By the numbers: "Ernie G of Tennessee"
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 email@example.com.