King of the Volunteers

By Tom Mattingly

Bernard King was definitely something special, from his first stroll on the court against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in December 1974 to the time the music stopped in Baton Rouge. That came in the first round of the 1977 NCAA Tournament in an overtime loss against Syracuse.

It didn’t take long, however, for Vol fans, even those in the far upper reaches of Stokely Center, to realize this was an immensely talented young man.

The “Bernie and Ernie Show,” as his time at Tennessee with fellow New Yorker Ernie Grunfeld was dubbed, packed Stokely Center and arenas across the country. The duo appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Double Trouble from Tennessee.”

His jersey No. 53 hangs high in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena for a reason. Give Grunfeld credit for stepping back and letting King’s jersey be retired first.

When the definitive book on the history of Tennessee basketball is written, their names will be right there near the top, on page 1.

“Bernard was the best college player I ever saw,” Marvin West (“Tales of the Tennessee Vols”) has said, “better than Jerry West, better than Lew Alcindor. He had the perfect combination of quickness, size, and competitive zeal. He was a splendid scorer and instinctive rebounder.”

Two events in his freshman season foreshadowed the impact he would have on Vol hoops.

About this time of year, Tennessee defeated Georgia in an impressive display of basketball. It was the Saturday matinee for the SEC television cameras, with the usual number of Tennessee fans present for the battle.

That was the afternoon Georgia partisans brandished a sign at halftime that proclaimed Bulldog freshman Jackie Dorsey, a good player in his own right, as the SEC’s best freshman.

They really believed it.

Their timing wasn’t so hot, however.

They weren’t very far around the court when the public address announcer announced that King had 31 points, doing all that in 20 minutes, going over, under, and through the Bulldog defense. There was no antidote for King’s magic that day nor on many other days during his time at Tennessee.

That announcement got the crowd’s attention. The banner disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Bernard finished with 42 points as Ray Mears cleared the bench. Grunfeld added 29. King, who had an amazing ability to rebound as well as score, added 19 rebounds.

Also in that season, Tennessee lost at Kentucky, and King’s competitive play earned the enmity of the Big Blue crowd at Memorial Coliseum. He didn’t give an inch to Kentucky’s inside tandem of Rick Robey and Mike Phillips.

There was a troublesome scene as the Vols left the court. There were raised voices, and tempers flared. There might even have been an orange or two thrown on the court, maybe more. Bernard finally got to the solitude of the dressing room with only a couple of minor scrapes. Many in the Vol travel party let it be known there was a cigarette burn or two.

Undaunted by all of the furor, King told the assembled media the Vols would never lose to Kentucky again as long as he was at Tennessee.

The Vols won the next five, fulfilling King’s promise.

Bernard did, however, often march to the beat of a different drummer.

He once ordered a hamburger at the oh-so-posh Boone Tavern in Berea on the way to a game at Kentucky a year or so later, despite a menu that contained all kinds of other delicacies. Hamburger just didn’t happen to be one of them.

There was also a time he requested an a la carte order of cauliflower at a sophisticated eatery in New York City. That cost an extra $6.95. That was a definite no-no based on the UTAD per diem of so long ago. Bernard was not a happy camper, expecting the vegetable to be served differently.

“If looks could cook,” wrote West, who had observed both scenes, “Bernard and the cauliflower would have been well done.”

John Ward called Bernard “King of the Volunteers.” That was no embellishment.

One night at Kentucky, maybe in 1977, when Bernard was at his best, Ward uttered these memorable words: “We don’t editorialize… much, but this young man… can play … this game.”

You compare anybody to Bernard King at your peril, what with BK averaging double figure points and rebounds during his career, playing a brand of basketball you had to see to believe. He once scored 22 points against Kentucky in 1975, netting 22 points, yet never getting to the free throw line. He was that quick, getting the ball up and in.

Mears always said Bernard was the best player to ever step on a basketball court in the SEC, better, even, than Pete Maravich.

Not one of the best.

The best.