This year celebrates the centennial season of men's basketball at Tennessee. The News Sentinel continues its series looking into the players, teams and events that have molded an exciting history.
From New York City they came. Tennessee basketball never before or since had two players side-by-side like Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.
The “Ernie and Bernie Show” dazzled for three seasons starting in 1974-75 and closing in 1976-77.
On Feb. 9, 1976, the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine posed Grunfeld with his arm resting on King’s shoulder, under the title “Double Trouble From Tennessee.’’
No one felt that trouble more than Kentucky and coach Joe B. Hall.
The Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry has traditionally been fierce but the arrival of Grunfeld and King took it to another level.
Grunfeld came first, in 1973-74, from Queens, N.Y. A year later, King, straight from the tough streets of Brooklyn, joined him.
King is undisputed as the best player ever in a UT uniform and considered by most to be among the top handful to ever play in the SEC. Grunfeld left as UT’s scoring king with 2,249 points, since eclipsed by Allan Houston.
Grunfeld averaged 22.3 points a game for his four-year career. King averaged 25.8 over his three seasons.
The “Ernie and Bernie Show” made its Lexington debut at Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 13, 1975. Kentucky won 88-82, aided by the fact that King fouled out with 7:17 to play after scoring 19 points. Grunfeld scored 26.
It was a heated affair. Coach Ray Mears campaigned loudly against Kentucky’s “karate defense,’’ which in turn infuriated Hall. Kentucky fans taunted King and oranges, coins and ice were thrown as the Vols left the court. When a lighted cigarette was tossed in King’s hair, he tried to go into the stands. Assistant coach Stu Aberdeen stopped him, after which police roughly handled King while getting him off the court.
He never forgot it and Kentucky never beat him again.
When the Wildcats came to Knoxville on Feb. 15, Tennessee won a thriller, 103-98. Grunfeld scored 29. King, despite a sore knee, scored 24 and pulled down 20 rebounds.
The Vols cut down the nets, but Kentucky got the last word by advancing to the NCAA tournament title game, where they lost to UCLA. UT was relegated to the National Commissioners Invitational Tournament and lost to Bowling Green.
The Vols went back to Lexington in 1976 for another controversial game in their last appearance at Memorial Coliseum. Grunfeld scored 43 points in Tennessee’s 90-88 overtime victory.
King scored 24, including a fantastic falling-down shot that almost won the game in regulation. Kentucky, however, scored at the buzzer (Tennessee thought the clock was slow to start after King’s basket) and forced overtime. No matter, the Vols prevailed.
Afterward, Kentucky made a stink by showing film footage that indicated Grunfeld twice subbed himself for teammates at the free-throw line, once for Irv Chatman in the first half and again for King in the second. For the game, Grunfeld was 11-of-11 at the stripe.
The rematch in Knoxville was another war. Tennessee won 92-85 in a game that featured seven technical fouls and the ejections of UT’s Johnny Darden and Kentucky’s Truman Claytor. Two Lexington Herald-Leader photographers were also ejected.
Grunfeld scored 32, King 22 before fouling out.
An NCAA bid awaited the Vols, but they were upset by VMI in the opening round with King sidelined by an injury. Kentucky won the NIT.
In 1977, with Grunfeld back from the Olympic Games with a gold medal, the Vols made themselves at home in new Rupp Arena with a 71-67 win in overtime over the No. 2-ranked Wildcats. An SEC-record crowd of 23,271 saw Tennessee rally from seven points down in regulation.
Grunfeld scored 22 points; King had 16 points and 19 boards. That made it four in a row for the Vols over the Big Blue.
The final installment came on March 5, 1977, at Stokely Athletics Center. Tennessee was ranked No. 11 and needed a win to get a share of the SEC lead with No. 2 Kentucky.
King rose to the occasion, scoring 36 points. Grunfeld scored only nine, the second-lowest total of his career, but he had 13 rebounds as the Vols countered Kentucky’s Twin Towers inside threat, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips.
Grunfeld was nearly ejected for giving Phillips a pop but got a reprieve. The two players had never liked each other, Grunfeld explained later.
With governors Ray Blanton of Tennessee and Julian Carroll of Kentucky in the crowd, the Vols rallied back from 11 points and got the win to move into a first-place SEC tie with the Wildcats at 15-2.
Two days later, the Vols beat Vandy to clinch a share of the title in the final Stokely appearance of the “Ernie and Bernie Show.’
Sadly for Tennessee fans, the era ended a week later when Syracuse eliminated the Vols 93-88 in a first-round NCAA tournament game.
Grunfeld was a senior and King turned pro after his junior year. Mears also bowed out, finally overcome by the depression he had battled for years.
As running mates, Grunfeld and King scored 4,211 points while leading UT to a 61-20 record.
Both were All-Americans. King won SEC player of the year honors all three seasons, sharing it with Grunfeld in 1977.
Today, their retired numbers hang in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena, which would never have been built without the zeal for the program they helped generate.