East Tennessee State basketball experienced October Madness on Tuesday at the Carnegie Hotel.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas headlined an impressive lineup that tipped off the season with “Holding Court” – a fundraiser that left spectators and participants all but busting guts with laughter.
On the stage with Bilas were ETSU coach Murry Bartow and former coaches Sonny Smith, Les Robinson and Bobby Cremins. Also joining the discussion one by one via FaceTime were Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Gonzaga’s Mark Few. UCLA’s Steve Alford had to cancel due to recruiting.
Among those in the crowd were former Bucs Calvin Talford, Greg Dennis, Marty Story, Bob Brown, Brad Nuckles and D.J. McDuffie.
The sold-out event was expected to net between $11,000 and $12,000. An additional $1,500 was donated to the Niswonger Children’s Hospital, as Bilas refused payment for his appearance.
“What a great event,” Bartow said. “We thought we’d get a big turnout. We thought Jay Bilas was a big part of the puzzle.”
Bilas, he of some 600,000 Twitter followers, visited with Bartow’s Bucs a few hours prior to the event.
“It was fun getting to meet him ... and listening to what he had to say,” ETSU guard Lester Wilson said. “He had some inspirational stuff. He talked about his book (“Toughness”) for a minute. ... He gave an example of what toughness is: hard to play against but easy to play with. He talked about ... he lost the championship game his senior (against Louisville) year over a block-out.”
Bartow said you could see Bilas’ words resonating with the players.
“It was absolutely awesome,” Bartow said. “He spoke to them for about 15 or 20 minutes. Whenever you can have someone like Jay Bilas talking to your players it’s always going to make a strong impact. He was really on top of his game in there, and I could see the players’ eyes and their attention on him.”
Bilas set the tone for a lighthearted two hours by sharing a conversation he had with his wife Tuesday morning: “I said, ‘Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that I would get the opportunity to speak at East Tennessee State. And she looked at me and said, ‘You’re never in my wildest dreams.’”
Bilas and his former coach, Krzyzewski, needled each other a bit. Bilas made fun of Few’s height and Few referred to Bilas as “follically challenged.”
Calipari was told that Kentucky/ETSU booster Bill Gatton was in attendance. Calipari knows Gatton well. He said he gets recruiting tips from him.
“I said, ‘Mr. Gatton, worry about the business school. Let me coach this basketball team.’ I say that with love,” said Calipari, who then noted the extensive philanthropic work Gatton does.
Handing out money also came up when Bilas was ribbing Sonny Smith.
“Oddly enough, Digger Phelps was just talking about Sonny Smith the other night,” Bilas said. “He said he stood up in a coaches’ meeting years ago and … Digger was tired of all the cheating, and he stood up and he said … ‘I have heard you can pay $25,000 and … get a high school All-American. This has gotta stop.’ And Sonny stood up and said, ‘Digger, did you say that you can pay $25,000 and get an All-American.’ And Digger goes, ‘That’s what I was told; yes.’ He (Sonny) goes, ‘I’ll take two.’”
Actually, Bilas is a vocal proponent of college athletes having restrictions on compensation lifted. Talford likes the beat of the drum Bilas is banging.
“I think they should (lift restrictions),” said Talford, who played on four NCAA Tournament teams and won the 1992 NCAA slam dunk contest. “A lot of these athletes don’t get to work, you know, and a lot of us don’t come from rich type of families. … In the summertime you get to work a little bit, but during the year that would be perfect for us.
“This conversation’s been around for so long, but I don’t know if they’re ever gonna do anything about it. Maybe one day in our lifetime we’ll get to see it. … I think it’s good – he (Bilas) just went right out and said, ‘I think they should definitely give these guys something.’ I’m right there with him. Coming from an athlete like me, you know, I came in and didn’t have a lot of money running through my family. There was nine people in my family so you had to scrap for what you could get.”
Smith, a Roan Mountain native who said his dream job as a youngster was bootlegger, also came from humble beginnings, and delighted the crowd with stories about his father. Sonny said his dad didn’t usually bother coming to watch him coach while at ETSU, but showed up the following morning after ETSU got the worst of the officiating in a loss to Wake Forest. Sonny’s dad wanted to go to Winston-Salem to “kill that SOB” basketball official.
