By Trey Williams (Updated January 10, 2019)
Greg Dennis was the center of attention on the East Tennessee State court again Saturday, and his retired No. 11 jersey hanging in Freedom Hall was a reminder that his storied Buccaneers legacy began with a tall tale.
Dennis, the 6-foot-11 post that was at ETSU when it earned four straight NCAA Tournament berths, scored 2,204 points during his career (1987-92). He graduated as the all-time leading scorer – a record since broken by Tim Smith.
Dennis might not have reached Johnson City if he’d been 6-11 in high school (Charleston, W.Va.). He was 6-7 as a senior.
It was his second spurt. From the end of his freshman year to the start of his sophomore season in high school Dennis grew 4-5 inches to reach 6-foot-4.
He spent his developmental years on the perimeter, which helped him make 83 career 3-pointers (38.4 percent) and provide a slashing threat in college.
West Virginia coach Gate Catlett wanted him to go to prep school. Dennis wasn’t interested.
ETSU coach Les Robinson, a Charleston native, was alerted to Dennis by an old friend.
“A buddy of his saw me in the state tournament and called Coach Robinson and told him to send somebody up here to see me,” Dennis said. “That’s kind of how he got the jump on me. But I came on very late as a senior. And, of course, the late growth spurt helped as well.
“But I didn’t really see myself going to a large Division I college to begin with, because I didn’t want to sit one or two years, to be quite honest, before I got a chance to play. So that’s how it was ideal and a good situation going down to ETSU, because I was able to step in and play right away as a freshman at a D-I school.”
Dennis fondly recalls assistant Dave Hanners signing him, Keith “Mister” Jennings, Alvin West and Major Geer in whirlwind fashion. Calvin Talford and Marty Story arrived as freshmen the following season, and before you knew it, the Bucs had gone from a team that finished last in the Southern Conference in 1987 to having a double-digit lead on top-seeded Oklahoma in the 1989 NCAA Tournament.
Dennis tallied a team-high 20 points and a game-high 15 rebounds against Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock’s Sooners, and doubts OU would have escaped 72-71 if not for some whistles and non-calls.
“Mister gets his fifth and Stacey King doesn’t get his fifth (earlier),” Dennis said. “There was the one play where he fell over top of Mister when he boxed him out going for a loose ball out of bounds and Stacey King climbed up on his back and still didn’t get his fifth foul.”
The Bucs beat North Carolina State twice after Robinson went there and was succeeded by his assistant Alan LeForce, and they defeated Tennessee twice during Dennis’ career.
“We beat N.C. State twice, home and away,” Dennis said. “We didn’t have anything against Coach Robinson, of course. You’re gonna take a job at your alma mater and what-not. But it was a game we definitely wanted to win. I guess the way Mister put it was trying to say, ‘You should’ve stayed instead of leaving.’
“We couldn’t get Tennessee to come to Johnson City. So we beat them twice in Knoxville. Those were four victories that we were very proud of.”
Of course, the definitive win was an 87-80 upset of third-seeded Arizona in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. Dennis was a fifth-year senior, having missed all but two games with a broken foot during the 1990-91 season.
Lute Olson-coached Arizona had Damon Stoudamire, Sean Rooks, Ed Stokes, Khalid Reeves, Chris Mills and Wayne Womack, and was generating advance hype for its anticipated matchup with Michigan’s “Fab Five” in the second round.
ETSU’s players were excited to draw Arizona, having lost a road game to the Wildcats, 88-79, in the Preseason NIT the previous season.
“Our biggest motivation in that Arizona game was the loss we had in the Preseason NIT with ‘em,” Dennis said. “We always obviously got together and watched the selection show and we were begging to have Arizona. And for Arizona to just pop up as our opponent is another testament to how things lined up for us. We had ‘em and should’ve beaten ‘em in the Preseason NIT. And to get ‘em again, we definitely felt like we could win the game and weren’t gonna let the opportunity slip by again.”
Many believe Dennis’ season-ending injury the previous season essentially cost Jennings, West and Geer one shining moment. ETSU didn’t have Dennis and Talford due to injuries when it played Iowa in the 1991 NCAA Tournament – the senior seasons of Jennings, West and Geer.
“We often think about what if I was able to play my original senior season with Mister and Alvin and Major and Marty and the rest of those guys had I not gotten hurt,” Dennis said. “That particular year they had such a great season statistically, you know – one of the greatest in history and me not even being part of it. It’s amazing to wonder what we could’ve accomplished if I was playing. No regrets whatsoever, but that’s just one that you would’ve liked to have seen play out. But we were still obviously very successful nonetheless.”
The final game of Dennis’ ETSU career – a 102-90 loss to Michigan – surely helped jump-start what was an eight-year professional career. Dennis made 4 of 6 treys while scoring a game-high 31 points against the Wolverines (Chris Weber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard), who finished national runner-up to Duke.
“I would’ve much rather won the game,” Dennis said. “But to play as well as I did with opponents such as that freshman class that they had, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Dennis said ETSU was convinced it could beat Arizona and Michigan if it played well. Such confidence was a constant beginning in their sophomore seasons.
“When Coach Robinson came in and he put that motion offense in with the personnel that we had, we knew that whoever we played against we would cause problems for,” Dennis said. “We were a matchup nightmare because everybody could shoot the basketball, everybody was out on the floor. Bigs gotta come out on the floor and defend.
“Calvin Talford, I mean, he’s the greatest athlete that I’ve ever – and this goes for playing professionally eight years after I left ETSU – he was the greatest physical athlete that I have ever seen in my life, period. … Then you’ve got a Naismith winner in Mister. He’s a top point guard in the country. So you don’t have to worry about that position. You’ve got Alvin and Major. They’re two of the best shooters in the country. You know they’re gonna hit their shots. You’ve got Marty, who went to Clemson on a football scholarship and can handle anybody that you put in front of him and ask him to defend. So we went into games with a lot of confidence just with how we were made up as a team.”
