The Southeastern Conference used to be a nice, tranquil place where Adolph Rupp could win every year and still get the tobacco crop in and no one could find Auburn. Now the University of Tennessee is giving the rest of the SEC migration headaches with a pair of high-scoring New Yorkers named Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. Rival coaches have been so stirred up by this Yankee invasion that they have accused King, a black from Brooklyn, and Grunfeld, a Jew from Rumania via Queens, of cheating on their free throws, mugging unsuspecting forwards, flunking arithmetic and putting sprigs of chicanery in the mint juleps. Only in Knoxville are the outlanders the Big Apples of anyone's eye. That is understandable because King and Grunfeld have combined to score 51 points a game and lead the Volunteers to the top of their league, all the while sneering at the old maxim that basketball is a five-man game.
Last weekend at Tennessee's Stokely Athletic Center even refugees from the Grand Ole Opry were slapping palms like the slick dudes back on 125th Street as the Volunteers used their one-two punch to knock out Alabama 80-74 and take sole possession of first place in the SEC with a 7-1 league record. King had 37 points and wore out his larynx yelling impudences at the 'Bama players. Grunfeld scored 20.
It was a typical performance for the Tennessee twosome, whose contrasting playing styles invariably end up with the same results—plenty of baskets. King teases opponents with his lightning-fast, in-your-face jumper, Grunfeld repeatedly bangs them over the head with his bruising drives. King leads the league in scoring (26.8 points per game), while Grunfeld is second with 24.3. Both are among the nation's top 10 scorers—King is seventh, Grunfeld ninth—and if they stay that way it will be only the second time a team has had two in that category. In 1957 Mississippi State's Jim Ashmore and Bailey Howell finished sixth and ninth. Coaches usually pontificate about the value of balanced scoring, but, understandably, not Tennessee Coach Ray Mears, who admits, "We have a star system." His unorthodox strategy has led the Vols to some celestial heights—they have a 14-2 overall record and a No. 9 national ranking.
And it is a system other coaches would like to shoot down. Someone sent a letter to the NCAA last year suggesting that a review of King's high school transcript would show that he had not had the minimum grades required to be eligible for college competition as a freshman. Tennessee fans suspected the letter had a Lexington, Ky. postmark. Last month Kentucky Coach Joe Hall called it a "premeditated conspiracy" when Grunfeld swished some free throws that should have been taken by teammates during a game against the Wildcats. And Auburn Coach Bob Davis fumed recently that King has "no class."
February 9, 1976
Tennessee denies most of the charges and winks at others. The Vols sent two representatives to New York last season to study King's academic record, which is like asking Yasir Arafat to check into the PLO. They convinced the NCAA that King's transcript met all the requirements, but during the investigation he missed a key game. In the fuss Tennessee lost three straight and its chances for the league title.
Last week Mears passed out excerpts from Davis' book, Aggressive Basketball, as a way of suggesting that the Auburn coach encourages violent play, ran a game film that showed an Auburn player sucker-punching King and did everything but display an affidavit from Emily Post attesting that King does not slurp his soup. Mears admits that Grunfeld should not have shot the free throws that helped beat Kentucky, but compares that ploy to standing on your man's foot when he is trying to rebound or jiggling pocket change when a golf opponent is putting. "When Kentucky lost to us at their place, the coach needed an excuse," says Grunfeld, who has had to contend with chants of "Ernie cheats" at away games since the free-throw incident. "I'm his excuse." Meanwhile, DePaul Coach Ray Meyer, voluntarily testifying on behalf of the Volunteers, said that Kentucky pulled the same trick on his team a few years ago—and won the game because of it.
More intriguing than all the charges launched at the New Yorkers is the question: What are King and Grunfeld doing at Tennessee, anyway? Knoxville is a nice enough town, but its size and remoteness would hardly seem to appeal to New York basketball players, whose faraway dreams are usually of places like California and Hawaii.
Both Grunfeld and King were recruited by Executive Coach Stu Aberdeen, a dwarfish man who would have trouble going one-on-one with Tom Thumb. Aberdeen is not merely an assiduous recruiter; he is so energetic and attentive to detail that one acquaintance describes him as having the metabolism of a hummingbird. In one two-month stretch three years ago he spent 50 days in New York pursuing Grunfeld. King had never heard of Tennessee, but when he was finally persuaded to visit Knoxville, the town had a "Bernard King Day." That was mighty impressive to a youngster who never had eaten an English muffin or put a Windsor knot in a tie.
