Strange: Great American story grows for Grunfeld

Tennessee will retire the number of former men's basketball star Ernie Grunfeld during a ceremony at halftime of today's home game against Kentucky (TV: noon, WVLT). Grunfeld's No. 22 will join Bernard King's No. 53 as the only men's numbers to be retired.

1 Grunfeld, a four-time, first-team All-SEC selection, was the first Tennessee player to pass the 2,000 point mark. He was SEC player of the year as a senior and led the league with a 25.3 points-per-game average as a junior.

2 Grunfeld finished his Tennessee career as the Vols' all-time leading scorer, with 2,249 points, but is now second in that category to Allan Houston, who has 2,801. Grunfeld was also a two-time first team All-American for the Vols.

7 Seven former Vols have been drafted in the first round, including Grunfeld in 1977, the 11th overall pick, taken by Milwaukee. At the time only Tom Boerwinkle (Chicago, 4th overall pick in 1968) and Grunfeld teammate Bernard King (New York Nets, 7th overall also in 1977) had been drafted in the first round before Grunfeld.

36 The number of points Grunfeld had against VMI in the 1976 NCAA Tournament. The number still stands as the Vols' highest scoring output in postseason play.

43 Grunfeld's career-high, which came against Kentucky during the 1975-76 season. Grunfeld's career record against the Wildcats was 6-2.

515 Grunfeld hit 515 free throws during his career with the Vols, now third all-time behind Houston (651) and Carl Widseth (621). By comparison, the career leader amongst current Vols is Chris Lofton, with 290.

In 1964, a young Romanian Jewish boy, the son of Holocaust survivors, comes to America. Doesn't speak a word of English. Doesn't know basketball from bronco-busting.

One thing leads to another and today, 44 years later, a university in Tennessee will retire his No. 22. That's pretty much the ultimate tribute in collegiate sports.

The Ernie Grunfeld story isn't just a great Tennessee basketball story. It's a great American story.

"Coming over from Europe as a nine-year-old kid, I could never have imagined this great honor,'' Grunfeld said Saturday night.

He said it to a Big Orange TipOff Club crowd that overflowed The Foundry. He'll say it again today to a crowd of 21,000 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Coming over from Europe, Grunfeld probably couldn't imagine a lot of the things that awaited him in America, certainly not where this game of basketball would take him.

As they say, the first game of basketball he ever saw, he played in. It was on a playground in Queens, N.Y.

Eventually, he played it well enough at Forest Hills High School to attract a slew of college recruiters, among them Stu Aberdeen, Coach Ray Mears' top lieutenant at Tennessee.

NCAA rules were different in those days. Aberdeen camped in Forest Hills for about a month.

"He knew which door of the school I would be coming out so he'd wait for me,'' said Grunfeld. "I'd go out a different door but he'd track me down anyway.''

When Grunfeld was coming to Knoxville for his official visit, Mears enlisted a local merchant, Ed Balloff, who was Jewish, to take the kid to lunch.

"He didn't ask me anything about the city,'' Balloff recalled Saturday night. "All he talked about was the New York Knicks. Dave DeBusschere was his favorite player. That's where he got No. 22.''

As No. 22 at UT, Grunfeld would score 2,249 points from 1973-77. At the time, nobody in SEC history except Pete Maravich had scored more. Grunfeld would be a first-team All-SEC pick all four years.

He would team with Bernard King to land UT's "Ernie & Bernie Show" on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"Ernie is the best teammate I ever had,'' King said Saturday night in a crowd sprinkled with players from the Mears Era, "and it was the best chemistry of any teammate I ever played with on any level.''

In 1976, Grunfeld made the U.S. Olympic team - shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen - and won a gold medal in Montreal.

A teenager in Boston with hoop dreams of his own watched those Olympics and adopted Grunfeld as a hero.

"He was a tremendous role model for me growing up,'' Bruce Pearl said, "and, gosh, when I found out he was Jewish ...''