Excellent players in subsequent classes whose careers overlapped Dennis’ included Rodney English, Jason Niblett and Trazel Silvers. Niblett was the point guard when the Bucs beat Arizona.
“Greg was definitely before his time,” Niblett said. “He was a 6-11 do-it-all player that played in an era that only wanted 6-11 players to play back to the basket. If Greg was playing in today’s college game he would be a lottery pick. All the NBA teams are craving 6-11 players that can handle the ball with grace, shoot the 3-ball at a high percentage, rebound in traffic. It was great playing with Greg and even better to call him my teammate and friend.”
Dennis’ ETSU teammates are quick to note the matchup problems he presented being instrumental in their success against quality opponents.
“Greg was one of the most versatile big men that I had the opportunity to play with,” Story said. “You have a guy that’s 6-11 that can play with his back to the basket, but at the same time ran the floor as good as guards and wings and with the ability to knock down shots like a shooting guard from the perimeter. He was a phenomenal player and even better teammate. The thing I love most – he’s a true friend, and wouldn’t hesitate to give you the shirt off his back.”
Dennis’ professional career included time in Greece, Argentina, Macdeonia and the CBA. He made it to the final cut with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks played an exhibition game in front of a sold-out Mini-Dome crowd against Charlotte when Dennis played.
He recalled similar crowds for ETSU games when the Bucs hosted North Carolina State, Chattanooga and Marshall. The Thundering Herd had players such as Skip Henderson, John Taft and Tyrone Phillips in that era.
“Marshall would’ve been a nice place, a nice program,” Dennis said. “But it seemed like they were always in the headlines for all the wrong reasons most of the time. … They had great support. A thing that sticks out in my mind – as a freshman, my first trip to Asheville and seeing the Asheville Civic Center, you would’ve thought that the Asheville Civic Center was actually painted green when you went in the place. It was amazing. I was like, ‘Good gracious.’ They owned the Asheville Civic Center when I came in there as a freshman. It was all green. And then to kind of see the changing of the guard was pretty cool.
“I liked the Chattanooga rivalry. I can still hear that tom-tom drum in my head to this day. I loved going to the Roundhouse. It was like playing in a gladiator stadium the way that place was built. And that guy would get in there on that drum and they’d get that chant going and it just motivated the heck out of me. The rivalry was good at that time and I loved getting victories over them.”
It was satisfying for Dennis to see ETSU manhandle the Mocs on the day his jersey was retired. He really likes the upside of Steve Forbes’ Buccaneers, particularly with the arrival of big man Lucas N’Guessan, a transfer from Oklahoma State.
“I’ve watched ‘em quite a bit,” said Dennis, who lives in Charleston and saw N’Guessan play for the Cowboys against West Virginia. “What I’m really pleased about now is they look even better with Lucas in. He makes a tremendous difference, putting him beside Jeromy (Rodriguez). He makes them, I think, real formidable, because Jeromy was already doing an outstanding job as far as rebounding and scoring. But now you’ve got somebody with some length and mobility that can score as well. They’ve always had the last few years, in my opinion, outstanding backcourts or good backcourts that could put the ball in the hole. But it always seemed like the frontcourt was where they had less talent, in my opinion. Now I think they’ve got a little bit of both.
“I’m excited about Patrick Good, because we’ve seen some practices and we’ve seen some shoot-arounds and things like that. He’s showing some pretty good leadership abilities from what I can see. And then the freshman, (Daivien) Williamson – he looks like he could be a real good player as well. So I’m excited. I think they could go a long way.”
Dennis’ recent returns to Johnson City included running into Dave Bouknight, who heckled visiting teams and badgered officials when Dennis played.
“I remember him so vividly two or three rows back and that distinctive voice that he had – that booming voice at the refs, just giving ‘em heck,” Dennis said. “That was the first time I had seen him, I think, since I left school. He was the best.”
Dennis was also happy to see ETSU alumni director Bob Plummer.
“Bob Plummer – we love the heck out of him,” Dennis said. “Plummer has been there for the whole run (since Dennis played).”
Dennis is ETSU’s fifth player to have a jersey retired. Others are Tom Chilton, Harley “Skeeter” Swift, Calvin Talford and Jennings.
“Greg was a before-his-time type of player,” Jennings said. “I’m almost sure most of my assists went to him. But I think his toughness was unnoticed. He blocked shots. He got big-time rebounds. He ran the court and finished. It was a blessing and an honor to be a teammate of his.”
Victories weren’t going to slip away with Jennings at quarterback, according to Dennis.
“The confidence that we had in that guy – that’s a good feeling as a basketball player having somebody like that as a point guard and running things,” Dennis said. “He was gonna take care of the basketball. Mister was a coach on the floor.”
Dennis stood at midcourt at Freedom Hall prior to the Bucs’ blowout win against Chattanooga on Saturday alongside Forbes and ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland while a video tribute prefaced his jersey’s unveiling.
“It was kind of an out-of-body experience – a surreal experience,” Dennis said. “I got a little emotional, of course. … One of the things that warms my heart the most and just fills me with pride is when I do go back to Johnson City or I meet people in other states, and they tell me how they felt during that time when we were playing and what we did for them. That gives me the biggest smile that you can imagine. To see the smiles on their faces and when they tell you, ‘We had such fun at the games. You guys were great to watch.’ To know that I had a part in that, was to be able to do that just by playing basketball, that’s the greatest feeling in the world to me.”