But the clincher that made Grunfeld sign on two years ago and King last season was Mears. He promised them each a running game and a chance to start immediately, and he even hinted at the star system that would keep their scoring averages high. It has worked out just that way. King led the SEC in scoring as a freshman, and Grunfeld has played on so many international teams that he can make change in five different currencies. Now they both are unstinting in their praise of Knoxville, its people, Mears and his program. "When I go back to New York I feel like an alien," says King. "New York people are guarded, they're out for themselves. Here in Knoxville it's just the opposite."
Their home city and their penchants for scoring are just about all King and Grunfeld have in common. King grew up in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, an indigent enclave a few blocks from the Navy Yard. Grunfeld lived his first nine years in Rumania, before his family emigrated because of anti-Semitism. They considered moving to Israel, but decided on New York, where they live in Forest Hills, an upper-middle-class area. Grunfeld's father operates a fabric store in a bleak section of the Bronx.
King and Grunfeld also are dissimilar on the court, in both playing styles and manner. King, 6'7", is thin and lithe with explosive quickness. His extraordinarily accurate jump shot—he has a .604 shooting percentage—is launched with an unorthodox motion that allows him to release the ball in the same microsecond in which he catches it. And he is one of the finest skinny rebounders ever; his average of 13.4 is ninth best in the country. Off the floor and at practice he is so quiet that when he talks it is startling, like hearing a gentle dog bark for the first time. But during games King has an almost manic brashness, racing around to exhort his teammates, applauding wildly and pumping his arms up and down after each good play. Even more disturbing to opponents is his habit of making a good move, then running up to his befuddled defender and yelling at him. The tactic is not in the best tradition of sportsmanship, but it seems to work. Against Alabama, King's enthusiasm and indefatigable performance were infectious, and no doubt greatly responsible for Tennessee's beating a team that seems to have more overall talent.
King comes from a family that includes five sons and a daughter. All of the boys are talented basketball players—one of them, Albert, is considered among the best dozen high school performers in the country, although he is only a junior. "He'll be better than me when he gets to my stage, but right now he isn't," says Bernard. King's parents saw him play only three times while he was in high school and have watched him only once in college, because they are more concerned with the problems of day-to-day survival. They live in a low-income housing project that is rife with crime and poverty. King's father, Thomas, is a caretaker-guard there. "His salary really isn't enough to take care of six kids, but he does his best," says King. "It helped us to have enough time for basketball. The game has meant a lot to our family. It's kept us close."
King dabbles in writing poetry, but on the court the bard can turn bad. "He does have a mean streak in him," Mears says. "He doesn't like to be shown up." Not even by his teammates. After a recent scrimmage in which King's team lost by a point, he sulked for 20 minutes.
Grunfeld is as thick as King is thin. He is 6'6", 225 pounds and has massive legs. Because of his heavy thighs, he has to buy pants three inches too big around the waist, which then have to be taken in. And though he is not the team captain, his gregarious nature and charm make him the Vols' leader.
Grunfeld is as confident as he is rugged. When he was recruited the coaches showed him the team training room. "I don't want to see this," he said. "I never get hurt and I never get tired." As a freshman he averaged 17.4 points a game, but his self-assurance was dented last year when he broke his wrist in a preseason scrimmage against Western Kentucky and missed six games. It was in that scrimmage that King provided a glimpse of the future by making 23 of 24 floor shots. He then scored 42 points in his first game as a Volunteer. King averaged 26.4 that season (Grunfeld came back to score 23.8), then had a minor knee operation during the off-season. "Now I'm faster and stronger," King says.
There is not a hint of jealousy between King and Grunfeld. "People probably think we don't get along, but we're good friends," says King.
"I know if I get open on a cut, Bernard will pass up an 80% shot to get the ball to me," says Grunfeld.
