Vols at South Carolina: Jimmy England memorial game

Marvin Westwestwords

Another Jimmy England memorial game is scheduled for tomorrow. 

Any time Tennessee plays basketball at South Carolina, I think of Jimmy.

The homegrown guard scored 20 and was a coach on the floor in the biggest Volunteer victory in downtown Columbia, one of the greatest of a thousand games I have seen. Can’t say for sure but the upcoming event may be of more significance. Circumstances are opposite.

For the opener of the 1969-70 season, South Carolina was the No. 1 team in the country. New York godfather Frank McGuire had assembled superior talent. Three big men patrolled the paint. Guard John Roche was the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. This was a mismatch. No one gave the Vols a chance. The home team was favored by 24.

Few knew that Ray Mears and Stu Aberdeen had spent a disproportionate amount of time dreaming up and preparing a surprise. The net result was a terrific chess match, resounding upset, indelible snapshot. 

Here’s the picture:

The match-up defense as presented by England, Don Johnson, Bobby Croft, Jim Woodall and Kerry Myers confused the Gamecocks. They requested time out. Players stood around while coaches huddled and debated. 

They obviously couldn’t agree on what they were seeing, man-to-man with zone tendencies or a partial zone that turned man in certain segments of the court or under certain circumstances. They wondered what were the keys.

There was no decision. Coaches didn’t say a word to the team, no guidance, zero.

The buzzer sounded and action resumed. South Carolina guards spent a lot of time bouncing the ball and looking at each other, trying to decide which play to run. I don’t think they ever figured it out. They were still discussing the dilemma late in the evening.

Tennessee won, 55-54. England led in scoring. He directed traffic. He handled the ball efficiently. He hit six free throws down the stretch.

Through the years, Mears often said such a clutch performance was exactly what he expected of England. The coach said he had never given any player as much responsibility as he loaded onto Jimmy’s shoulders that season.

“I called on him to run the team at the point. He was our best shooter, so we had to get his 20 points. And when we ran up against a man like Pete Maravich, we gave him the defensive assignment of handling the other team’s best man.”

Jimmy England grew up in the Alice Bell community. I was there when he played biddy baskets on Saturday mornings at old Knox High. 

Years later, there was an interesting recruiting scene at Holston High, winter of ’65. Mears came to see England against Fulton’s Bill Justus before an overflow crowd. Really, there were no available seats. Late arrivals were stranded outside.

Mears, wearing his traditional bright orange blazer, was welcomed inside. Big buzz in the building. Holston students squeezed closer together (they liked that) and the coach had plenty of room.

Both guards became outstanding Volunteers. 

England, 6-1 and 170, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. He wasn’t physical enough for the NBA. He was a UT student assistant coach for a season, a schoolteacher for a little while and then went into business, up through the ranks, spectacular advances through three companies, to president and chief operating officer of Suzanne Somers’ marketing conglomerate.

The bright lights of Los Angeles were all around, but he was so busy he hardly noticed.

Life was going great until July 2007.

Multiple myeloma,” said England. “Compression fractures of the spine. My life changed forever.”

Of course he fought. He was a warrior. There were times he appeared to have won. Alas, cancer came back. He died in June 2016.

So many memories before and after the Gamecocks: He almost won a state championship for Holston. He was twice all-SEC. He led the league in free-throw accuracy and assists. He once outscored big Dan Issel of Kentucky.

Jimmy was a remarkable player, smooth, confident under duress, an athletic artist.

A panel of expert selectors somehow left him off the Tennessee all-century team. They must not have seen him play.

(Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected])

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