Stokely memories

InsideTennessee's experienced reporters can provide historical perspective, as well as quality coverage. Check out this story on a campus landmark in Knoxville.

The impending demolition of Stokely Athletics Center, which served as home court for University of Tennessee basketball from 1959-87, is bittersweet. Its time has passed but it still holds many fond memories for those of us old enough to remember its heyday.

Two of my favorite Stokely memories concern a couple of first looks at budding superstars.

I saw an amazing freshman named Bernard King hang 42 points on Wisconsin-Milwaukee in his college debut back in 1974. To this day he remains the greatest player in Vol history.

I saw Trish Roberts, a senior transfer from Emporia (Kan.) State, make a smashing Lady Vol debut with 51 points in the 1976-77 opener against visiting Kentucky. Thirty-six years later, that still stands as the program record for single-game scoring.

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What follows are some more fond memories of my many visits to Stokely Athletics Center, starting with the men's side:

Bill Justus' jump shot. It was a thing of beauty.

Jimmy England's turnaround jump shot. Head coach Ray Mears often stationed four guys on one side of the court, giving England more room to go one-on-one.

Mike Edwards' long-range jump shot. The "Greenfield Gunner" made baskets from distances that other guys wouldn't even attempt baskets. He had the greatest shooting range I've seen. The Indiana native averaged 17.4 points per game for his career but would've finished close to 25.0 if the 3-point arc had been utilized in the early 1970s.

John Snow's jump shot. It was so soft it seemed to float.

Michael Brooks' jump shot. Like Snow's, it was so soft that it seemed to nestle into the netting.

Len Kosmalski's half hook. He was 7-feet tall and virtually unstoppable once he got the ball near the basket.

Dale Ellis' jump hook. He was 6-feet-7 but no one could contain him inside. It's a shame there was no 3-point line in college basketball back then because Ellis went on to become a brilliant 3-point shooter in the NBA.

Tony White's mercurial drives to the basket. He remains to this day the most electrifying basketball player I've ever watched.

Mears' gaudy orange blazer and his knack for getting inside the head of Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. Mears was 5-0 versus Hall in Stokely, once leading an unranked 1974-75 Vol squad to a 103-98 upset of a fourth-ranked Big Blue team that would reach the NCAA title game that year.

Roger Peltz riding a unicycle in pre-game warmups as "Sweet Georgia Brown" blared over the public-address system.

The Ernie & Bernie Show. The excitement level Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King generated was impossible to describe, so I won't even try.

Probably my favorite game I ever saw at Stokely was the next-to-last home game of the Ray Mears era. With a little help from Grunfeld and King, he guided the 1976-77 Vols to an 81-79 upset of second-ranked Kentucky.

I have fewer memories of Pat Summitt's Lady Vols in Stokely simply because they played in the facility just 11 seasons, from '76 through '87. Here are some of those memories:

Pat Head Summitt has quite a lot to do with some of the fondest memories at the Stokely Athletics Center.
(Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
Trish Roberts' dominance. The 6-foot-1 superstar averaged a program-record 29.9 points per game in 1976-77, her lone season on The Hill. That's 6.4 points more than second-place Chamique Holdsclaw averaged in 1997-98.

Cindy Brogdon's perimeter shooting. A transfer from Mercer, she basically was a female version of Mike Edwards — a long-range bomber who came along too early to benefit from the 3-point shot. Still, she averaged 20.8 points per game in two years as a Lady Vol.

Mary Ostrowski's swinging hook shot. It was a throwback move that no one else used.

Holly Warlick's raw speed. A track star in high school, she played at a tempo from 1976-80 that no one else in the women's game could match.

Debbie Groover's colorful vocabulary. Ever the lady, she once got a breather during an especially physical game, plopped down on the bench, shook her head and exclaimed, "Gee willikers!"

Cindy Noble's height. A transfer from Ohio State, she stood 6-feet-5 at a time when most women's post players were around 6-feet.

Lea Henry's height. She was always a favorite of mine because, at 5-feet-8, I towered over her 5-foot-4 frame.

Tanya Haave's knack for scoring off the bench. Then working for The Knoxville Journal, I dubbed her "Instant Offense."

Shelia Collins' explosiveness. The quickest women's basketball player of her era, she averaged 14.2 points as a freshman, then suffered an ACL tear that cost her a step and kept her from becoming a superstar.

Bridgette Gordon's rare talent. A four-year starter who was responsible for national titles in '87 and '89, she was the greatest player in program history until Chamique Holdsclaw came along 10 years later.

Ironically, the Lady Vols were so dominant at Stokely Center that their losses stand out more than their victories. I remember Nancy Lieberman leading Old Dominion to a 61-54 defeat of Tennessee en route to the 1980 national title and I recall Cheryl Miller leading top-ranked Southern Cal to an 81-71 defeat of Tennessee en route to the 1983 national title. Both were voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in the mid-1990s and both were members of the initial class inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Of all the games I saw the Tennessee women play in Stokely, I'd have to say the last one was the most memorable. Spurred by the home crowd, Summitt's seventh-ranked Lady Vols hammered No. 2 Auburn 77-61 in the 1987 NCAA Mideast Regional finals to reach the Final Four in Austin, Texas, where they would claim their first national title.

Like most East Tennessee natives, my memories of Stokely Athletics Center are overwhelmingly positive. The Vols won 82.3 percent (321-69) of their games at the facility from '59 through '87 and the Lady Vols won 88.4 percent (137-18) there from '76 through '87. Ultimately, I got to see/cover an awful lot of wins and very few losses.

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