Ernie G's No. 22 retired

He gave some of his most memorable performances against Kentucky, so it was only fitting that Tennessee basketball legend Ernie Grunfeld have his number (22) retired Sunday, at halftime of a Vol-Wildcat game.

It was even more fitting that Bernard King – the other half of the Ernie & Bernie Show – be present. The two are inexorably linked in Big Orange basketball lore.

Grunfeld was on hand a year ago when King's number (53) was retired during a late-season home game with Kentucky. King returned the favor Sunday. At one point during the ceremony, the two former teammates embraced, sending a warm fuzzy throughout the entirety of Big Orange Country.

Having their numbers retired was flattering. Having them retired during games vs. Kentucky in back-to-back years was exciting ... and appropriate.

"The biggest rivalry is between Tennessee and Kentucky," Grunfeld said during a brief chat with media before the game. "It goes back over years and years. Back in the '70s that was our biggest opponent, our biggest rivalry. Kentucky's always had a great basketball program. When you beat a Kentucky team you've earned the victory. I know when we were in college we looked forward to playing against them."

No wonder. The Vols were one of the few teams in America that could beat the Big Blue in those days.

"I know I played them eight times and we were fortunate enough to win six of those eight games," Grunfeld recalled. "I played 'em a couple of times in Memorial Coliseum, before Rupp Arena was opened. We have great respect for the Wildcats. They've had a great program and they're our main rival. That's why this (number retirement) happened against them."

Grunfeld played before sellout crowds of 12,700 at Stokely Athletics Center in 1973-74, '74-75, '75-76 and '76-77. He never got to experience the enormity of 21,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena but he has no regrets.

"I loved playing at Stokely," he said. "I loved the environment, loved the atmosphere. I loved the crowd noise and the way it intimidated our opponents.

"This is a different time, a different generation. I've always been told it's hard to compare players from different generations. I guess maybe it's also hard to compare arenas."

Grunfeld, King and head coach Ray Mears all concluded their UT careers following the 1976-77 season. After several very good years under Don DeVoe, Mears' successor, the program endured a prolonged slump that lasted from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s.

After two decades marked by mediocrity and apathy, Tennessee hoops has rebounded under the direction of Bruce Pearl, who currently has the 2007-08 Vols 26-3 and ranked No. 1 nationally.

"I'm very proud of the program," Grunfeld said. "Tennessee's always meant a lot to me. I've always tried to represent the university in the best possible fashion. Like any alumni and competitive person watching the games, you want to win as often as possible. Most important, you want to be respected. I think Tennessee basketball right now is respected – not only in the Southeast but nationally."

Grunfeld, known as "Ernie G" during his time on The Hill, conceded that the retirement of his jersey would've been even more special if Mears had been on hand to share the moment. The former Vol coach died last summer.

"I wish he was here," Grunfeld said. "He taught me so much. I spent four years of my life with Coach Mears. I've said many times that he was ahead of his time. He was more than a basketball coach. He was a marketing genius. The man created excitement. He did things different. He was a great motivator. He made you really work hard. Repetition was very important to him. We were always prepared and we always played hard. He tried to create excitement by putting on a show.

"When we traveled around the Southeastern Conference, every arena was sold out. It was full over a half-hour before the game because we would come in and do our ball-handling drills. It was a seven- or eight-minute segment of very unique ball-handling drills that everybody did in unison. We worked on those drills every day (in practice) for 15 minutes. Crowds around the SEC loved it."

Mears knew how to market basketball but he also knew how to coach it. Although he was rigid in terms of expectations, he proved quite flexible in his approach.

"He changed his style of play," Grunfeld said. "A lot of coaches have a style and you have to fit into that style. When he first got here he played slowdown basketball because he didn't have enough players to go up and down the court.

"As he recruited more and better players, he changed his style of play. We were an up-and-down, high-scoring team. That's a credit to him. The great coaches look at their talent and take advantage of that. They devise a system to suit the talent, rather than bending players into a system."

Grunfeld, then working in the front office of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, recommended Tennessee hire Pearl away from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee three years ago. Grunfeld sees a lot of Mears in Pearl.

"I think they both have great passion," the former Vol said. "They're both into marketing their team and creating excitement, making Tennessee basketball a happening, having people pay attention – not only here but on the national stage. They're both extremely hard workers. They're both extremely competitive. I think there are a lot of similarities, but it's different eras."

Grunfeld clearly was pleased to be honored at halftime of a UT-Kentucky game. He has always carried a healthy respect for the Big Blue.

"Any time you beat a Kentucky team it's a good win, especially back then (1970s) because they were in the top five every year," he recalled. "Probably the game that stands out the most was the 103-98 overtime game at Rupp Arena. It was a great game, a fun game to be part of. It was extremely hard-fought, very competitive, in a hostile environment. I think it was the first year Rupp was opened. I remember it was a hard-fought battle, and we came out on top, which was good."

An hour after meeting the press, Grunfeld addressed the 21,628 fans in attendance as his number was officially retired. He recalled being visited at his New York City high school for 30 consecutive days by pesky UT assistant Stu Aberdeen. Grunfeld said he grew so weary of Aberdeen's recruiting pitch that "I started leaving by a different door just to get away from him."

In closing, the former two-time All-American noted that Vol basketball has come full circle.

"Ray Mears put Tennessee on the national map," he said, "and now Bruce Pearl has put Tennessee back on the national map."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories