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Mister wants fans to relish Memory Lane

Joe Avento • Apr 23, 2014 at 7:36 PM

Mister Jennings is about to take a walk down Memory Lane, and he wants East Tennessee State’s basketball fans to join him.

Jennings will be the host of “Mister’s Homecoming of Magic Memories at ETSU” at Carver Recreation Center on Saturday. It’ll be a chance for ETSU’s most popular basketball player of all-time to reminisce with fans and former teammates, several of whom will join him.

“It’s just about sharing the good times again,” Jennings said. “The fans always seem to remember. Whenever I come back to the city, I can’t be incognito because they still remember. People still come up and tap me on the shoulder and say ‘Mister!’

“I love it, though.”

It’s been 23 years since Jennings wore an ETSU jersey. In the time since, he’s played in the NBA and overseas. He came back to ETSU and got his degree. He’s been a high school head coach. These days, he’s an assistant coach at Bluefield College.

“As players, you never really get to say ‘thank you’ to the crowd,” Jennings said. “The best chance I had to say ‘thank you’ to those guys was Senior Night, my last home game at East Tennessee State. I got a nice ovation and I cried in my mom’s arms and hugged my dad. It was a very, very special moment.

“Now that that’s all gone, I looked back and thought ‘You know what? I need to go back and say ‘thank you.’ They were very pivotal in everything we did in our career.”

The event will run from 5-7 p.m. Tickets are $10, and half of the proceeds will go to Carver Rec.

“I’m gonna talk about my four years first,” Jennings said. “All the way from my recruiting to my freshman year through my senior year.”

The audience will have a chance to participate as well during a question-and-answer session. Jennings and his buddies will sign autographs afterwards.

“We’ll talk about some of the games, some intimate times with my teammates,” Jennings said. “It’ll probably jog my memory on some things. I don’t remember all the games.”

One word will jog the memory of anybody associated with the ETSU basketball program in the late 1980s — Oklahoma. The Bucs had the No. 1 team in the country all but beat during the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament, leading by as many as 17 points. The young ETSU team couldn’t close the deal and fell, 72-71.

Jennings’ teams won three Southern Conference championships and eventually achieved a top-10 national ranking. Yet, the one that got away will always be at the top of the list.

“That game, man ...’ ” Jennings said, still shaking his head 27 years later. “I look back at that game ... I got in foul trouble so I missed some important minutes. It was just some of the experience we didn’t have as sophomores.

“We felt like they didn’t know us and we could possibly surprise them. We almost did. We almost did.”

Jennings fouled out in the closing minutes when he was called for a reach-in on All-America point guard Mookie Blaylock.

“That was one of the longest walks,” he said. “The benches are at the end in Vanderbilt’s gym. I fouled out at one end and had to walk to the other end.”

A 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament, but on that day, it almost happened twice. About the same time ETSU was throwing the scariest of scares into Oklahoma, Princeton was doing it to Georgetown. Those games seem to be mentioned on television every year at some point during the NCAA tournament.

“I look for it all the time,” Jennings said. “And I usually see it.”

Jennings remembers how the Bucs owned Asheville, N.C., the site of the Southern Conference tournament, for years. He was the catalyst of the first three of four consecutive SoCon championship teams.

“All the championship games, playing on ESPN, those games always stick with you,” he said. “Beating Marshall, Appalachian State, Chattanooga, all those teams. Those were some great times.

“We tried not to get the big head. But when you get picked to win and you know you’re supposed to, you have a certain amount of confidence. We were tough, too. We didn’t have any sissies on those teams.”

Jennings’ college career didn’t exactly begin the way he envisioned. In his first game, with a touted recruiting class that included Greg Dennis, Alvin West and Major Geer, ETSU lost by 25 points to UNC-Greensboro, a non-scholarship NCAA Division III school at the time.

“I think we learned at that point, it was college basketball now,” he said. “It wasn’t high school anymore. The only thing I was disappointed was they wouldn’t play us again. I would ask every year, ‘Are we gonna get UNC-Greensboro this year?’ We never did. ”

The Bucs eventually rebounded, but it took a year before they would win the Southern Conference championship.

Among the Bucs’ victims during Jennings’ tenure were Tennessee and Memphis.

“They were the best teams in Tennessee, and beating those two powerhouses made us realize we were the best team in the state of Tennessee,” he said. “They didn’t like that too much.”

Along the way, Jennings’ teams knocked off the likes of N.C. State, BYU, Cincinnati, Mississippi State and Southern Miss. In one of the wins against N.C. State, ETSU led 44-18.

“I think we kind of stunned them a little,” Jennings said.

Jennings rewrote the ETSU record book, and some of the marks will likely never be threatened.

His 983 career assists are 475 more than the next man on the list, Tim Smith. He shot 59 percent from 3-point range during the 1990-91 season on his way to being named a second-team All-American. He won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for the nation’s top player under six feet tall and he was featured in Sports Illustrated and on CBS.

The way Jennings sees it, his teams paved the way for the mid-majors of today receiving the respect they do.

“The mid-majors don’t know how good they have it,” he said. “We were 27-6 my junior year and we got a 13th seed. Now they get seeded better. We were the mid-major before they started calling those guys mid-majors. We knew what it was like to have teams not want to play us.

“We had a good run, and it lasted a while,” he said.

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