No debate: Bernard King best in baskets

Marvin Westwestwords

Surprise, surprise, Bernard King is hereby designated as the best basketball player ever at Tennessee.


Unanimous choice, no debate, three-time all-American, consensus as a junior in 1976-77, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bernard, 6-7 and 205, was three-time player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. There was no fourth. He was away to the NBA, 24.2 points per game as a rookie.

Ernie Grunfeld nipped Dale Ellis as No. 2 all-time at Tennessee. Multi-talented Ron Widby was fourth and Grant Williams fifth, separated by one point in the survey. All-time leading scorer Allan Houston was sixth, one poll point ahead of the Rutledge Rifle, A.W. Davis.

A.W. Davis

Reggie Johnson, Chris Lofton and Tony White placed in the top 10.

Twenty-five greats were chosen from the hundreds who have played for Tennessee. Criteria: best all around, offense, defense, rebounding, ball-handling and value to team success. Points were awarded – 25 for first-place votes, 24 for seconds, 23 for thirds, down to one.

The honorees were selected by an elite panel – old Vols Hank Bertelkamp, Kenny Coulter and Lloyd Richardson and honorary lettermen Tom Mattingly, Bud Ford and me.

Qualified? We represent more than 300 years in or at the games.

That group was assembled to determine the three best teams in Tennessee basketball history. It functioned so well, it was awarded the best-player assignment as a bonus.

Jimmy England

Jimmy England, brilliant guard, 88 percent free-throw shooter, is an interesting honoree. He scored 20 and had a flawless floor game in the stunning upset at No. 1 South Carolina in the 1969 opener.

Ray Mears, through the years, said never had he given a player as much responsibility as he repeatedly loaded on England’s shoulders. The coach said he was seldom surprised by clutch performances in return.

“I called on him to run the team as the point guard. 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 Jimmy the defensive assignment. He often handled the other team’s best man.”

Indeed, England matched baskets with Pistol Pete in an epic game in Knoxville. Both scored 30. The Vols prevailed 88-87.

Jimmy received 79 poll points, good for 11th place among the all-time greats. Somehow, he was left off Tennessee’s all-century team announced in 2009.

If I had been counting the votes …

Following England on this official list is another great guard, Bill Justus, and three stars from an earlier time, Paul Walther, Gene Tormohlen and Carl Widseth.

Others in the top 25 are Ron Slay, Tom Boerwinkle, Danny Schultz, Austin “Red” Robbins, Dyron Nix, Don Johnson, Mike Jackson, Mike Edwards and Admiral Schofield.

Close were Steve Hamer, Ed Wiener, Tony Harris, Howard Wood and Herman Thompson. Brandon Wharton, Rodney Woods, Len Kosmalski and Scotty Hopson got votes.

Dale Ellis and coach Don DeVoe

King stats and stories

In 76 Tennessee games, Bernard logged a school-record 62 double-doubles. His career averages were 25.8 points and 13.2 rebounds.

After UT lost at Kentucky 88-82 in King’s first meeting with the Wildcats (Jan. 13, 1975), after he extinguished the lighted cigarette a fan tossed into his hair, he famously and furiously vowed never to lose to Kentucky again.

He didn’t. The record was 5-1.

Stu Aberdeen hit a New York double-double. He recruited Grunfeld one year and King the next. Bernard, 65, has never forgotten his introduction to the process.

“I was looking out the window of our apartment in the projects … saw a four-foot-11 white guy in a bright orange blazer standing in the street … there were no white guys in the projects.”

Aberdeen loaded King into a rental car and drove into Manhattan for dinner at famed Mama Leone’s.

“I had never been to a restaurant in my life.”

Other recollections

Houston scored 2,801, second to Maravich among SEC great point producers. He averaged 21.9 per game. Tennessee didn’t do very well during Allan’s and his dad’s time, 1989-1993. Their league record was 25-43.

***

Lofton wasn’t offered a scholarship by home-state Kentucky or Louisville following his senior year at Mason County High in Maysville. He can still recite what he was told.

“Too short. Too slow. Couldn’t dribble well enough. Couldn’t play defense.”

Maybe that was motivation. He played really well at Tennessee. He hit 46.6 per cent of his three-point attempts as a freshman, 42.2 for his career. He scored 2,131 points.

Lofton’s greatest victory came off the court. He beat testicular cancer. The NCAA helped. Chris was a random pick for a post-game drug test. A lab tech spotted cancer cells.

***

Gene Tormohlen

Tormohlen was called “chairman of the boards” before Bumper became his nickname. Over his three seasons, Gene averaged an amazing 16.9 rebounds to go with 15.5 points.

“I’m proud of the fact that I held some rebounding records,” Tormohlen once said. “But I’ll be honest, there were a lot of rebounds to be had. We didn’t make many shots.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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