A lot of us are talking about Fulky.
Conversation sounds different now. Gone are references to a baby giraffe learning to walk and sneaky recollections of Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
No doubt you’ve heard that one – tall, lanky, long arms and legs, hands that dangled out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, whole frame loosely tied together with rubber bands. Ichabod always needed a haircut.
No, no, very unfair, Fulky was never all that.
I remember thinking he might be the second coming of A.W. Davis, not as graceful, not as accurate on jump shots, but a winner who wanted to be a Volunteer. I was partly wrong. A.W. was a slender forward. Fulky is what passes for a trim center.
We are now saying that he remains only a bit awkward but he is the main man, that the University of Tennessee basketball Vols are his team, that he is the leader, the inspiration if there is one.
He has always been brave beyond physical attributes, willing to fight for position, dive for a loose ball and sometimes run over a few photographers.
Calling him “Fulky” is one of the things Rick Barnes has done to John Fulkerson.
The coach has tried to persuade him that he is better than he realizes, that he could and should be scoring more points and gathering more rebounds and playing even stronger, bolder, smarter defense.
In the beginning, Barnes said Fulkerson, then 6-8 and thin as a rail, Christ School in Arden, N.C., had the most potential in the recruiting class of 2016.
You do recall that group – Grant Williams, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Jalen Johnson.
“When we recruited him, we thought he was the best player in that class,” Barnes said.
Fulkerson and I thought that was just coach talk, a motivational ploy, but the coach has repeated it several times. Some have seconded the motion.
Fulkerson, as a freshman, started out aflame. He was in the starting lineup. He suffered a gruesome injury. He fell hard on his right arm, dislocated his elbow and fractured his wrist.
After battling back from that, he suffered a torn labrum on the left side.
After that, he somehow managed to remain positive. He said everything happens for a reason.
After that, he accepted a support role. He played about 10 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman and about 12 last season. He averaged 3.1 points and had 25 more fouls than field goals.
He went 1,050 days and those injuries between Tennessee starts. Ready or not, Fulkerson inherited a share of the spotlight. Barnes told him months ago that he was to be a big part of this team, that he needed to raise his game to another level, and that he was really capable of doing that and more.
Fulkerson did not fit the classic image of a leader. He has been described as a quirky, free-spirited guy. There are clues. You should have heard some post-game interviews.
He had Lucky Charms as one pregame snack. He thought they came with whole milk. He does not like skim milk. He said he would not judge others if they drink skim milk “but you might just as well drink water.”
He presented an essay on smart phones. He has an iPhone 11 Pro by Apple.
“The camera is really good. Really good. Really good. You get three cameras! The wide angle is nice.”
Sometimes Fulky inserts his favorite TV shows into basketball interviews. Sometimes he talks about whatever baseball cap he is wearing backwards. He once got off on haircuts at the same place in Kingsport for basically his entire life.
Until he stopped getting haircuts.
Sometimes he talks basketball. He accepts responsibility. Against Virginia Commonwealth, he led the team with 17 points. He hit two free throws with 15.1 seconds left.
“I know my role on the team.”
“No, he doesn’t,” said Barnes.
“I do have to bring it every night,” said Fulkerson.
“If he doesn’t understand we need him to score every night, he doesn’t understand his role. He’s a guy that can score it,” said Barnes.
Opposing coaches talk to and about Fulkerson. Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams, previously at Virginia Tech, knew the younger Fulkerson. He sees the improvement.
“You are as good at what you do as any player in the country,” Buzz told John after their game.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin praised Fulkerson for the winning Tennessee play in their first meeting.
“Fulkerson obviously made a heck of a play, getting in front of the ball and taking that charge.”
Against Ole Miss, Fulkerson scored 16 in the first half.
“I love him,” Rebel coach Kermit Davis said. “He gives his team a big boost … He plays every play hard. I can only imagine how he works during the week. He’s a much-improved player offensively and he just dominated our guys around the basket.”
Fulkerson once attempted a three-point shot when the Vols were far ahead. He missed. Barnes said that was fortunate.
“He would have wanted us to put in a three-point play for him.”
Fulkerson hit his first three-point goal against Florida on Saturday. It was not by design but the Vols might well have lost if he had missed.
Barnes liked that three. Barnes loves Fulky.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.