Remembering Riggs

I hadn't thought about Ted Riggs in years, then he flashed across my memory twice in the past few days.

Riggs was the prep editor of The Knoxville News-Sentinel during my stint with the Knoxville Journal from 1974-91. Since I covered beats other than high school sports, we never competed on any stories and had very little contact. The Journal and News-Sentinel shared a downtown building in those days, though, so I'd see Ted from time to time in the workplace.

Although I never really got to know the man, I always liked the fact Ted didn't take himself too seriously. He didn't take athletics too seriously, either, a fact that became evident in the spring of 1974, two months before I was hired by The Journal.

New Yorker Ernie Grunfeld, fondly known throughout Big Orange Country as "Ernie G," had just completed a spectacular freshman season with the Tennessee basketball team. Vol fans were buzzing about the future. Many figured the team was one big man away from perhaps challenging for a national title.

Head coach Ray Mears appeared to land that big man when Grover Glick, an 8-foot-tall Kenyan, decided to sign with the Volunteers. My pulse quickened as I read the details in an article penned by Ted Riggs and splashed across the top of a News-Sentinel sports page. "Grover G" would combine with Ernie G to make Tennessee just about unstoppable.

I was 19 at the time and old enough to know better but I bought the entire yarn until I got to Riggs' last paragraph. Ted closed by noting that this would be a landmark day in Tennessee basketball history ... April 1, 1974.

Yep, Riggs had hooked me with an elaborate April Fool's joke. I wasn't alone, though. Dozens of fans who apparently didn't read (or didn't absorb) the last paragraph of Ted's article phoned the News-Sentinel sports department, desperate for more details on Grover G. As word spread of UT's recruiting coup, coaches of other SEC programs were criticized by their own fans for failing to recruit the Kenyan giant. The whole thing caused quite a stir.

I was reminded of Riggs' hoax last week, when Nebraska football fan James W. Conradt made national headlines with a sports hoax of his own. Conradt posted a phony but authentic-looking story on an Internet message board saying two Oklahoma Sooners had been arrested for distributing cocaine, an ill-advised prank that likely will get him multiple lawsuits.

The difference, of course, is that Riggs' hoax was good-natured and innocent, whereas Conradt's hoax was demeaning and libelous.

The funniest thing about Riggs' prank was that it wasn't so far-fetched, as things turned out. Ten years after he penned his fictional piece about 8-foot Grover Glick leaving Kenya to sign with the University of Tennessee, 7-foot-7 Manute Bol actually left The Sudan to sign with the University of Bridgeport.

Unlike Glick, Bol was no April Fool's joke. He was an honest-to-God person, a second-round pick in the 1985 NBA Draft who spent 10 years in the league. Although he was a liability on offense, Bol proved to be one of the most prolific shot-blockers (2,086) in the history of pro basketball.

Regardless, I was reminded of Ted Riggs again today, when I read of his recent posthumous induction into the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. Although I never got to know the man, I figure anybody creative enough to invent a character as colorful as Grover Glick probably deserves a spot in the TSWA Hall of Fame.

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