They call him mister, and he hardly ever misses: His three-point field goal percentage, the best in the nation, reads like a typographical error—.730. He has set up more people than Love Connection has: The NCAA career assist record will almost certainly be erased sometime this spring. He is as short as the day is long: Fans on the road call him Webster.
Five-foot seven-inch Mister Jennings—his given name is Keith, but hardly anyone calls him that anymore—is but one reason why the East Tennessee State Buccaneers are 14-1, ranked a lofty 12th in this week's Associated Press poll and are quietly building a certified basketball power in a sleepy place called Johnson City. But he is one very good reason. "Of all the point guards I've seen," says former North Carolina guard Jeff Lebo, now an East Tennessee State assistant, who has undoubtedly seen a few, "I think only [Georgia Tech's] Kenny Anderson is better."
There are a few other, even odder reasons why the Buccaneers figure to be around awhile. Their 6'11" center, Greg Dennis, who is perhaps 20 additional pounds from becoming an NBA lottery pick, may be helping the program immeasurably, if involuntarily, by sitting out this season with a broken foot—though his injury left the Bucs with no regular over 6'4". And there was that turning point of two years ago when the unheralded Bucs lost a 72-71 heartbreaker to top-seeded Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. "It probably helped us as much as anything else has," says Bucs coach Alan LeForce.
Then there are the three other members of the 1987 recruiting class, aside from Jennings and Dennis, that largely created all of this from the rubble of a team that finished 7-21 just a year before their arrival: guards Alvin West and Major Geer and swingman Micheal Woods. "We were thrown in the fire real early," says West. "The name East Tennessee State? Nobody gave it any respect. Now we're getting some respect. Some."
The phrase "recruiting class" is actually misleading. Not even Rand McNally would pull over in some of the places listed in the Hometown column on the Bucs roster: Big Stone Gap, Boiling Springs, Clinchco, Kings Mountain, Paintsville, Pineville, Greeneville. "You gotta make a whole lotta noise in Charleston, West Virginia, if you want to go to a big school," says Dennis, a floor-running, three-shooting center who averaged 19.7 points as a junior last season. "I didn't start making noise until my senior year."
Junior Calvin Talford, a 6'4" forward and another Buc with NBA promise, had 48 dunks as a high school senior, went for 59 points in one game and was drafted—by the Philadelphia Phillies. Few came to Castlewood, Va., to ask him to play basketball, the sport he has always preferred.
"It wasn't that we were such super recruiters," says LeForce, the 55-year-old former high school coach who is in his sixth season at East Tennessee State, his first as head coach. "It's just that we were going after players who weren't being recruited by any other Division I schools."
Even if they had to be cajoled into doing so, as was the case when an East Tennessee State women's assistant harassed LeForce into believing that her cousin in Culpeper, Va., was worth a look-see. LeForce, the skeptic, walked into the Culpeper High gym and saw a tiny action figure draining warmup shots from 25 feet, a kid who raised his hands like a set of goalposts every time he let fly from behind the three-point line. The coach was still calling him Keith, but by then, everyone in town was buttonholing LeForce to say, "We love that Mister."
There was a solitary number 16 on the scoreboard that night that was reduced by two every time Mister scored a basket. When the number hit zero in the fourth quarter, the game was halted, the crowd poured onto the floor and Mister Jennings was carried off the court on the crest of a human wave, having broken the career district scoring record with his 16th point of the game. LeForce knew then what he says now: "Mister is a once-in-a-lifetime player."
"He's the most underrated point guard in the nation," says North Carolina State playmaker Chris Corchiani, who was fondued for 17 points, four rebounds and 10 assists by Jennings last season in the Bucs' stunning 92-82 upset win in Raleigh. That game remains Jennings's fondest memory since coming to Johnson City. "There was a team that was definitely not worried about us," he says of the Wolfpack. "I'll never forget looking up at the scoreboard. It was 44 to 18, our favor. They all had these looks on their faces like, What did we run into?"
The Pack had run into a team led by a young man who has been called Mister since the age of six. One day he was horsing around with his friends after football practice, ignoring his father's polite calls to come home. "He finally said, 'Mister Jennings, get your butt over here!' " Jennings recalls. "It turned my head."
Jennings has since turned more than a few heads himself. Corchiani, former Syracuse guard Sherman Douglas, former Virginia Tech guard Bimbo Coles and former Oklahoma guard Mookie Blay-lock are all much-ballyhooed players—Douglas, Coles and Blaylock are now in the NBA-who were played more or less evenly by Jennings; he orchestrates the Bucs with astounding efficiency. With 127 assists (his 8.5 average is sixth in the nation) and but 52 turnovers, his assists-to-turnovers ratio (2.4:1) is well above the 2:1 standard by which the very best play-makers are measured. As a result, the Bucs average only 13.2 give-backs a game, while relying on a half-court pressure defense that forces opponents into 19.2 turnovers an outing and ignites the break.
"We had Muggsy Bogues on the '86 world championship club, and this guy is the same kind of player," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, who is being charitable to the bricklaying Bogues, a 5'3" member of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. For Jennings not only leads the nation in three-point percentage, but he is also the NCAA's 10th-leading field goal shooter (.613) and is 16th in steals (3.1). All the while, he is also averaging 18.6 points.
