By John J. Duncan Jr.
When my fellow Focus columnist, Tom Mattingly, wrote recently about Ben Byrd, the longtime sports editor for the Knoxville Journal, it brought back some memories for me, too.
I knew Ben well from being around so many Knoxville sports events and also because I worked full-time as a reporter for the Journal during my senior year at UT, 1968-69.
For younger readers and the many thousands who have moved here since the ‘90s, the Knoxville Journal was our morning daily newspaper. It closed in 1991.
Ben Byrd was named Tennessee’s Sportswriter of the Year five times and worked at the Journal from 1947 until it closed.
He was always nice to me and seemed to like (and be liked by) almost everybody. However, one man he did not like was Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.
I saw this firsthand at a UT basketball banquet at which Knight was the featured speaker. I had been invited to present an award at the banquet and my late wife and I sat at the head table next to Ben Byrd and his wife.
Bobby Knight was basketball’s version of Donald Trump, and that night his speech was a colorful, lengthy, and sometimes obscene blast at the media.
Ben was clearly disgusted. I could tell because he shook his head a couple of times and made a critical comment or two to me.
At the end of Coach Knight’s speech, everyone stood to give him a standing ovation. Ben and his wife remained seated.
The next morning Ben wrote a story about the event telling which players got awards and about some of the comments made and stories told.
He did not mention Knight in his article until the very last paragraph. My memory of what he wrote is as follows:
“The featured speaker for last night’s dinner was Indiana basketball coach, Bobby Knight. It is unfortunate that the high caliber of speakers at previous basketball banquets was not reached by last night’s performance.”
When I was a boy and not yet old enough to get hourly-pay jobs, I sold programs at UT football games and popcorn and Cokes at the basketball games.
When I was 12, I saw Tennessee play West Virginia in a basketball game on Dec. 29, 1959. Jerry West wore number 44 for West Virginia and scored 44 points.
His team was behind 41 to 37 at halftime, but came back to win 76-72. The Knoxville Journal the next morning reported it this way:
“The old basketball maxim that one man can’t beat you holds up 99 times out of 100. Last night was that 100th time. Make no mistake about it. Jerry West IS West Virginia. He is unstoppable…impressive as they are, the statistics still do not tell the full story. You have to see this boy to appreciate him.”
West that night hit 17 for 25 from the field (68 percent), 10 of 11 free throws, and had 12 rebounds. It was a game I have never forgotten.
Another impressive player I saw in person was Pete Maravich when Tennessee played LSU. He averaged 44.2 points a game during his college career and had an amazing 28 games in which he scored 50 points or more. What makes all this even more amazing is there was no such thing as a three-point shot at that time.
I got to go with my father and brother to an NCAA Final Four Championship game at the University of Maryland in 1966.
That game has gone down in history because it was the first time an all black team, Texas Western, played and all white team, Kentucky, for that championship. The Texas team beat the Kentucky team coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp by a score of 72-65.
Four years later, Boydson Baird, the longtime Maryville College coach and athletic director, let me go with him to see another Final Four Championship game at the University of Maryland.
UCLA was led by Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jacksonville State was led by Artis Gilmore. UCLA won the game 80-69.
I thought I knew quite a bit about basketball until I sat with Coach Baird that night. He pointed out little things to me that I never would have noticed. More importantly, he was just a really nice man.
If you want to read about the complete opposite of these great players, look up the March 13, 2021 issue of The Knoxville Focus and the column I wrote entitled “My Pitiful Basketball Career.”