The Southeastern Conference used to be a nice, tranquil place where Adolph Rupp could win every year and still get the tobacco crop in and no one could find Auburn. Now the University of Tennessee is giving the rest of the SEC migration headaches with a pair of high-scoring New Yorkers named Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. Rival coaches have been so stirred up by this Yankee invasion that they have accused King, a black from Brooklyn, and Grunfeld, a Jew from Rumania via Queens, of cheating on their free throws, mugging unsuspecting forwards, flunking arithmetic and putting sprigs of chicanery in the mint juleps. Only in Knoxville are the outlanders the Big Apples of anyone's eye. That is understandable because King and Grunfeld have combined to score 51 points a game and lead the Volunteers to the top of their league, all the while sneering at the old maxim that basketball is a five-man game.
Last weekend at Tennessee's Stokely Athletic Center even refugees from the Grand Ole Opry were slapping palms like the slick dudes back on 125th Street as the Volunteers used their one-two punch to knock out Alabama 80-74 and take sole possession of first place in the SEC with a 7-1 league record. King had 37 points and wore out his larynx yelling impudences at the 'Bama players. Grunfeld scored 20.
It was a typical performance for the Tennessee twosome, whose contrasting playing styles invariably end up with the same results—plenty of baskets. King teases opponents with his lightning-fast, in-your-face jumper, Grunfeld repeatedly bangs them over the head with his bruising drives. King leads the league in scoring (26.8 points per game), while Grunfeld is second with 24.3. Both are among the nation's top 10 scorers—King is seventh, Grunfeld ninth—and if they stay that way it will be only the second time a team has had two in that category. In 1957 Mississippi State's Jim Ashmore and Bailey Howell finished sixth and ninth. Coaches usually pontificate about the value of balanced scoring, but, understandably, not Tennessee Coach Ray Mears, who admits, "We have a star system." His unorthodox strategy has led the Vols to some celestial heights—they have a 14-2 overall record and a No. 9 national ranking.
And it is a system other coaches would like to shoot down. Someone sent a letter to the NCAA last year suggesting that a review of King's high school transcript would show that he had not had the minimum grades required to be eligible for college competition as a freshman. Tennessee fans suspected the letter had a Lexington, Ky. postmark. Last month Kentucky Coach Joe Hall called it a "premeditated conspiracy" when Grunfeld swished some free throws that should have been taken by teammates during a game against the Wildcats. And Auburn Coach Bob Davis fumed recently that King has "no class."
Tennessee denies most of the charges and winks at others. The Vols sent two representatives to New York last season to study King's academic record, which is like asking Yasir Arafat to check into the PLO. They convinced the NCAA that King's transcript met all the requirements, but during the investigation he missed a key game. In the fuss Tennessee lost three straight and its chances for the league title.
Last week Mears passed out excerpts from Davis' book, Aggressive Basketball, as a way of suggesting that the Auburn coach encourages violent play, ran a game film that showed an Auburn player sucker-punching King and did everything but display an affidavit from Emily Post attesting that King does not slurp his soup. Mears admits that Grunfeld should not have shot the free throws that helped beat Kentucky, but compares that ploy to standing on your man's foot when he is trying to rebound or jiggling pocket change when a golf opponent is putting. "When Kentucky lost to us at their place, the coach needed an excuse," says Grunfeld, who has had to contend with chants of "Ernie cheats" at away games since the free-throw incident. "I'm his excuse." Meanwhile, DePaul Coach Ray Meyer, voluntarily testifying on behalf of the Volunteers, said that Kentucky pulled the same trick on his team a few years ago—and won the game because of it.
More intriguing than all the charges launched at the New Yorkers is the question: What are King and Grunfeld doing at Tennessee, anyway? Knoxville is a nice enough town, but its size and remoteness would hardly seem to appeal to New York basketball players, whose faraway dreams are usually of places like California and Hawaii.
Both Grunfeld and King were recruited by Executive Coach Stu Aberdeen, a dwarfish man who would have trouble going one-on-one with Tom Thumb. Aberdeen is not merely an assiduous recruiter; he is so energetic and attentive to detail that one acquaintance describes him as having the metabolism of a hummingbird. In one two-month stretch three years ago he spent 50 days in New York pursuing Grunfeld. King had never heard of Tennessee, but when he was finally persuaded to visit Knoxville, the town had a "Bernard King Day." That was mighty impressive to a youngster who never had eaten an English muffin or put a Windsor knot in a tie.
But the clincher that made Grunfeld sign on two years ago and King last season was Mears. He promised them each a running game and a chance to start immediately, and he even hinted at the star system that would keep their scoring averages high. It has worked out just that way. King led the SEC in scoring as a freshman, and Grunfeld has played on so many international teams that he can make change in five different currencies. Now they both are unstinting in their praise of Knoxville, its people, Mears and his program. "When I go back to New York I feel like an alien," says King. " New York people are guarded, they're out for themselves. Here in Knoxville it's just the opposite."
Their home city and their penchants for scoring are just about all King and Grunfeld have in common. King grew up in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, an indigent enclave a few blocks from the Navy Yard. Grunfeld lived his first nine years in Rumania, before his family emigrated because of anti-Semitism. They considered moving to Israel, but decided on New York, where they live in Forest Hills, an upper-middle-class area. Grunfeld's father operates a fabric store in a bleak section of the Bronx.