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Dennis humbled by jersey retirement

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 6, 2019 at 1:26 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Greg Dennis stood above the crowd during his days at East Tennessee State.

More than 25 years later, Dennis remains in rarefied air as a Buccaneer basketball legend. Dennis, the smooth-shooting 6-foot-11 center who finished his career in 1992 as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,204 points, had his jersey retired before Saturday’s game with Chattanooga.

Calling it a surreal experience, the gesture almost brought the West Virginia native to tears.

“I thought I was done with the accolades here when I went into the (ETSU Athletics) Hall of Fame in 2004,” Dennis said. “I didn’t think it could get any better than that, but this is humbling. I’m ecstatic and can’t tell you how much it means.”

Tim Smith surpassed Dennis as the school’s all-time leading scorer in 2006, but Dennis and his teammates remain the gold standard for all who wear the Blue and Gold.

Dennis was the Southern Conference freshman of the year in 1988 and an all-conference selection four times. He was the conference tournament MVP in 1992.

While his performances as a scorer and rebounder are part of ETSU lore, he often reminds fans of a limited role he played during what would have been his final season as a teammate of All-America guard Mister Jennings.

“If they look at the ’90-91 season, statistically one of the best seasons in ETSU history — 28-5 and ranked ninth in the country — I wasn’t a part of it,” Dennis said. “I broke my foot the second game of that year and I wasn’t even involved in it. It’s never one person, and a testament to the coaches we had at that time.”

A season later, Dennis was the starting center in arguably the biggest win in program history, the Bucs’ 87-80 victory over Arizona in the 1992 NCAA tournament.

“Mister was on a radio show recently talking about the biggest victories in our history and he mentioned the N.C. State game in 1990 in Johnson City,” Dennis said. “Arizona is right up there, if not the most significant win. That was our goal from Day 1. We had been to the tournament before that and our goal was to get back to the tournament, but to go farther than we had.”

Dennis played professionally for seven years with stints in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves, and overseas in Greece, Macedonia, Argentina and Puerto Rico. He loved the experience from the travels, but his best professional memory came in Johnson City and was originally intended as a joke.

“We came back here for a preseason game with the Hawks (and Charlotte Hornets). My teammates were playing a prank on me, but it backfired on them,” Dennis said. “They sent me out of the tunnel first and they all stopped, so I was the only one who went out. The crowd gave me a standing ovation and they’re all just standing there, so it backfired on them.”

He played in Greece in the same league where former Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently took a job.

Dennis has been working the last two decades as a financial adviser back in West Virginia, specializing in investments and retirement planning. He got involved in the business when he was still playing professionally, taking care of his own finances.

He follows the current group of Bucs closely, giving coach Steve Forbes credit for connecting the players from the Les Robinson- and Alan LeForce-coached teams to the present.

It was a bonus for Dennis that the current Bucs routed rival Chattanooga 96-70 on Saturday and brought back memories of his own time on the court.

“I loved playing against Chattanooga,” Dennis said. “I loved the Roundhouse and I can still hear that tom-tom drum to this day. That used to get me so fired up to play against Chattanooga. That was icing on the cake to get a win on a special day for me.”

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