He scored 26 points as East Tennessee State opened this season by beating Brigham Young and its talented 7'6" freshman center, Shawn Bradley, in the first round of the Dodge NIT. Olson saw Jennings firsthand in East Tennessee's second-round game, which Arizona survived 88-79; it was the Bucs' only loss this season. Six days later, Dennis broke his right foot while running a drill in practice. But because he played in only two games, he will be eligible for next season when the team has two junior starters returning, Talford and forward Marty Story. That frontline trio should keep the Bucs in Top 20 territory.
All along, the Bucs played a perimeter-oriented offense, so without missing a beat they promptly won four home games, beat James Madison and Cincinnati on the road without Dennis and spanked N.C. State for the second straight year, 94-91, before 12,240 people at the Memorial Center, the largest home crowd ever at East Tennessee State.
The large turnout can be explained by two factors: 1) Johnson City's other attractions—area factories that produce two thirds of the world's ball bearings—are not open to the ticket-buying public, and 2) the Wolfpack's new skipper was Les Robinson, who had coached the Bucs through last season, when the team lost to Final Four-bound Georgia Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament to finish with a 27-7 record.
Basketball scholars cite the Bucs' one-point loss to Oklahoma in the '89 NCAAs as a seminal moment in program history. East Tennessee State had led the Sooners by 17 in the second half. Oklahoma's first lead didn't come until just 1:52 remained. "It was," says Dennis, who is doing wry radio commentary for the Bucs' games while his foot heals, "the biggest loss I've ever been associated with."
For a team that Woods describes as "a mid-major trying to break onto the major scene,' the near upset of the Sooners was, indeed, a major scene. West remembers looking at Jennings during the first half and saying, "Do you realize we're up 15 on Oklahoma?"
"We can play with anybody in the country," replied Jennings, as if a light bulb had just snapped on above his head.
That fact has been made abundantly clear to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, both of whom have dropped the Bucs from their schedules. Last season Tennessee played the Bucs, in Knoxville, for the first time in 26 years. The Vols were voluntarily manslaughtered 83-70. Among in-state foes, Memphis State is next, on Jan. 30 at the Tigers' place. "People now say we"re the best team in the state," says Jennings, "and I don't think Memphis State will take that well."
For now it is the Southern Conference schedule that weighs heavily on LeForce, a Kentucky native who left a Charleston, S.C., high school team five years ago to become an assistant to Robinson with the Bucs. He is just now adjusting to signing autographs during lunch at Bennigan's in Johnson City, where the check mysteriously never makes it to the table.
A salad platter on the house couldn't happen to a more deserving man. He's a guy who so admired onetime Kentucky football coach Bear Bryant that he wears a similarly unstylish, albeit uncheckered, hat. He coached high school and small-college basketball for 33 years, beginning with a $1,975 a year position in his hometown at Williamsburg (Ky.) High, where he taught seven phys-ed classes, assisted the football coach, drove a school bus and coached the basketball team.
"I occasionally interviewed for some Division I jobs, and I really got discouraged," says the soft-spoken LeForce, who was named the Bucs' coach two days after Robinson left. "I finally said, 'I'm just not going to make it.' Yes, this has been like a dream."
Last weekend LeForce dreamed while on a dark bus ride through Sam's Gap in the Smoky Mountains, on the way to Cullowhee, N.C., to play Western Carolina. Between Dec. 16, 1984, when a plane carrying the East Tennessee State basketball team from Birmingham to Oxford, Miss., crash-landed in Jasper, Ala. (there were no serious injuries), and Nov. 30, 1988, when the Bucs had no choice but to fly to Syracuse for a game against the Orangemen, the team traveled exclusively by bus. Last season the Bucs flew off to Hawaii, where they lost by five to Maryland and hammered Chaminade. On the way home from Hawaii, the jet-lagged Bucs were blown out of Pauley Pavilion by UCLA.
After that game, an interested spectator told the Bucs how highly he thought of them in spite of their performance that night. John Wooden was another coach LeForce had always admired, and his words represented respect, something the Bucs had long been craving.
Even now, as a favorite of the pollsters, the team still measures respect by a one-sentence mention on ESPN. "They usually just flash our score," says Jennings. "But the other night, they said, 'Marty Story was the story with 23 points as East Tennessee beat the Citadel.' So people are beginning to talk."
After their 93-76 win over Western Carolina on Saturday, the Bucs once again ascended into the Smoky Mountains, where Geer, who grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., told a story in the dark: "East Tennessee played at North Carolina my senior year in high school, after I signed my letter of intent," he said. "I was in the stands with a lot of friends. Carolina won by 50 or 60. My friends were all asking me, "Why in the world would you go there?' "
It has taken some of these players four years to phrase a response, but they are satisfied that it is a good one.
Why in the world would you go there? "When we all get our degrees, and we're all alumni sitting in the stands, we can say, 'We started this," says West. "We started this when there were 200 people at the games.' And that will be a good feeling."