A salute fit for a King

As the basketball coach at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., coach Ron Kern had tryouts each year. Some 37 years ago, a young, gangly youth of 13 years sat in the stands, eagerly waiting to show the coach what he could do on a basketball court.

``What's your name, son?'' Kern asked.

``Bernard King,'' he said.

``Let's go,'' Kern said.

That's how they met.

``I'd never heard of him,'' Kern said.

Soon, the basketball world would hear of Bernard King. He would not only become a New York high school legend, he would star at Tennessee, become a three-time All-American, a three-time SEC Player of the Year and an NBA star.

And Tuesday night, Tennessee honored King by retiring No. 53, the first Vol basketball player to have his jersey retired. King's number hung from the rafters along side that of King's college coach, Ray Mears, and John Ward, the Voice of the Vols.

Few nights in Thompson-Boling Arena history rival what took place. Not only was King honored, his teammates were introduced, as was Mears, who is confined to a wheelchair, and Ward.

``The Ernie and Bernie Show is back,'' King said to a thunderous ovation.

The crowd of more than 22,000 stood for his every word during an elongated halftime ceremony. They cheered King. They cheered Mears. They cheered Ernie Grunfeld and Mike Jackson and Johnny Darden and Rodney Woods and Bert Bertelkamp and Ward.

They had enough energy in the second half to cheer the Vols to an 89-85 victory over No. 20 Kentucky – the team King most liked to beat. King beat the Wildcats a record five times in a row in the mid-1970s. With King in the house, UT has won six in a row over the Big Blue.

Grunfeld said he thought UT fans had long forgotten the Ernie and Bernie Days. He was wrong. How he was wrong.

Those days were alive again Tuesday night, even though it had been some 30 years since King and Grunfeld last played for the Vols.

King hadn't been around lately. It's believed he hadn't been back to Knoxville since playing in an NBA exhibition game in the 1980s. He said he hadn't come back because he wasn't asked. That's only partially true.

Mike Hamilton, UT athletic director, said multiple efforts had been made in recent years to contact King – to no avail.

But when Tennessee finally got to King, he agreed to come back.

``It was a very special time when I played for this man, Ray Mears,'' King said in saluting the greatest coach in UT men's basketball history.

Highlights of King's career were shown on a video screen as King stood near midcourt, quite a bit heavier than the guy who dazzled the SEC. He bore a striking resemblance to sportscaster James Brown.

``It's been too long – 30 years,'' the articulate King told fans. ``And go Vols, go Vols, go Vols, go Vols.''

If the fans could have stormed the court, they would have. King had whipped them into a frenzy, just as he did during his playing days at Stokely Athletic Center.

King sat behind the UT bench during the game with Grunfeld, the two forever linked as former Vols who matriculated to Knoxville from New York.

Also behind the bench was King's old high school coach – and he couldn't believe his eyes. He couldn't believe what he saw out of King as a college and pro player. King scored 42 points in his Tennessee debut and took the SEC by storm.

``I was star struck,'' Kern said. ``I had no idea he was that good. It's funny. I was his coach for so many years, but I really didn't know he'd ever be as great as he turned out to be.''

Kern coached King for four years. He remembers King being physical as a 13-year-old freshman but not polished. Early in his sophomore year, King became a starter. By the time he was a senior, he was one of the most coveted players in the nation.

``Bernard did nothing wrong as a player,'' Kern said. ``He was like Einstein in a classroom, I'm telling you. …He was absolutely superb.''

Kern played King in the low post ``because I thought it would be a good spot for him. And he earned a living in the low post.''

He earned that living as a quick, 6-foot-7 jumping jack going up against taller opponents in the SEC and the NBA.

: ``It was the way he shot the ball,'' Kern said. ``He shot it on the way up. Most players go up, stop and shoot. But he let it go going up and it was undefensable.''

King averaged a stunning 26.4 points and 12.3 rebounds as a freshman at Tennessee. His career marks: 25.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 59 percent from the field.

In the NBA, he scored almost 20,000 points despite missing some three years of his prime because of knee injuries. He led the NBA in scoring one season at 32.9 points.

``Whoever thought that anybody could play as well as he did in the NBA,'' Kern said with a laugh. ``As much as I knew him, I was always surprised by his greatness.''

And Tuesday night, that greatness was honored.

FREE THROWS: Grunfeld told Hamilton he was impressed by the crowd enthusiasm at the UT-Kentucky game. … The crowd of 22,320 could have been larger except only 2,600 of the 5,000 student-ticket allotment were used. Don't be surprised if the student allotment is reduced by about 2,000 next year when capacity at TBA is cut from 24,535 to about 21,000 because of luxury boxes. … Kentucky hit 17 of 21 shots during one second-half stretch to rally from 16 points down to tie the score with 3:54 left. … UT centers Wayne Chism and Duke Crews combined for 34 points and six rebounds against Kentucky's talented Randolph Morris, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds. … UT had an assist on 25 of 33 baskets.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories