Stapleton reminisces basketball at Tennessee
ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series recently explored an overlooked part of college basketball history, one that a local high school standout found himself right in the middle of.
In the mid 1970s, two star recruits from New York City, future NBA Hall of-Famer Bernard King (a black kid from the Brooklyn projects) and Ernie Grunfeld (a Romanian-Jewish immigrant from Queens) traveled south and turned the University of Tennessee-a traditional football school-into a basketball power.
For three years, the duo-dubbed the “Ernie and Bernie Show”-brought the aggressive, playground style of New York into the South, leading the Volunteers to the 1977 Southeastern Conference championship along with two NCAA tournament appearances.
One who got a front row seat to the show was 1976 Salem High School graduate Mike Stapleton, who received a full scholarship to Tennessee.
“It was something that was very special to be a part of,” Stapleton said. “Every night it was a show. The atmosphere that those guys created was something that I’ve never seen anything like. People think of Tennessee as a football school, but they showed they could support basketball with just as much intensity.”
While “the Ernie and Bernie Show” earned national acclaim that winter, Stapleton watched from the bench as an awestruck freshman. The 6-foot-7 King, with his lightning-quick shooting stroke, and the 6-foot-6 Grunfeld, with his punishing driving ability, were unlike anything he had ever seen.
“They complimented each other perfectly and had such great chemistry,” Stapleton said. “There was definitely a shared bond because they were both from New York. It showed on the court. One handled the outside, the other took care of the inside and there was nothing opposing defenses could to. It was something to see. Nobody else had two guys who could score like that.”
Stapleton watched the “30 for 30” film and came away impressed.
“I thought ESPN did a very good job of capturing what that time was like,” Stapleton said. “I had a great time watching it. I even saw myself in a few shots sitting on the bench. That was pretty cool.”
Stapleton-who was inducted into the Salem High School Athletic Hall of Fame last summer-led the Quakers to a regional berth in 1976, their first in 17 years.
As an athletic 6-foot-3 center with tremendous leaping ability, he thrilled packed crowds at Cabas Gymnasium at a time when Salem basketball was one of the hottest tickets in town. Stapleton averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds during his senior season, while using his size and quickness to impose his will defensively.
“Those were some great days,” Stapleton said. “We had a good team and we filled that gym every night. The community support was tremendous. It was a great place to grow up and play high school basketball.”
By his senior year, Stapleton had more than 50 schools after him. Tennessee’s interest picked up after an all-star game in Akron.
It was there that Stapleton finished ahead of Louisville recruit Darrell Griffith in a dunk contest. Griffith led the Cardinals to the 1980 National Championship and his famed dunking ability earned him the nickname “Dr. Dunkenstein.” Though Stapleton was a fine leaper in his own right, he seemed like a long shot.
“The big thing at that time in dunk contests was to try and dunk two balls, one in your right hand and one in your left,” Stapleton said. “Everybody that went before me, including Darrell, tried it and couldn’t do it. I figured if I could pull it off I had a good chance to beat him. I had some trouble palming the ball with my right hand so I took a can of a substance similar to Stickum and sprayed it on my hand and was able to pull it off.”
Tennessee assistant Stu Aberdeen was impressed enough with Stapleton’s overall performance in the game that he asked him to come to Knoxville. Grunfeld hosted Stapleton on his official visit and he chose the Volunteers over Clemson and Pitt.
“Thanks to Bernard and Ernie, they were a really hot program at the time,” Stapleton said. “That’s one thing that really attracted me. They were a top-10 team and the SEC had a lot of great talent. It was also a great atmosphere, everybody was very welcoming.”
Almost immediately upon starting practice his freshman year, Stapleton realized he was in a different universe. As a post player with the Quakers, he was used to having his way inside. But in a conference filled with forwards 6-foot-9 and taller, that wasn’t going to happen.
Right away the coaches handed Stapleton a ball and told him to work on his ball handling, he would be moving to guard. He played sparingly off the bench for two SEC champions and three NCAA tournament teams, spelling those who were tired or in foul trouble.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Stapleton said. “I definitely went from being a big fish in Salem to a much smaller fish, but it taught me a lot. I learned the importance of fitting into a team structure and performing whatever role was asked of me. I absolutely loved every minute of being a part of that team.”
During his four years in Knoxville, Stapleton formed close friendships with teammates Reggie Johnson-who played four seasons in the NBA and 11 seasons in Europe-and Dale Ellis, who spent 17 NBA seasons as a three-point sharpshooter. Thinking back on those years, he said that the real joy in basketball came not from championships but from experiencing the day-to-day grind of a long season with teammates.
“The little stuff is what sticks with you,” Stapleton said. “We went through a lot of battles together and shared a lot of experiences. That bond is very strong and will stay with me the rest of my life.”
Stapleton’s friendship with Johnson resulted in a dreamlike two days of golf in Las Vegas last summer. Johnson was a member of the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers world championship team and was getting together with former teammates-and NBA legends-Julius Erving and Moses Malone to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the title with some golf. He invited Stapleton to fill out their foursome.
“I get to the clubhouse and there was Dr. J walking out greeting me by name,” Stapleton said. “That was really cool. He is someone I idolized and watched on TV. We had a great two days of golf. He and Moses couldn’t have been nicer or more genuine.”
Stapleton currently lives in San Diego and works in Sales for SmartDrive, a corporation that sells camera technology to transportation companies. He still avidly follows college basketball and enjoys watching his son, Stone, who is a freshman of the Carlsbad High School basketball team.
“Basketball for me opened a lot of doors, and continues to benefit me to this day,” Stapleton said. “Coming out of Salem, I was a little naive and a little sheltered. It was a great experience for me to play with kids from all over the country. I had teammates from Brooklyn and also from impoverished areas of the south. It opened my eyes and allowed me to meet lifelong friends. I’m very grateful for the experience.”