Basketball would take Grunfeld on to the NBA, as a player for nine years and then as an executive with the Knicks, Milwaukee and, now, the Washington Wizards.''

But nowhere is he more beloved than in Tennessee. Today he joins King as the second Vol to have his number retired.

It's fitting that Kentucky will be the adversary today. Grunfeld was nothing if not an intense competitor and the Wildcats always got his best shot.

"Ernie was kind of our enforcer,'' teammate Mike Jackson said, "a smart, savvy player.''

"He took up for me a lot of times when I was a freshman,'' added Reggie Johnson, who joined the show in 1976-77, "stories I don't want to discuss on the microphone.''

Grunfeld took up for Jackson during a Kentucky game in Stokely Athletics Center. Jackson and Wildcat center Mike Phillips got tangled up after a collision.

"When I went to get up, Phillips bit me on the arm,'' Jackson said.

Later, the teams were lined up for free throws. Grunfeld caught Jackson's eye as if to say: Watch this.

"Everybody was tired,'' Jackson said, "and Phillips was really tired and bent over. Ernie bent down next to Phillips and made sure the official wasn't looking and he sucker-punched him up under the chin.''

Then there was the classic game in Lexington in 1976. The story goes that Grunfeld, an excellent free-throw shooter, twice slipped to the stripe in place of less-accurate teammates and went four-for-four.

He scored 43 points that night, a career-high. The Vols rallied from 14 down and won in overtime 90-88 when King made a shot as he fell to the floor.

Balloff, who would become lifelong friends with Grunfeld, began the game on the bench with the team. But he couldn't take the tension and sought solitude in a rest room under the stands.

"True story,'' Balloff said. "I'd hear the roar when Kentucky scored. So I turned on all the faucets and flushed all the toilets and went from one to the other doing that.

"Then it got very quiet. And I knew we won the game.''

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or

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Comments » 28

budd#207344 writes:

Great story, thanks Mike

BigVolinCarolina writes:

Welcome back, Ernie. Tomorrow's ceremony is long-overdue. We love you in Vol Country!

FWBVol writes:

I was a freshman when Ernie was a senior and I'd get to Stokely early just to watch him shoot free throws...that's how good he was. King was the best rebounder and scorer, but Ernie could do so many things. If his shooting was off a little, he'd go double digits in rebounds. He was a great passer, and, as the players that knew him so well stated, the leader on the team.

If someone were to have made a basketball how to video from that era, Ernie G would have been the perfect player to use.

I don't know if it's true or not, but a rumor was going around that the Dallas Cowboys wanted to draft Ernie and turn him into a tight end. They thought was with his size and hands he could have been an All-Pro. Another story was if he had fallen to the Celtics in that first round, they would have drafted him to replace John Havliceck as a small forward/shooting guard. Imagine Ernie and Larry Bird on the same team. It might have been as almost as special as the Ernie and Bernie Show. But those of us who for lucky enough to see it up close and personal, know they were the best of the best to wear the Orange.

VOL7 writes:

Saturday night the Big Orange Tipoff Club honored all of the players and coaches who built the foundation of Big Orange Basketball at The University of Tennessee, all of whom we personally invited to be with us as guests at the Foundry at World's Fair Park in Downtown Knoxville. Coaches Ray Mears and Stu Aberdeen were the dynamic duo that ushered in the Golden Age of Hoops Heaven on The Hill that culminated in the Ernie and Bernie Era, which resulted in banners for Coach Mears, John Ward, Bernard King, and now Ernie Grunfeld being hung in their honor in Thompson-Boling Arena.

No coaching tandem ever had as much impact on Southeastern Conference basketball than Mears and Aberdeen. In their tenure, they recruited and coached 10 All-Americans, nearly half of all of the players who have ever achieved that status at UT. In addition to winning three SEC Championships, they had only one team finish lower than third in the league.

