There was a lot of reminiscing as a group of former East Tennessee State basketball players got together for an alumni game on Saturday. There was a lot of looking ahead as well.
The game at Carver Recreation Center gave former players chances to relive memories of their playing days. For many of them like Greg Dennis, Mister Jennings and Calvin Talford, 20 years had passed since they last wore an ETSU uniform.
Some of the fond memories came from winning four Southern Conference championships in a row from 1988-92. Word that the College of Charleston is about to leave the Southern Conference for the Colonial Athletic Association, leaving a potential vacancy in the SoCon, was a topic of conversation before the game.
The former Bucs were unanimous in their hopes that ETSU would rejoin the league of their playing days. The Bucs have played in the Atlantic Sun Conference since 2005.
“I’m kind of partial because of the times we had in the Southern Conference,” Dennis said. “It’s going along right now with all the conference realignment, which I don’t like, but I think it would be great to get them back in the Southern Conference.”
Rodney English admitted he doesn’t even like to acknowledge the fact that his former school plays in a different league.
“Whenever anyone makes a reference to me about East Tennessee State and the first thing they say is the Atlantic Sun, I’ll look away and walk away,” English said. “That conference didn’t have anything to do with me. East Tennessee State basketball, to me, is the OVC and the Southern Conference. If they get a chance to go back to the Southern Conference, to the roots, it’s a no-brainer.”
Once the alumni game began, it was apparent that the basketball would be a little ragged, but nobody was complaining.
“I think the basketball side of this is the small side,” English said. “I think the fact of it is 20 years later, we’re still in touch and we’re still fairly healthy.
“We get a chance to come back and hang out in Johnson City, which I refer to as God’s country, because all the positive things, the building parts of my life, started in Johnson City. Any time I get a chance to see these guys and come back here, I’m there.”
Marty Story agreed with English. The former Greeneville High School multi-sport star originally went to Clemson on a football scholarship before returning home to East Tennessee to play hoops.
“To get the opportunity to come back and see these guys, the playing is just icing on the cake,” Story said. “We were talking this morning about things, who had rings and who had how many. It was fun to remember the good things we did.”
How many rings did Story earn?
“Four,” he quickly said. “Me and Calvin are the only ones that have four.”
These Bucs began to make national news during the first round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament when they had Oklahoma on the ropes. Trying to become the first No. 16 seed to win in the tournament, ETSU fell 72-71 after leading by as many as 17 points. They became the team nobody wanted to face in the NCAA Tournament.
Eventually, the Bucs beat Arizona in the first round in 1992 before falling to Michigan in the second round.
“We made some good mid-major noise before it became popular,” Dennis said. “It makes us feel good knowing we started a little bit of that.”
Dennis says he thinks about the Oklahoma game often. He was a sophomore at the time and battled eventual NBA first-round draft pick Stacey King to a stalemate.
“The thing that kills me about that is the ‘what-ifs,’ ” said Dennis, who had 20 points and 15 rebounds in the loss. “A shot here or there, a call this way, a play this way, who knows what could have been?”
“We were a mid-major before there were mid-majors,” added former All-American point guard, Mister Jennings, who coached one of the teams in the alumni game.
In attendance at Carver were ETSU President Brian Noland, Bucs basketball coach Murry Bartow and his staff and ETSU women’s coach Karen Kemp, who watched her former star Tara Davis win the 3-point contest beforehand. Davis beat Eric Palmer in the final.
There have been some discussions about having this event on the ETSU campus next year.
“As alums, we want to give back our own ways,” Jennings said. “We know what we did for this university and what this university has done for us. And as long as I’m living, if I have a chance to make a difference for this university, that’s what I’m gonna try to do.”