Tennessee legend Ron Slay excited to make more orange & white memories in TBT 2020

 

By Dylan Woods


Slay is serving as head coach for the Ballinteers

All B.J. Elder had to do was miss the free throw.

There were 0.5 seconds left and Georgia Tech, Elder’s team, led 68-67. He had just missed the front end of a pair of foul shots, but all was still well and good. As long as he also missed the second free throw, Tennessee would have virtually no chance to attempt a full-court heave after scrambling for the rebound. The Yellow Jackets would escape with an impressive non-conference win. 

But he made it.

And as soon as the ball passed through the net, Ron Slay picked it up one-handed, faked to C.J. Watson, and found Jon Higgins with his back to the basket at half court. Higgins caught it, turned around, and threw up a prayer at the buzzer.

It was answered. 

Tennessee erupted in celebration in front of a largely pro-Tech crowd. That Sunday, with the game in Atlanta minutes from the GT campus, the Volunteers had stunned the once-jubilant hometown fans with quite the game-winning shot.

The memory remains a fond one for Slay, who went on to win co-SEC Player of the Year that season for Tennessee in 2003. From there he went on to play overseas, mainly in Italy, while also putting in a few tours of duty in the NBA’s Developmental League.

Now, he is preparing to serve as head coach of the Ballinteers, University of Tennessee’s new alumni team for this year’s TBT. With any luck, there will be some new fairytale finishes, this time with the Elam Ending instead of a halfcourt buzzer beater.

And as a former player himself, one thing Slay hopes to bring to the group is a sense of the college brotherhood he and his players first endured in Knoxville. 

“I’m looking to bring the camaraderie of the team together and [bridge] the gap of [my] generation and their generation,” he said. “The respect level of each other’s era is going to be the funnest thing.”

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When Slay first got to Tennessee in 1999, the basketball program was somewhat of an afterthought on campus. The football team had just won the national championship under the quarterbacking of Peyton Manning and the women’s basketball team had just finished off a run of four straight Final Four appearances and three straight national titles with Pat Summitt on the sidelines.

The men’s basketball team hadn’t made the Sweet Sixteen in almost two decades. While players on each Volunteer team were close, from volleyball to football to baseball, a new group had to usher in a fresh era of Tennessee basketball. It was time to share the limelight.

“Across the whole landscape of sports, it was really like a family,” Slay remembers. “Everybody [was] supporting each other and each sport [held] the other to a standard.

“But, for basketball, our whole thing was: We have to get to that level, too. We can’t be on the back burner.”

While Slay and the rest of his Volunteer teammates never quite competed for national championships during his time there, they were able to lay the foundation for the future of the program thanks to a close bond and locker room companionship.

Rivalries with Kentucky and Florida, previously dominated by those in various shades of blue, also started to show hints of Tennessee orange. And in 2000, the Volunteers won the SEC Regular Season Championship and broke their Sweet Sixteen drought. The last time they had accomplished either was when Dale Ellis’ number 14 was still getting washed twice a week instead of hanging in the rafters. 

By the time Slay graduated in 2003, Tennessee basketball was back on its way to becoming part of the perennial college basketball conversation. In 2006, the team hired the always intense Bruce Pearl to his first Power Five head coaching job. Pearl led the Volunteers on a run of six straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, culminating in a 2010 Elite Eight run that remains the furthest a Tennessee team has gone in the Big Dance.

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And the long line of deep Tennessee talent all initiated with Slay and his teammates back in the early 2000s, when a program was in need of a new identity to carry them through the decades to come. 

CJ Watson, who was a freshman during Slay’s trademark 2003 season, passed the torch to Chris Lofton. Lofton, a three time All-American at Tennessee and now a Ballinteer, and someone Slay says will be a lot easier to coach than to play against in pickup games, upped the ante even more.

Then guys like Wayne Chism (another now-Ballinteer), Scotty Hopson, and Bobby Maze, the Ballinteers’ general manager, led the 2010 team that elevated Tennessee to greater heights.

“I think we started something,” said Slay. “When we first came in, there was still a black curtain at the top of Thompson-Boling Arena. If you look at it today, it’s a packed house every time.” 

Now, all that hard work is ready to pay off. An impressive group of Tennessee alumni stretching across nearly 20 years is all coming together for a chance at even more glory this summer.

 

But for Slay, even if there are no more miracles at the buzzer to stun the crowd or big time rivalry matchups against Kentucky, simply the time together with his Volunteer family and the recollection of past memories will make a difference.

“Just sharing stories, or after a practice or a game all sitting down and breaking bread together, comparing each other’s groups, arguing over who would beat who, I’m looking forward to it.”