It was near the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and on those Rocky Top Tennessee hills my University of Tennessee “Volunteers” (Vol) years began. As a teenager while listening to the radio, I kept hearing “Mike Jackson (not Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5) throws the ball to Bernard King and then to Ernie Grunfield, it’s the Ernie & Bernie Show!”
Years later my high school basketball team girls sneaked over to watch the Lady Vols play under the “Most Successful Women’s Coach” Pat Head-Summitt. While there, we met basketballers Reggie Johnson, Chuck Threeths, and footballer Jesse Briggs. It was such an inspiration to meet them. We went back to our high school tournament and I played like I was Reggie Johnson and scored 30 something point while teammate, Angie Sykes-Jackson acted like she was Terry Crosby stealing those balls. Our girls’ team made school history by being the first to make it to the State that year under Coach Pat Flynn and Assistant Coach Sue Thomas-Martin, a former Lady Vol.
Then, in the fall of 1979 a Marietta, Georgia native basketball player was introduced to the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville, Tennessee who became the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1982 and 1983; a two-time first-team All American; ranked 6th on UT’s All-Time scoring list without the “3 pointer” effect and later graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Sociology in 1985.
This former Vol went on to have a dazzling 17-year National Basketball Association (NBA) career and made it into the NBA’s record books several times including the “most minutes played in a single game scoring 55 points in 69 minutes" and a NBA All-Star Weekend “Three Point Shootout Winner”.
On March 1, 2014, the University of Tennessee honored the legendary Dale Ellis by raising his retired Jersey #14 to the rafters knowing no one else will ever wear his jersey again. Dale’s jersey will remain in good company with the other great UT legends that include; Bernard King, Ernie Grunfield, and Allan Houston.
This amazing weekend will rank high on my list of many unforgettable moments. I was not the only one that felt that way. The number of former “Vol” players, coaches, and fans that returned home to witness Dale’s milestone was phenomenal.
I was so thankful to be a part of this weekend with my friends who participated in every event. It concluded when we attended Rev. Sanford Miller’s New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Miller and his best friend, Elston Turner used to play many pick up games with Dale and other Vols so it was definitely a blast from the past for Rev. “Cornbread” Miller. Elston is the “UT player that got away” to the University of Mississippi and now he is the Assistant Coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies after spending over 30 years as a NBA player and coach.
On Friday, February 28, the UT Basketball Reunion Party at Calhoun's On the River included an exciting “meet and greet”, taking photos, enjoying the great food that was served and many taking the podium to tell their favorite story about Dale while Coach Don Devoe was the Master of Ceremonies.
We gave big thanks to Dale’s former teammates (Captain) Steve Ray, Rip Johnson, Kirk Naler and event planner, Jill Yarberry for organizing this “special fun-filled weekend to honor a special man”.
On Saturday morning, everyone woke up to the Tennessee Basketball Lettermen’s Social Breakfast in the Pratt Pavilion where the “memorable reunion moments” continued from the night before. This time several had their offsprings to proudly show off including Dale and wife, Daffney’s 3-year old son.
Later, we were escorted to the Ray Mears Hospitality room where many forgot their diets because there was more tasty food. Everyone was really enjoying themselves, including UT’s Former Head Football Coach, Phillip Fulmer and our hometown’s favorite Hollywood actor, Cylk Cozart.
By this time everyone was feeling the anticipation of Dale about to be honored at the beginning of the UT versus Vanderbilt game coached by Cuonzo Martin.
We were treated like Kings and Queens while the young “Vols” felt special playing in front of their upper class teammates. Presently, this honorable young team is headed to the “Sweet 16” in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. They were definitely inspired by this special day in UT history.
Entering Thompson-Boling arena all you could see was orange and white in Big Orange Country.
As a photojournalist, I had a job to do but I was so excited and emotional preparing to witness this great “One Moment In Time”. Even though Dale is from Georgia and I’m from Tennessee, I still looked at him as another classmate excelling in life and making me proud. I was blessed to capture all four years of Dale’s UT career before I left Tennessee for the United States Air Force.
One highlight was when he had to go against Ralph Sampson, a 7’4” from the University of Virginia in March 1982. I was scared for Dale (6’7”) and his teammates because I thought Sampson was literally a strong giant man like in the Bible. With Dale’s leadership and the coaching of Devoe, they were victorious and it was a great game.
Fast-forward from March 1982 to March 2014 (32 years later) and you have Coach Devoe, Player Ellis, his family, his former teammates, other coaches, athletic director, and players on the floor celebrating one of the highest honors a player can receive from their college years. Dale’s other high honor was choosing UT because he said “Devoe offered me an education” and he earned it in 1985.
Dale’s emotional speech was awesome and everyone was so appreciative knowing we had witnessed one of the best UT Vols who every put on that orange and white jersey. And that’s why we saw on this day that no one else will be worthy of wearing #14 ever again because it officially retired on March 1, 2014.
The humble and soft-spoken Dale wanted his teammates on the floor with him when he was presented with his award. That was so touching. I told him later “That’s a great feeling knowing you are responsible for bringing everyone back home”. He was touched and said “I didn’t get to finish thanking more people including my high school coach, Charlie Hood who was there. Also, Dale Jr. was going to lead the crowd to “LET’S GO VOLS!”
Another great moment was talking and photographing the former players and coaches and listening to their many interesting stories. Just to mention a few, Steve Ray was so excited and pleased about the distance people traveled to be there. Reggie Johnson was a senior when Dale was a freshman and I told him I bet Dale looks up to you but Reggie response was “Dale is my hero”. Dale response was “Reggie, is my main man who I’ve learned a lot from” with excitement. Both played in the NBA together but not on the same team and were reunited when they were chosen to the “University of Tennessee All-Century Team” in 2009.
Meeting Dale’s former teammate Kevin Nash was an exciting moment for me and my friends because of what he has accomplished since his college basketball days. He is an actor and professional wrestler known as “Big Sexy” through Wrestle Mania. He was so interesting and funny. Also, he can be seen in the movie “Magic Mike” (2012) with Channing Tatum. The ladies will really enjoy this movie if you have not seen it!!
I was overjoyed to see that the former players were so excited and emotional about seeing each other, sharing funny stories, reminding each other what happened way back then, sharing what they are doing now and passing their cell phones around talking to the “absentee” Vols. With me being a basketball player myself, I can truly understand the closeness you share with your teammates. You will always have that bond.
I remember teammate, Seth McDonald saying “I’ve not seen some of these guys in 30 to 35 years and who knows I may not get to see some of them ever again”. Now that was a tear jerker because some former teammates have left them like William Mills (1991), Michael Poole (2009), Dyron Nix (2013) just to name a few. Seth had a lot of great stories when we all socialized after the UT big win over Vanderbilt at approximately 3:00 p.m. We talked until the 11:00 p.m. news came on T.V. recapturing our emotional and fun filled day with Dale Ellis.
I thank God for having the opportunity to be part of this special weekend when the University of Tennessee community celebrated that young Georgian who came into our lives over 35 years ago and gave us great memories wearing that #14 jersey.
So the next time you enter the UT arena make sure you tilt your head upward because that’s where you will see DALE ELLIS name and number representing those four glorious-hard fought outstanding years from 1979 – 1983 that prepared him for his 17 year NBA career. May God continue to bless and congratulation to Dale, wife Daffney, family and his parents who are looking down smiling with great pride.
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Copyright © 2014.MARCH This story written and photos by Renee Sudderth for Splash Magazines. It is not to be sold or reproduce without written permission of Renee Sudderth