a guy we emulated growing up. He was it."
That's still true for players and coaches wearing orange.
The University of Tennessee retired King's No. 53 last year during a ceremony at Thompson-Boling Arena when the Kentucky Wildcats came to town. It was a fitting night to honor one of the school's greatest. Against rival Kentucky, King lost his first game in Lexington amid a rowdy crowd that threw oranges and coins at the Vols when it was over. A cigarette hit King, and the tension left a lasting impression. The Vols never lost again against Kentucky while King was playing
"Bernard King honored the game," said Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. "He honored the game in high school by being an all-city and all-state player. He honored the game the minute he walked onto the court at Tennessee, scoring 40-something against my former team, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and leading the league in scoring every year he was here."
But Pearl believes the honors should be bestowed from a higher level of basketball.
"Bernard King should be in the basketball hall of fame in Springfield," Pearl said. "One of the things that I'm committed to is to put forth everything that is required. I'm going to ask C.M. Newton to help me with it because he's involved with SEC basketball, and certainly now that we have college basketball hall of fame in Kansas City."
King finished with 1,962 career points at UT, ranking second in school history at the time, and collected 1,004 rebounds for the Vols. He earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and first team All-America honors each year.
"He was such a dynamic player that could do so much with his body, his quickness, his explosion," Fancher said. "He was a guy that, growing up, was the first words and the last words coming out of anybody's mouth at a Tennessee game. King, King, King. When it was all said and done, you went to sleep thinking, `King.'"
King's accomplishments didn't stop when he got drafted by New Jersey in 1977. King is most known for his time with his hometown New York Knicks (1982-87). A Brooklyn native, King was a four-time NBA all-star and averaged 22.5 points per game during his professional career. Eight times he scored 50 or more points.
Put simply, his explosiveness on the hardwood was tough to match. Pearl has facilitated several return visits for King to reconnect with his former school, and his influence on the players is just as strong as his powerful moves in the paint once were.
"He's a great inspiration to me," said junior center Brian Williams, also a New Yorker. "He tells me everything I need to do to become a better player here. Of course, playing, the first thing he tells me is to be more aggressive. When I have a good game, he tells me I had a good game."
Renaldo Woolridge knows of King through his father, Orlando Woolridge, who shared the court with King in the NBA. But Renaldo, who is a sophomore for the Vols, admitted it's hard not to know that Knoxville was once King's throne.
"All his records and all his pictures are hanging up here, so if you don't know anything about him you can see that he made a great impact," Woolridge said. "I know my dad speaks very highly of him after playing with him in the NBA."
The Tennessee legend has made a solid effort to support the basketball program and has returned to The Hill on multiple occasions to speak to the current Vols team. But the players aren't star struck by his legendary status on campus, nor by the gross numbers that he put up more consistently than any other player in school history. They're simply humbled by the former player who has solidified his status as one of the greatest of all-time, and continues to come back just to pass on some support to the program. That, they say, translates into a hall of famer.
"Besides credentials, he's a great person and human being," Williams said. "Not a lot of people come back to Tennessee after they left, and he comes back as often as possible. Why shouldn't he be in the hall of fame?"
"Bernard King is our most historic player," Pearl said, "and he belongs in the hall of fame."