In the mid-1970’s, Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld were two of the biggest names in college basketball. Known as “The Bernie and Ernie Show,” the University of Tennessee’s dynamic duo averaged 50 points a game on their way to the cover of Sports Illustrated. But behind closed doors, their experiences were vastly different.
Bernie and Ernie, directed by Jason Hehir (The Fab Five) and narrated by Public Enemy rapper Chuck D, tells the story behind one of basketball’s most unforgettable tandems, and an unbreakable bond that remains to this day. Bernie and Ernie premieres tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) and will be the final documentary of the fall slate of 30 for 30 films. Hehir tells Front Row why he was moved to make this film.
You also directed the popular documentary The Fab Five for ESPN Films. Did you notice any similarities between their friendships and the bond between King and Grunfeld?
In the fishbowl of big time college athletics, the bonds are a bit stronger because of the common pressures. [Current ESPN analyst and former Michigan Wolverines star] Jalen Rose lending a coat to Texan [and teammate] Ray Jackson during a harsh Michigan snowstorm; Jimmy King holding Chris Webber up in the huddle after the infamous 1993 timeout; those kinds of moments define what it means to be a teammate and a friend to guys under a unique set of social, athletic and academic pressures. Couple with that Bernard and Ernie’s common geographic background and their chemistry on the court, it’s no wonder that they formed such a strong connection.
What did you find most interesting about their relationship?
Their friendship was born out of their unselfishness, their will to win, and the intense brand of basketball they brought to Knoxville from the playgrounds of Brooklyn and Queens. Socially, they were polar opposites. But as New Yorkers far from home at a Southern school, they gravitated toward each other on and off the court to form a bond that remains intact almost 40 years later.
When it comes to dynamic duos in sports, Bernard and Ernie seem pretty high on the list of greats. Do you have other favorite dynamic duos?
As a lifelong Boston fan, I’d love the chance to go back and watch [former Celtics Bill] Russell and [Bob] Cousy play, but watching the two Big 3’s of [former Celtics Larry] Bird/[Kevin] McHale/[Robert] Parish and [Paul] Pierce/[Kevin] Garnett/[Ray] Allen was great too. These days, my favorite duo is the thrilling touch-football combo of Bryan and Dylan Hehir, my nephews. Watch for them on ESPN in the year 2033.