Coaches Mears and Aberdeen each won National Championships at Wittenberg in Ohio and Acadia in Canada, respectively, before they teamed up at Tennessee from 1966 to 1977. At UT, they built a 12-12 record against arch-rival Kentucky, the best any coaches nationally ever managed in the Wildcats’ history.

Their fiery intensity was legendary, at courtside, in the locker room, and in practice. They were masters at everything they did, and did it all in a first-class way. Their genius was not only in coaching but in promoting the game of basketball. They inspired their troops for battle as if they were going to war every time. The excitement they engendered at Stokely Athletics Center made every game an event not to be missed.

VOL7 writes:

It is no coincidence that the emergence of Big Orange Basketball on the national scene came when Mears and Aberdeen arrived at Tennessee. Half of their teams played in national post-season tournaments at a time that only a select few were invited, as only 16 teams were allowed in the NCAA tournament for much of their career.

When their tenure at the helm ended at Tennessee, Mears and Aberdeen ranked second in winning percentage all-time nationally as a coaching staff to Dean Smith’s at North Carolina. Their legacy is in all of the lives they touched in a positive way as motivators, including yours truly, who was proud to coach with them in their Camp of Champions in their last summer in Big Orange Country in 1977.

On a personal note, I also had the privilege of getting to know both Ray Mears and Stu Aberdeen as men off the basketball court. I had the high honor of traveling with them and their teams for many weekends on the road in my years as a UT student in the 1970’s. I can truly say that experience was one of the highlights of my life, to be mentored by men of class and integrity, something that I and everyone else who was ever associated with them will never forget.

- Big Orange Tipoff Club Board of Directors
- Website:
- E-Mail Address:

snafu14u#241639 writes:

VOL7: Hear hear. Stu Aberdeen was the hub of the wheel. Glad to see people remember Stu.A head coach is only as good as his asistants will let him be, and Stu was a perfect compilment to Mears. Ernie was always a down to earth guy, we had some classes together and I use to serve him and the guys beer at the Last Lap, a hundred years ago.Pearl has corrected a long overdue honor. Kudos to Hamilton for giving the thumbs up.bonzaivol

cphil writes:

Ernie Grunfeld being back in town this weekend brings back so many memories, especially for the Kentucky game. I'll never forget standing in line all night long outside the student center, with the temperature well below freezing, to get student tickets to watch the "Ernie & Bernie Show" against Kentucky. Even though, by luck of the draw, I ended up with about the worst seats in Stokley, it was well worth it.

And how about Stu Aberdeen making up for his being "vertically challenged" by using a broom in practice to defend against the players.

camoman270#222859 writes:

Freakin thing that legends are made of!!!
Awesome Story, Mike!!!!!!!!!!!

BigOrangeJeff writes:

Best. Article. Ever.


it's funny how it's been 32 years yet i would still take Ernie and Bernie as my first two picks on a team over all that has come through the sec.

splinterdand#602266 writes:

This column brings back great memories. the Ernie & Bernie years were, of course, before cable TV. I remember as a kid lieing in bed and listening to the games on the radio. With the great John Ward calling the games, you almost felt as if you were there. Mike Jackson and Reggie Johnson were pretty darn good, too. And, don't forget the point guards they played with, Rodney Woods and Johnny Darden. I believe the game Grunfeld was referring to where Phillips bit Jackson was that thrilling 103-98 win. I'll never forget it.

BillVol writes:

Thanks for another good one, Mike. Should be a great day as we honor one of our finest, Ernie G from Tennessee.

Cherokee writes:

Absolutely GREAT article.

FWBVol writes:

Let's not forget Terry Crosby, the guy that gave Ernie and Mike Jackson a blow. He could play the two guard or the small forward and is often the forgotten hero on those great teams.

PennVol writes:

Ernie G. is right up with Peyton Manning as a UT superstar and ambassador. Great, great player. I remember watching these guys in Johnson City in an exhibition game - King and Grunfeld never missed a shot!

khelton657 writes:

Great story Mike..thanks.