Getting along with each other is easy compared to adjusting to Mears' brand of taut discipline and super organization. Typical of his myriad regulations is one that requires the players to leave their shoes in a certain place in their dressing room—with the tongue and laces in precise positions. The only slipup a visitor could detect last week at Tennessee was in the press guide. It says that Mears has the highest winning percentage (.743) in the country, when actually Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas has a better coaching record, although he has not been around as long as Mears has. "I kind of like the discipline and rules," says King. "You learn the game in New York, but you never learn the fundamentals. The coaches here are smart."
Smart enough to let their best players have most of the shots. King usually is matched up inside against taller men, but Mears says, "There hasn't been a guy big enough to stop him yet." Alabama's 6'9" Rickey Brown tried and fouled out. He had fair success against King in the first half, blocking several of his shots and holding him to 14 points, but King scored 23 in the second half and finished with 18 rebounds, even though Alabama tried everything but handcuffs to prevent him from getting the ball inside.
Junior Mike Jackson, another New Yorker who is the Volunteers' third-leading scorer, is under orders to get the ball to King whenever he can. "Why not? It's an automatic two," says Jackson. When King gets the pass, opponents must feel as if they just heard the click of a thermostat. They know that the heat is coming on. "Quickness will always win," Jackson says. "How can the defense block the shot when the ball is already in the basket?"
Grunfeld, the only member of the Vols who is allowed to think "me first, King second," is just as effective. Pro scouts rate him equal—or perhaps superior—to King, because he is so rugged. His father insists that Grunfeld not take a summer job so that he can work on refining his basketball skills. The son repays his dad with diligence. Grunfeld was a 58% free-throw shooter in high school. As a Tennessee freshman he made 73% and last year he hit 81% after wearing out countless nets while practicing.
Both King and Grunfeld shrug off the charges that they are less than sportsmanlike. "Everybody is against us," says Grunfeld. "We always seem to have some kind of adversity, some mountain to climb. It just makes us closer. Take Bernard as an example. The way they guard him he takes a lot of elbows. No one ever says anything about what he takes, but if he gives an elbow, then he's a dirty player."
Grunfeld's best friend is Jerry Fine-stone, a reserve guard with the Vols. They grew up together in Queens, and Fine-stone transferred to Tennessee to be with his buddy. "I thought New York was the worst," he says, "but you've never seen hate unless you've seen the SEC."
"Hate, that's exactly the right word for it," adds Grunfeld. "You can almost feel the hate."
Except in Knoxville, where love is more like it. Finestone and Grunfeld regularly engage in cheerful banter using exaggerated New York accents, and with good reason.
"The girls just love to hear us talk," says Finestone.
"They think it's cute," says Grunfeld.
Mears is determined that his stars stay happy, even if all the coeds transfer to Alabama. He has installed a jukebox in the shower room, cardboard cutouts of the players in the arena lobby and an elaborate dressing cubicle for each player that contains a framed picture of the athlete and his name engraved on a brass plate in the shape of the state of Tennessee. There is also a caste system. The Vols' starters sit on special chairs at practice and team meetings and receive other deferential treatment.
Mears also is hooked on symbols and slogans. He wears a tie with little pictures of Laurel and Hardy on it, and he keeps a photo of General Patton in the locker room. He wears so many lapel pins that he looks like a Latin American dictator. One is for scoring, another is for ball handling, a third is for motivation. Mears paints everything from the basketball floor to the garbage cans bright Tennessee orange. Seeking every conceivable advantage over his opponents, he even uses a football-type spotting system. An assistant coach views Volunteers' home games from the press box and then calls down suggestions via a telephone line, one end of which is located near the end of the Vols' bench.
For Alabama, which had beaten the Volunteers four straight times, Mears came up with a new array of gimmicks. The bathmat in the dressing room was painted red and had "Alabama 73-54" lettered on it. That was the score of a game between the clubs two years ago. In addition, the Tennessee practice jerseys have a red elephant, the 'Bama symbol, on their backs.
Mears was long considered a defensive specialist, but he found that he was losing a lot of recruits because they wanted to play at a faster pace. He decided to change, and King and Grunfeld are proof enough that the transformation is complete. Run and gun is the Volunteers' game now. And it will stay that way at least as long as Grunfeld and King are around to stir up double trouble in the SEC.