Down through the decades, sprinkled across the colorful history of Tennessee basketball, have been some good stories. Roger Peltz really did ride a unicycle at Stokely Center. Ernie and Bernie were rather exciting. Rodney Woods was Ray Mears’ coach on the floor.
My first genuine discovery was Carl Widseth, 6-3 and 173, from Minneapolis and Davenport, Iowa. He was a freshman in 1952-53, Scandinavian blond, paper-thin and pale. Teammates dubbed him Spook.
He was a natural-born rascal. He roomed with Ed Wiener, a Jewish cutter and slasher from Brooklyn. They were opposites, unlikely partners, yet inseparable friends.
This was an era when everyone was guarded against saying anything that might be construed as anti-Semitic. Everyone except Widseth, that is. He heckled his buddy with Jew jokes.
Spook was much too small to be a center but he was one, 1,683 points with a deadly hook shot, 19.1 average, slithering rebounder with 937 recoveries.
Carl was really hot on a cold night at Auburn, 17 free throws, 47 points and a middle finger in the air when ordered to hold up his hand after committing a foul. The ref didn’t see the gesture. Tennessee won, 91-87.
Tom Boerwinkle was an unbelievable tale, slow afoot, concave sternum but seven feet tall. I saw him at a prep school, Williamsburg Military in Kentucky. He and a little guard with the ball would pass at mid-court going in opposite directions. Think about that.
In my infinite wisdom, I told Dick Campbell, coach at Carson-Newman, that Tom couldn’t help his team. He couldn’t catch up with the action.
Stu Aberdeen, armed with a broom to somewhat equalize their difference in height, drove Boerwinkle to all-SEC honors at Tennessee. Rivals voted him the best rebounder in the league. He averaged double-doubles as a junior and senior. He was the fourth pick in the 1968 NBA draft. He played 10 seasons for the Chicago Bulls. He once had 37 rebounds in a game against Phoenix. He is second all-time for Chicago with 5,745.
Stories were everywhere back then. Orby Lee Bowling of Sandy Hook, Ky., was one heck of a tall tale. Can you imagine Adolph Rupp in downtown Rutledge trying to recruit A.W. Davis?
It’s too soon to be sure but Ziggy may be the best story of all. Tennessee fans love him.
Zakai Zeigler, a wee bit short of 5-9, played for Upper Room Christian in New York. He graduated from Our Savior Lutheran School in The Bronx. He played some more at Immaculate Conception High in Montclair, N.J., two long commutes daily.
He boarded the train to Penn Station at 6:18 a.m. He switched trains to get to New Jersey, then walked the rest of the way. It was just 24 blocks.
He got home when he could and how he could, skirting rules in the name of basketball when he didn’t have ticket money for trains
There was a genuine art to entering through open exit doors when nobody was looking, to hopping over or sliding under single-bar gates, to avoiding conductors by hurrying to the necessity room.
Ziggy isn’t proud of such behavior but it was very New York City. He didn’t invent it.
The little guard played a lot of schoolboy basketball and ended up with nothing. He had one scholarship offer, a take-it-now-or-forget-it from Saint Peters University of Jersey City.
He didn’t take it.
He was just about ready to give up and try to get a job. The New York Lightning, an AAU program, saved his basket career. He was invited to play in the Peach Jam elite summer tournament in Augusta, South Carolina, no cost, away we go.
“A kid with no offers, I didn’t know what the next step would be,” Zeigler said.
Michael Schwartz, then Tennessee associate head coach, just happened to be at the Peach Jam. Mike happened to be a lot of places where there were recruiting possibilities.
Ziggy the Nobody lit up the star-studded event. He scored 23 (seven of eight threes) against the eventual tournament champions.
Schwartz knew what he was seeing. He immediately called the boss, Rick Barnes. You got to come down here.
Two games in one day made all the difference. Zeigler earned “Best Performance” in the event. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 4.7 to 1.
Ziggy heard Barnes say “and he can play defense.”
The coach noticed the toughness and appetite for competition. Ziggy hit the floor like he was 10 feet tall and bulletproof. In fact, he was a little lighter than the official 170.
Barnes analyzed: “Energy, plays at a high level, seems like he never gets tired, just keeps going. He is going to fight you.”
Zeigler says he wasn’t sure what was going on around him. He had no experience with recruiting.
“Honestly, I didn’t understand it.”
When he figured it out, he realized his life had changed.
“I caught goosebumps, chills. It was really real. It was happening.”
Hopefully, you remember what happened after that. Tennessee just happened to have a scholarship available that late in the summer. Ziggy arrived a few days after school started.
Josiah-Jordan James recalls the first time he saw him.
“The first practice he got in, he scored 10 straight. I was like. ‘Yeah, this kid is going to be OK.’”
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com