I wish someone would do a story on local boy made good, Jimmy England....word is he has been going through some difficult times...

middlegavol writes:

Those were great days back in Stokley watching Ernie take the ball and go one-on-one against some poor defender and then drain a fallaway jumper. As someone has already said, I would start my All-Vol hoops team with Ernie and Bernie. Ernie played with class and has lived his life with class. As someone else also said, he and Peyton are the two best ambassadors this university has ever produced. I just kind of wished they had retired Ernie's number first, but I guess it doesn;t matter in the long-run. It will still be up there with that National Championship banner Pearl eventually hangs.
Hey CPhil, didn't I see you in those lines waiting for tickets?

bmaples writes:

Mike -- Thanks for a great article! Loved listening to the games -- even scraped together some money to go see a few. (I was in HS at Holston at the time.)

Which leads to my seconding the Jimmy England comment above. Jimmy was the star at Holston when I was there, and continued some great play at UT. What happened to him? Where is he? A story on him would be appreciated as well.

Thanks to Ernie, also -- glad to see you back in Knoxville, getting the honor you have deserved for years. Thanks for all you've given to the university and to basketball through the years!

oldschoolvol writes:

I was in school at UT during the Ernie and Bernie era from 73-77. Watching those guys play was the most fun I have ever had in my 40 plus years of being a Vol fanatic. My buddies and I followed the team to Ky for both the 76 and the 77 wins in Memorial and Rupp. The only thing you could hear after King hit his falling down shot was us going crazy. Those two guys put UT b-ball back on the map and made life enjoyable during some lean football seasons. By the way, I too spent many a night outside the UC waiting for b-ball tickets. One of those urban legends I often tell my daughter about.

FWBVol writes:

I read somewhere that UT wanted to retire Grunfeld's number first, but Ernie insisted on King being the first to have his number retired. A class act then, and a class act today. As John Ward said so many times, "Ernie G of Tennessee."

Gustoly writes:

A fine human being.

janet4vols writes:

Super article! In 1973, I was a freshman at UT and a member of the Pride of the Southland Band. I would volunteer to play in the Pep Band at basketball games, so I would have a good seat. I never missed a home game the entire 4 years, and camped out lots of times to see the "Ernie-Bernie" Show. Ernie G. is a class act and his acceptance speech at half-time was proof. Thanks, Tennessee for honoring him and thanks, Mr. Strange, for the great article covering Ernie Grunfeld. It's great to be a Tennessee Vol!

zuluvol writes:

Great story Mike. We are blessed to have had Ernie and Bernie.

goldengate writes:

Outstanding story, Mike Strange. Thank you.

And thank you, Ernie, for a ton of great memories!

leedsvol2007 writes:

I always wondered why Ernie did not get more playing time in the NBA.

My recollection of all the details are vague but I remember a season when he was playing as a reserve with the then KC Royals. They made the playoffs and had some injuries either late in the season or at the start of the playoffs. The injuries caused them to reconstruct their offense to feature Ernie.

He flourished and they made the finals.

Congratulations to him on getting his well deserved honors.

mprip#212085 writes:

I remember the Army game at Stokely in the UT Christmas tournament. Bernie's defender had him man to man full court. Instead of watching the action when Bernard was shooting a free throw, I focused on the matchup down court because of the pushing & shoving. Ernie casually strolled by the defender and cold cocked him with a forearm. No one noticed until after the free throw and the Army defender was laying on the court out cold. He came out, never came back in. He was one tough cookie.

johnvol writes:

I had two sports heroes growing up - in football it was Roger Staubach and in basketball it was Ernie Grunfeld. I remember spending every afternoon in our driveway in Rogersville shooting jump shots from the corner - just like Ernie.

Thanks, Ernie Grunfeld. Thanks, Mike Strange.

Great article. Great memories...

TommyJack writes:

leeds: KC Royals?

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