By Trey Williams
Calvin Talford is best known for finishing alley-oop passes from Keith “Mister” Jennings with jaw-dropping, high-flying dunks.
But he could shoot from outside, too. Talford made 3 of 6 attempts from 3-point range while helping 14th-seeded East Tennessee State go 13-for-25 from deep when it defeated third-seeded Arizona, 87-80, in 1992 in Atlanta.
Talford, however, struggled mightily from the perimeter in a postseason game during his senior season at Castlewood when coaches from Tennessee, Louisville and Virginia were in attendance.
“They got cold feet,” Talford said. “I never heard anything from Louisville, but I heard they were in the stands. But Tennessee was really on me. They’d come to the school and everything. But after that day I didn’t shoot that good, they stopped recruiting me. I never did hear from them again.
“The funniest thing after that game (when Talford struggled shooting) was Dave Hanners came up to me after that and he said, ‘The big boys ain’t gonna recruit you anymore. They said you can’t shoot,’” Talford said with a chuckle.
As it turned out, ETSU got a player that could shoot and dunk with ease. Talford shot 40.6 percent from 3-point range while making 194 career 3-pointers.
Talford was an astounding all-around athlete. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies and played for their Martinsville affiliate. He dominated track and field meets in high school. And, as ETSU teammate Trazel Silvers will tell you, he was a hard-hitting speedster on the football field.
Marty Story played football a year at Clemson before transferring to ETSU to play basketball.
“Calvin was a great teammate and he’s an even better friend,” Story said. “He’s the most athletic player I’ve ever played with.”
ETSU went 28-5 during Talford’s junior season (1990-91) despite center Greg Dennis missing his initial senior season due to injury. The Bucs, propelled by Jennings’ brilliant senior season, beat Memphis, Cincinnati, North Carolina State and BYU.
“We felt like we could go anywhere in the country and win,” said Alan LeForce, who was in his first succeeding former boss Les Robinson when Talford was a junior. “Calvin was obviously a big reason why. He was something to see.”
One of the Bucs’ losses was a 76-74 setback at Chattanooga in the teams’ first meeting of the season. ETSU, still ranked No. 10 in the nation, won the rematch, 93-70, two weeks later.
Jennings scored 26 points and Talford added 19, and two of their alley-oop connections made ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“Mister had thrown me an alley-oop from about half-court and it was on SportsCenter that night,” Talford said. “I remember going home and watching SportsCenter and seeing it. It was kind of wild, because back then, ETSU hadn’t been on SportsCenter that much.”
The Minidome had a crowd of 12,884 that Monday night.
“Calvin was a great blend of toughness with superior athletic abilities,” said Jennings, who jokes that Talford was so wholesome that he drank milk at night spots. “He was a program-changer for sure.”
ETSU entered the AP’s Top 25 on Dec. 10 at No. 24 that season. The Bucs climbed as high as 10th, and finished ranked No. 17. They lost 76-73 to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament, a game that Talford missed due to injury.
The following season he was seriously ill two days before ETSU played Arizona in the NCAA Tournament in Atlanta. He stayed in Johnson City a day longer than the rest of the team getting IV treatment.
After playing well against Arizona, he didn’t take another IV and didn’t have much in the tank for Michigan and the Fab Five in a 102-90 loss to the Wolverines.
Talford, who had to guard 6-foot-8 point guard Jalen Rose, was 1-for-9 from the field before fouling out.
“I had the flu that week,” Talford said. “I probably should’ve gotten another IV in me before the Michigan game. I didn’t have a good game. I was matched up with Jalen. He didn’t have to do much with that team he had. They had a squad.
“If I’d had a better game, it would’ve been close. I was missing open shots, foul shots and I think I fouled out. And it really wasn’t nothing that they were doing.”
Talford did bounce back. He won the NCAA’s slam dunk contest during Final Four weekend after a man from ETSU sent a tape of his dunks due to Talford not initially being invited.
“Laphonso Ellis was in it,” Talford said. “Everick Sullivan from Louisville was the one predicted to win it. … Laphonso was so big. Guys like a (Mac) McClung or a Spud Webb, everybody likes that a lot better than coming from a 6-foot-10 guy. When smaller guys like us do one, they’re like, ‘Okay, that guy can jump a little bit.’
“I kind of put myself in the dunk contest. And then I ended up winning it.”
Talford didn’t recall getting anything except some shirts and a good-sized trophy, which he put in a trophy case at Castlewood High School, for winning the contest.
He cashed in, making a lot of money in Australia, Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Hong Kong and China for 8 or 9 years.
“It definitely was (fairly lucrative),” Talford said. And just coming from Castlewood and being in all these different countries was pretty wild. And they’re paying you. It’s like they’re paying you to be on vacation.”
It bothered Talford that he didn’t reach the NBA. He was convinced he could play at that level.
“Two or three years after I left ETSU, I’d gotten a lot better overseas,” he said. “I felt like I probably could’ve gone back and made the NBA. But I was trying to make the most money I could make, and I wasn’t really in any situation to try and do that. And I didn’t want to go in there and lose money trying to make the NBA when I knew I could keep going overseas.”
Talford might’ve played a few more seasons, but his heart wasn’t in it after his mother Bertha died.
“My mom was dying of cancer about the time I quit,” he said. “I came home when she got really sick and I just never went back.”
Talford nearly died in 2019. He was playing pickup basketball in Johnson City when he suffered a heart attack. He spent the vast majority of a year getting back to normal.
Former ETSU teammate Alvin West had died of a heart attack not long prior to that and another Buccaneer great, Major Geer, died the following year due to a heart ailment.
“Alvin passed away probably a couple of years before that and Major passed away about a year after mine,” Talford said. “They were great guys. They still looked the same (young ). Major was actually calling and asking me about my ordeal and what I felt and everything. That was pretty rough when he passed away, because me and him talked all the time about his situation.”
West scored 12 points and Geer made both of his 3-point attempts when ETSU lost 72-71 to top-seeded Oklahoma in the 1989 NCAA Tournament.
Talford said they were both overlooked too coming out of North Carolina, being ignored by programs such as Appalachian State and Western Carolina.
“That was their loss,” Talford said. “We needed those guys for sure. Both of them were sharpshooters and both of ‘em played hard defense.”
And Talford, as time told, could shoot, too.
“Calvin was a freak athlete,” said former ETSU teammate Jason Niblett, who scored 13 points in the win against Arizona. “They just don’t come through like that every day. And I still say that he was certainly the best pure athlete to ever come out of the state of Virginia. For him to be – all in one year – to be first team all-state in track, basketball, football and baseball – no one else has ever done that.”