More than 20 years after what is still remembered as the glory days of East Tennessee State University basketball, Keith “Mister” Jennings is back in town this week for a competitive basketball camp at Johnson City’s Legion Recreation Center.
“It’s always good to be back in Johnson City, always,” the former ETSU guard and former NBA player said as about 60 young ballplayers from schools and travel teams around the region caught their breath during a break in Monday’s first tough day of instruction.
“When we were players here we always took advantage of the camps and getting to know the kids. So when (Legion Recreation Center Supervisor) Bart (Lyon) asked, I jumped at the chance.
“Marty (Story) and Calvin (Talford) are still around here. ... I have a bunch of good friends who stay in touch and always want to make sure I’m comfortable while I’m here. So Johnson City always has a place in my heart.”
Lyon, who referees in the Appalachian League where Jennings now works as assistant coach for Bluefield (Va.) State College, said he was glad to see his repeat requests for Jennings to do another camp in Johnson City work out for the Park and Recreation department’s summer program this year.
“The thing I like best about this Mister camp is the competitive camp for older kids who already know they’re basketball players,” Lyon said. “They love him. He’s always successful. He can reach them. And what better brain to pick?”
Zac Crawford, last year’s Volunteer High School standout who will be playing basketball this fall on scholarship to a private college in Kentucky, confirmed the wisdom of Lyon’s Mister Camp game plan. “Today’s just the first day but from what I can already see he’s tough and I’m having a blast,” he said.
Jennings said, “The first thing I ask (a player) is ‘How tough can I coach you?’ They all got on the side and said they were tough. I haven’t had anyone hurt or anyone crying. So I’m glad to have my tough guys working.”
According to Lyon, the camp’s registration drew a full roster of 30 third- through sixth-grade players who will be working on the basics with Jennings each morning as well as 30 high-school-level players who will spend each afternoon under his instruction.
On his first day of camp, 10-year-old Dakota Hicks, who plays travel league ball with the Church Hill Wildcats, said he was impressed by Jennings’ status as once the best collegiate and NBA player under six feet. And what he learned in his first day under Jennings’ tutelage, he said, was to “have confidence when you shoot.”
The crowd at the recreation center Monday also included several parents who spent the late 1980s and early 1990s rooting for the ETSU All-American and his teammates, including Crawford’s mother, Lori. Lori Crawford said she was a student at ETSU during Jennings’ era and had already passed Jennings’ ETSU player card and her memories of the team on to her son when he learned the camp was coming up.
Fondly recalling his teammates — Story, Talford, Alvin West, Major Geer, Mike Woods and Greg Dennis, Jennings said, “We were a dedicated bunch of guys who wanted to win and the city took us in like sons. So to everybody who supported ETSU basketball, then and now, thank you.”