At this time last year, Kenny Hall was but a ghost.
At this time two years ago, Tennessee basketball was about to become a skeleton.
“The program has certainly had its ups and downs since I’ve been here and I’ve certainly had my ups and downs,” Hall said after a Thursday afternoon practice, looking out over a near-empty gym. “That’s part of life — it’s a rollercoaster. All that matters is how you respond.”
As it has been for four years, Hall and the Vols responded together.
Slapped with a season-ending suspension for the final nine games of his junior year in 2011-12, Hall didn’t run away.
Smacked with an NCAA investigation and an ensuing wash out of a coaching staff and talent at the end of 2010-11, Hall’s sophomore year, Tennessee found the tools to rebuild.
Now, both have the opportunity to return to the NCAA tournament.
“There are no words to describe the feeling of having a chance to get back to the tournament,” said Hall, who began his career riding in the back seat on the Vols’ trip to the Elite Eight.
Today’s Tennessee-Missouri game is Hall’s Senior Day and he’s the first to acknowledge the facts.
There have been highlights.
There have been lowlights.
Hall says he learned the “politics of college basketball” in a freshman season of varying playing time. He stepped up when suspension ravaged the UT roster in a tumultuous sophomore season. After seeing former coach Bruce Pearl and staff exit the basketball office that offseason, he started most of his junior season before being suspended by Pearl’s replacement, Cuonzo Martin, for an unrevealed violation.
That’s when everything hung in limbo. Would Hall come back? Would Hall be welcomed back?
“It would have been easy for them to just kick me off the team and dismiss me, but the fact that they kept me around, stayed in my ear and stayed positive through the whole situation, that right there showed me a lot,” said Hall, who was born in Los Angeles, but came to UT from Stone Mountain, Ga., just outside Atlanta. “There are some things that you feel in your heart. It felt right to stay.”
So he did.
And Martin allowed him to.
“Kenny is a good guy, a really nice guy,” the Tennessee coach said Thursday. “His mom did a good job raising him. There’s really no character issue with Kenny. He just had some minor setbacks.”
Kimberly Hall will lock arms with her son a little before 4 o’clock this afternoon. They’ll walk together to center court at Thompson-Boling Arena. Pictures. Cheers. Hugs.
“It’s crazy,” Hall said, letting a long pause hang in the air. “There was a point in time when I never considered going to college, let alone graduating from college and doing the stuff I’ve done. Really, the biggest blessing for me will be seeing that smile on my mom’s face.”
Then Hall will look to do his part in the Vols’ season-defining finale.
His senior year hasn’t been storybook. Hall was replaced as a starter after 21 games. His minutes and stats dropped as Martin veered toward a four-guard lineup. On Feb. 8, he was arrested for driving under a suspended license, an incident Martin deemed minor, levying no penalty.
Through it all, Hall has said all the right things. He’s averaging 6.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game. Teammates and coaches call him one of the team’s leaders.
Win or lose, Hall will leave the Thompson-Boling Arena floor today as a walking metaphor of Tennessee basketball.
He stirred some storms, endured others, and came out dry.
“All along, I never wanted to leave Tennessee,” he said.
Hall will participate in UT’s commencement ceremony in May. He’ll complete his degree after two summer courses.
And after that?
“I guess I’m free.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.