ESPN is airing a new 30 for 30, Bernie and Ernie, that focuses on the unique friendship formed by Bernard King and Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld during their time together at Tennessee. Most savvy basketball fans are aware of the formidable duo the two made while they played for the Volunteers, but the new film brings to light how their bond extended beyond the court and has remained strong to this day.
We were fortunate enough to get to e-mail the director, Jason Hehir (who also directed The Fab Five) about his inspiration for the film and dynamic bond between the two.
What made you think Bernie And Ernie would make a good 30 For 30?
I've always been a fan of any sports documentary that made me reconsider my prior assumptions about the main characters, and the first time I met Bernard and Ernie I knew we had the opportunity to tell people some things about each of their lives that very few people had heard before. They were great on the floor, but it was their lives away from the game-specifically their upbringing and how that molded them into who they became-that I found the most compelling.
This film explores their relationship. The two grew up with very different backgrounds. Why were they able to get along so well in college and maintain that friendship to this day?
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 Bernard King arrived at Tennessee, a year after Grunfeld, there was plenty of potential on the court for a struggle between the two over who would become the top offensive option on the team. Why didn't that happen with these two?
Both of them were incredibly unselfish, and their paramount concern was the team over the individual. They had a discussion when they first met (during Bernard's recruiting visit to Knoxville) about the potential for conflict and agreed that there would be no struggle. They complimented each other perfectly-Ernie as a perimeter threat and Bernard a power in the low-post-and both had such a will to win that there was no need for friction.
One of the things you bring to light in this film is how Grunfeld helped King in his recovery from his devastating knee injury. How important was it for King to have Grunfeld as part of his long recovery and return to the NBA?
Bernard was extremely secretive about his workouts because he didn't want rumors to surface that he wasn't back at an NBA-level before he felt ready to return. Ernie was not only a trusted friend but also a neighbor (in Franklin Lakes, NJ at the time) so Bernard asked him to come work out so he could gauge his progress. We didn't get to mention it in the film, but Ernie was courtside the night of Bernard's return as a color analyst for NBA-AM radio.
You also directed The Fab Five. What similarities did you notice in the bond The Fab Five shared and the bond between Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld?
In the fishbowl of bigtime college athletics, the bonds are a bit stronger because of the common pressures these athletes face. Jalen Rose lending a winter coat to Texan Ray Jackson during a harsh Michigan snowstorm, Jimmy King literally 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 a group of guys under a unique set of social, athletic and academic pressures. Couple with that Bernard and Ernie's common geographic background, their chemistry on the court and similar career paths, it's no wonder that they formed such a strong connection.
Many thanks to Jason Hehir for taking our questions. Bernie and Ernie airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.