One of the most inspiring stories in Vols basketball

By Tom Mattingly

In 1973-74, Tennessee’s basketball recruiting class included Ernie Grunfeld of Forest Hills, N.Y., Nash-ville’s Mike Jackson, and a youngster from Ringgold, Georgia, named David Moss. You instinctively recognize the contributions Grunfeld and Jackson made, but Moss provided one of the most inspiring stories in the history of the Tennessee basketball program.

David came to Knoxville at age 16 as a leaper supreme, possessed with a 40-inch vertical leap. Chattanooga sportswriter Sam Woolwine once called him the “David Thompson of Georgia.”

“He could jump higher as a freshman than anybody 6-4 and above many bigger,” wrote former Knoxville News Sentinel sportswriter Marvin West, “but he wasn’t a great shooter. I could see he’d contribute, but I never thought he’d be a star.”

Marvin probably thought a moment and then wrote: “No, that wasn’t how David did it. He made it as a man.”

He played on the junior varsity team his freshman season, averaging 12 points and 11 rebounds, while also seeing limited varsity service. He had an impressive JV game against Auburn in which he pulled down 20 rebounds. His potential seemed unlimited.

Then, in March 1974, after Moss had complained of a dull ache in his right leg, the news came, doctors diagnosing the malady as the dreaded “C” word.


They amputated the leg shortly thereafter, but Moss didn’t blink. He was able to finish his education and become an assistant on Ray Mears’ staff. Not too many years later, they found a similar cancer in his lung.

He died Dec. 17, 1980, four months past his 24th birthday.

The mind’s eye can still visualize David, leaning forward ever so slightly on his cane, standing at center court in an orange blazer and those checkerboard pants the Vols wore in those days, receiving the plaudits of a capacity crowd at Stokely Center on “Senior Night,” March 7, 1977.

Even with Grunfeld and Jackson standing with him and the SEC title within reach, it was his night, a time Vol fans rose to pay him a much-deserved tribute.

“David Moss walked out to mid-court at Stokely Center,” West wrote, “stood in the spotlight and soaked up a thunderous ovation. Smokey stood with him, as if on holy ground. David Moss was that special.”

For many in the audience, the tears arrived before anybody realized they were coming.

The David Moss story is a study of character and courage in the face of adversity. It’s the story of a love that bound a family, of a tenacious desire to make the most out of life, even when circumstances floored him more than once. The passage of time hasn’t diminished his impact on the Vol basketball program.

Ray Mears remembered how Moss coped with the apparent tragedy.

“It didn’t seem to get him down that much,” Ray recalled. “He seemed to hang on better than a than a lot of people would expect. Despite it all, he still had a lot of composure and showed a lot of strength. He could have quit and probably died a lot earlier, but he didn’t.”

The funeral was at the First Baptist Church, Nashville Street, in Ringgold. The place was overflowing. It was not unusual for David Moss to play hoops before a packed house. This was one last capacity crowd. Marvin wrote that, “‘Amens’ far outnumbered tears.”

Mears told a story that still resonates with everyone who knew David.

David was going home to tell his parent about his health problems… and the forthcoming loss of his leg.

“He wanted to tell them himself,” Ray said. “Mr. and Mrs. Moss got in the back seat of my car. David sat beside me.”

Then David asked a very specific question.

“He wanted to know how to adjust his seat forward so his mother, behind him, would have more room. At a time like this, he wasn’t concerned if his legs were cramped. He wanted his mother to be comfortable.”

David Moss was the Tennessee winner of the “Spirit of the SEC” Alumni Award, honoring athletes who have persevered through adversity, presented at the 1989 SEC Tournament.

Former Vol Chuck Threeths, who came to Tennessee from upstate New York, had a definitive memory.

“This man touched lives and changed a few, too. Me, I’d rather be a David Moss than a Dr. J.”

Sports does not develop character, the saying goes. It reveals it.

No one remembers who said that, but nowhere is this statement truer than in the life of David Moss.