Go to the Back Room and Forget About It
#RacismEndedWhen every white person on the planet saw Bernie and Ernie and felt, deeply and absolutely, what Bernard King felt.
This fantasy came to me as I was re-watching Jason Hehir’s documentary, airing this month on ESPN as part of 30 for 30’s second season, specifically, as I was looking at Bernie King’s face. As the NBA Hall of Famer quietly remembers his experiences while he was a star player at the University of Tennessee, it seems impossible not to feel for and with him.
Structured around the bond King developed with his Volunteers teammate, Ernie Grunfeld, Bernie and Ernie offers a potent indictment of racism in its many forms, as well as a celebration of the healing powers of friendship and community, as well as sport. At least part of this celebration—as you might expect in this 30 for 30 film—is premised on the particular effects of basketball, the effects of being on a team, the sense of connection and identity that being part of a team might provide. Certainly, not every experience of being on a team is so healthy or so collective. And forces outside the relative security of being on a team can be overwhelming. All of these experiences are made vivid in King’s recollections.
Begin with his childhood, in Brooklyn: the film opens with what might have been a sentimental look back, the camera panning slowing over an empty gym, the place where King picked up a ball for the first time as a small boy: water dripping from an ancient faucet, the hoop remote and netless, King now, an adult in a grey and white striped shirt, walking in slow motion past a chain-link fence. As he walks, the camera tracking behind him, you hear his voice-over: “My earliest memories of basketball began right here,” he says, as the camera crouches low to see his feet step from the un-mowed grass and sunlight outside onto the dark grey floor. “I was in the third grade, and we were tossing the ball up to the rim, underhanded, trying to make a basket. No one could make a basket, but I was determined.”
Here, for the first time, you see Bernie’s face, his hands gesturing as if he’s holding and then tossing a ball. “And I finally threw it up, and it went in!” he says, his face turned from the camera, his voice conveying every bit of surprise and thrill his eight-year-old self might have felt. He turns back to his interviewer, toward the handheld camera, its movements following his memories, and puts the moment into an adult’s language: “The feeling was so exhilarating, I had never felt anything like that in my life.”
For King, that basket “was the beginning of my basketball journey.” For the film, his face in this moment is a window into his boyish pride, self-worth, and discipline. His peers on the street might be violent and his family wasn’t “very close-knit,” as he phrases it (“Their solution is to go into the back room and forget about it”). But in basketball, this shy, thoughtful child found a means to self-expression and purpose. If his parents didn’t go to games, he found coaches and friends who supported him. As the film illustrates in helpful illustrations in headlines and footage, along with Chuck D’s narration, King goes on to be a standout in his neighborhood, which was, as his friend John Rushmore recalls, “rough.” Rushmore goes on, the camera panning over blacktop courts and buildings still tagged with graffiti “Quite frankly, I tried to stay away from Fort Greene unless I had to play there, but we knew if we wanted to play against the best competition, we had to go to Fort Greene.”
The best included King, who went on to be a star at Fort Hamilton High School, and then heavily recruited by college teams (“I had never been to a restaurant before,” King remembers of his initial meetings with representatives). When he made his decision to go to Tennessee, he could have had no idea of how different this place would be from Brooklyn, where “rough” meant poverty and violence, both effects and causes of racism, but not racism so directly lived and expressed as in Knoxville. During his years with the Volunteers (1974-‘77), he remembers now, his experiences were sometimes traumatic.
Amid his confrontation with such “racial tensions,” King met Grunfeld, a Jewish kid born in Romania who emigrated to Queens with his parents in 1964. Like King, he found himself in New York high school basketball. This shared background, as tenuous as it was, became the foundation of their friendship at Tennessee, one that helped to sustain King during their time at the school and later, when they became teammates on the Knicks. But even as The “Bernie and Ernie” show thrilled basketball fans with their “chmistry,” King suffered off court. At the time, he didn’t share his feelings. “A guy from New York that didn’t understand the South,” King, always introspective rather than aggressive, dealt with his anger and grief in ways that are tragically familiar: he kept to himself, he drank, he worried.
While King’s memories of his third grade basket are poignant, the memories he shares of his time at Tennessee are at once painful and horrifying. Here he doesn’t return to the place or reenact events, but instead, the camera remains fixed on his face. When he remembers being called into the coach’s office and being cautioned by the chief of police, that “there were officers on his staff that don’t like that uppity nigger and they will do anything to get him,” he sighs, his eyes wide, to this day full of sorrow. “How do you deal with that?” he asks, “I didn’t tell anyone about it. I grew up in a house where there was no communication. You just internalize it and deal with it as well as you can.”
When King was picked up while driving one night, then hit in the head by the arresting officer, King’s coach, Gerald Oliver, “went down to get him,” as coach recalls. “We didn’t talk going down, we didn’t talk on the drive back to the dorm. And I took him down to Gibbs Hall and let him out.” Oliver’s wearing a Volunteers orange and white track suit, and he leans toward the camera, his voice still haunted by his memory of that night. “And then he stepped away from the car and he stepped back. And he said, ‘Coach, thank you for not talking.’ He said, ‘I have enough to deal with on my own.’” Here Coach puts his fingers to his temple and smiles, sadly. The camera cuts to King’s interview: “I’ll never forget, warm blood dripping down my face.” His voice breaks, as if to cry, and still, he maintains, his eyes glancing toward his off-screen interviewer, and then his hand reaching to his eyes to wipe them.
The film goes on to recount King’s terrific career in the NBA, his devastating knee injury in 1985, his unbelievable return at a time when medical technologies were considerably less advanced than today, and his ongoing friendship with Grunfeld. All of this seems that much more remarkable in light of his memories of how deeply and lastingly he ached, throughout his adult life. It’s a lesson in the terrors of racism, too often dismissed or assumed, so infrequently shared and examined in public. It’s one more step toward that fantasy, the end of racism.