“He (dad) would get drunk every Saturday night,” Sonny said. “Along about 11 o’clock, he and his friend … they’d get religion every Saturday night about 11 o’clock. My mother and I’d get the guitar and we’d have to sing hymns to ‘em. And their favorite hymn that we would sing was ‘Where could I go but to the Lord?’ We’d get about halfway through that and I’d look over there and my dad’s laying up against the wall, tears running down his eyes.”
The ballroom erupted in laughter at this point, and Smith promptly took it to another level. He said his dad’s drinking buddy would start crying too – only he was cross-eyed, and his tears went out the sides of his eyes toward his ears.
Smith’s shenanigans included putting Cremins on the spot about an incident Cremins had with official Charlie McConnell after Cremins’ Appalachian State lost to Smith’s Bucs in Johnson City.
“I was 27 years old,” Cremins said. “It snowed and we almost postponed the game. We made it, but the officials didn’t. So Sonny found these other officials. One was his best friend and the other was Charlie.
“And things got crazy. They beat us by one and there was a lot of controversy. I went into the officials’ locker room after the game. You’re not allowed to do that. So I broke the first rule. I was in his face a little bit too hard. So he swung at me. So I swung back and then we had a brawl in the locker room. But I was young and I was wrong for going in the locker room.”
Bilas mentioned a figurative butt-whipping concerning Cremins, who had players such as Mark Price and John Salley at Georgia Tech when Bilas was at Duke.
“Bobby Cremins, my close friend, was kind enough to say I wasn’t on the scouting report when I played,” Bilas said. “That’s probably why we kicked your (butt).”
Cremins, Bilas and several others said they participated Tuesday because of Bartow and his late father, Gene.
“Murry’s dad was the kind of coach that a lot of us look up to, the way he handled himself,” Cremins said. “He had tremendous character. He always gave me time. I listened to him at clinics.”
Calipari also mentioned Gene Bartow, and Murry talked about how frequently Calipari looked in when Gene was battling cancer.
“First of all, I hope the people there know that your father was one of the great coaches, the great builder of young men, the great builder of programs,” Calipari said. “He took Memphis to a Final Four and he followed John Wooden.”
Bilas shared a story on the Wooden-Bartow transition.
“They shared an office for a while,” Bilas said, “and when the phone would ring, Coach Wooden would answer the phone and say, ‘Coach Bartow’s office, John Wooden speaking.’”
Robinson, who led the Bucs to NCAA Tournaments in 1989 and ’90, recalled the Final Four game when Wooden’s Bill Walton lit up Bartow’s Tigers. Actually, Robinson said he met Walton the night before. Excited, he called former ETSU coach Alan LeForce and handed the phone to Walton to say hello. But LeForce thought it was a gag and told Walton to hand the phone back to Robinson.
Among those in the crowd Tuesday were pro golfer Mike Hulbert, Dobyns-Bennett coach Charlie Morgan, Sullivan East coach John Dyer and Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch, an ETSU alum and former Johnson City Press sports editor that was eager to attend after seeing Bilas on the marquee.
“When I saw it, I just couldn’t believe it,” Dortch said. “I just think it’s the kind of thing ETSU can do and should do, because it’s a great program for its level. And now that Dick Sander is here, with his connections, I think they should do this kind of stuff all the time. And the fact that it’s packed at a hundred bucks per tells you that there’s always been interest here. …
“Bilas is the best, in my opinion. He’s the smartest.”
Bartow was wise to ask Bilas to come. His passion for people and basketball are refreshing, and much of the night, he appeared as entertained as anyone.
Indeed, at times, the basketball knowledge in the room just seemed to be overflowing. Robinson talked about how Press Maravich evolved from an excellent basketball coach at North Carolina State to an obsessed father when he was coaching his son, “Pistol” Pete, at LSU. Press would ask how many assists Pete had at halftime because he thought other schools were shorting him.
Robinson shared another story about how a series of fortuitous coincidences helped him recruit Greg Dennis to ETSU from his neck of the woods in Charleston, W.Va.
Of course, along with Dennis, seeing and hearing the friendly Robinson invariably evokes images of Keith “Mister” Jennings throwing alley-oops for the high-leaping Talford to dunk. Talford said he thought Tuesday’s event was quite a show.
“It’s a great occasion for everyone,” Talford said. “It helps the basketball team. It helps ETSU’s notoriety, bringing back coaches like Sonny and Les. It’s just priceless.”