by Duane Watson / @byDuaneWatson
In the mid ‘70s, Brooklynite Bernard King and Queens native, Ernie Grunfeld connected over 700 miles away in Knoxville, TN, to form one of the greatest tandems the Volunteer State would ever see. They called it “The Bernie and Ernie Show,” as they brought their New York style of basketball to the University of Tennessee, averaging 50 points a game between them. The duo’s on-court chemistry gave rise to a lifelong friendship, which is the subject of ESPN’s latest 30 For 30 documentary, Bernie and Ernie.
During the ’83-84 season, the two were reunited in the NBA as teammates on the New York Knicks. While Grunfeld wasn’t quite the player he was in college, he was no less a friend when King suffered a season-ending knee injury, causing him to sit out the entire ’85-86 season. The 50-minute film delves into the personal experiences and demons that shaped both of them individually and their connection. More importantly, it profiles the two men, not two men that play basketball. Narrated by the unmistakable voice of Chuck D, Bernie and Ernie also features interviews with Marv Albert, Hubie Brown and Spike Lee. SLAM spoke with Hall of Famer Bernard King about the film.
SLAM: You’re a private person, how did you feel when you were approached to do this film?
Bernard King: I actually went to ESPN on this. We discussed it and they were quite interested in the story, they thought there were different elements to the story, involving myself and Ernie Grunfeld obviously. They thought it was compelling enough to move forward and green lighted it.
SLAM: Can you speak about your friendship with Ernie?
BK: I have a great relationship with Ernie. Ernie and I obviously played together at the University of Tennessee and that was a very special time in each of our lives. We had an excellent team and Ernie was a great, great college player. Also in addition to that, we had a tremendous chemistry that I thought was very special, unlike any chemistry I’ve had with any player on any level. Ernie and I are friends for life, when we played with the Knicks, we lived in the same town and we would travel from the airport back home together after road trips and often we would travel into Madison Square Garden together. I have a special kinship with him that will stand the test of time.
SLAM: How big was the Bernie and Ernie Show in its heyday?
BK: It was huge, because at that time they had never seen anyone like us! We were in the deep south, Ernie was a Jewish guy and I’m a black guy, if you can imagine in 1974 what this country was like in many ways as it relates to that sort of culture, it was interesting. We sold out every arena, the fans hated us, not so much literally but they hated us and we relished that. We enjoyed winning and that’s what Ernie was about personally and that ‘s what I was about and our ballclub as well. We were able to win on a grand scale and that was very special, but the fans did boo us wherever we went.
SLAM: Your interviews in the film were very personal and reflective. Is that just the evolution of you as an individual? The ’70s and ’80s Bernard King didn’t seem quite as candid.
BK: It was important in the fact I was going to do this in conjunction with ESPN then you had to be very open and forthright, otherwise you shouldn’t do the project. It is different than the ’70s and ’80s, my focus was on playing basketball, not necessarily revealing who I am.
SLAM: You didn’t return to the University of Tennessee until over 20 years later when they retired your number, and the following year when they retired Ernie’s, have you been back since?
BK: Yes I have. My business partner and I, we’ve done business in Knoxville, TN, and it’s interesting when I do return, it’s as if I was still playing in terms of the response that I get and that’s gratifying.
SLAM: Was part of the reason for your absence due to the bad memories you had as a student?
BK: If you’re in the South in 1974 and you’re African-American and you’re 17 years old, you’re faced with a lot of things; some of those experiences prevented me from going back.
SLAM: When you went down with the ACL injury in ‘85, was there ever a doubt in your mind that you would return to play again at a competitive level?
BK: There was no question I was going to return to play. I was a highly motivated individual. Consequently at that time, it was not arthroscopic surgery; I had open-knee surgery because arthroscopic surgery didn’t exist. If you would imagine, I’m in the hospital 21 days, I got 41 metal staples running down the middle of my knee, I’m in a wheelchair for three months and so my career was supposed to be over in everyone else’s mind.
I say “everyone else,” because specifically, I believed from the moment I got on the flight to return back to New York after injuring myself, that there was no question I was going to play again. But it wasn’t a matter of playing, it was a matter of becoming an All-Star again. So I had to climb Mount Everest, and if you’re going to climb Mount Everest, you don’t climb it overnight, you climb a little at a time. Each day, I would do that and work with a wonderful therapist, but we worked five hours a day, six days a week.
SLAM: Do you think the fact that you were an enigma played a role in your long overdue induction into the Hall of Fame?
BK: No, I think there was some misinterpretation to the extent that I guess. I scored almost 22,000 points during my career despite my injury, there’s a common misinterpretation that it cut my career short. It didn’t cut my career short, I played 15 years and retired at the age of 36. There was a point in my career where I was a dominant player, I averaged 22 points a game for my entire career and there’s players that didn’t play at that level. I was an All-NBA First-Team twice and Second-Team on another occasion and then Third-Team in Washington. One year the players in the League voted me Most Valuable Player in the League, and I led the NBA in scoring.
So I think that when you look at my body of work in terms of my professional career and my collegiate career, I always thought that it warranted being in the Hall of Fame, but that’s not something you’re entitled to, others have to make that decision and they finally did, and I’m gratified that I’m in the Hall with all the great players of the past history of the NBA.
SLAM: Who are your five greatest basketball players to come out of New York?
BK: It’s interesting because when you start trying to name the five best players out of New York, there were different eras. Some people played in different eras than I did and I never had the opportunity to play against some of those great players that did come out of New York. When you think of Nate Archibald, when you think of Billy Cunningham…some of these great players I didn’t experience the opportunity of playing against them. So I wouldn’t know that I could give you a list of the five best players.
Do you count Michael Jordan, who was born in the same hospital that I was, but he didn’t grow up in New York? The hospital I was born in, Michael Jordan was born in that same hospital and Mike Tyson was born in that same hospital, obviously Mike grew up in Brooklyn, Jordan grew up in North Carolina. Carmelo Anthony was born in Brooklyn and then his family moved to Baltimore, so you have some very talented basketball players that have come out of New York. But it was a different game then, it was a playground game and I pride myself on not being flashy, and playing a conservative game, a fundamental game, an analytical game, that allowed me to be successful. Chris Mullin came out of New York, you have some tremendous talent that has come out of New York.
Bernie and Ernie premieres Tuesday, November 5, at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN.