Bernie and Ernie, the newest member of ESPN’s Emmy-nominated documentary film series, 30 for 30, premiered November 5. The film chronicles the friendship of Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, who were teammates on the University of Tennessee basketball team in the 1970s. This dynamic duo was dubbed “The Bernie and Ernie Show,” and they combined for an average of 50 points a game. Bernie and Ernie tells the story behind one of basketball’s best pairs. Director Jason Hehir joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the film.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Jason Hehir
BL: Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld both grew up in New York. They were both recruited to play basketball at the University of Tennessee during the 70’s, where they became the celebrated “Bernie and Ernie Show.” How good was that show?
JH: Well, they were certainly the most prolific scoring duo of their time. Over the course of their three years together, they averaged 50 points a game, combined together. They were a national sensation. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bernard was SEC Player of the Year for each of his years at Tennessee and Ernie was a superstar in his own right. Overall, that era was probably the most celebrated in the history of Tennessee basketball.
BL: In the film Bernard King acknowledges his inexperience in matters beyond basketball. When the assistant from Tennessee took him out to dinner, King had to look at the people at other table to understand how to behave in a restaurant. Was Ernie Grunfeld aware of the challenges with which his teammate was trying to deal?
JH: He wasn’t, and the irony of it is that the challenges were based in the home life that Bernard was subjected to as a kid. He was taught to just go into the back room of his apartment along with his five brothers and sisters, and if he had a problem he was told to go to the back of the apartment and deal with it himself. He was raised to believe that you keep all of that inside. You don’t burden other people with your problems. You don’t go to anyone for help. So Ernie was arguably the closest teammate of his throughout his entire life — and certainly at Tennessee he was. And Ernie had no idea, even when he was at Tennessee, that Bernard had come up in such an environment.
BL: Ernie Grunfeld was spectacularly successful and ridiculously popular at Tennessee; the film establishes that. Did you have any sense that Bernard King resented his white teammates circumstances?
JH: Not openly. He didn’t resent him socially because Bernard was very comfortable being on his own, being an introvert. That was where his drinking problem developed. He kept to himself on and off the floor. Ernie made the Olympic team in ’76 and Bernard did not. Bernard was crushed that he didn’t make it, but that’s just more of a commentary on Bernard’s competitive fire. He’s one of those people who needs to feel slighted in order to optimize his performance. Luckily for them and for the film, their friendship didn’t suffer.
Bill’s Thoughts on Bernie and Ernie
Bernie and Ernie, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that chronicles the friendship between Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, ends happily, with King reaffirming the decades-long bond between the two former basketball players.
But when King and Grunfeld were both starring at Tennessee during the 70’s, the friendship notwithstanding, Grunfeld was unaware that King was battling alcoholism and the hostility of the Knoxville police, who regularly harassed King and, on at least one occasion, hit him with a pistol. His “crime” on that particular evening was loitering.
The powerful point made through the middle of the documentary is that even a white man with the best intentions remained ignorant of what his teammate and friend was enduring on a campus where just three percent of the students were African American and the authorities had announced when King arrived that he’d better watch himself, because they’d certainly be watching him. King’s recollections of those days are powerful. The racism he experienced informed who he became, and the pain is still real and present.
Both King and Grunfeld went on to play in the NBA, and King’s numbers and his exceptional comeback from a serious leg injury earned him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jason Hehir, who directed Bernie and Ernie, feels the most powerful moment in the film comes when the two friends return to Knoxville to celebrate the retirement of Grunfeld’s Tennessee jersey a year after King has been similarly honored. But the image that will stick with me is King near tears as he describes the hatred and abuse he faced four decades ago in the same city, and mourns for the young man who didn’t know how to share his pain, even with his closest friend.