Ed Balloff died Saturday at age 94. Mr. Balloff was many things in his long life: World War II veteran, Vanderbilt alum, attorney, clothing merchant, pillar of the community in Campbell County. He was also a consumate gentleman, one of the nicest human beings on the planet. If you ever met him, I’m not telling you anything you hadn’t already figured out. But he was also a diehard Tennessee basketball fan and played a unique role in some of the program’s best days.
I wasn’t in Knoxville yet so I don’t know how it came to be that “Mr. B” became John Ward’s driver on basketball road trips. But for years Ed Balloff drove John around the SEC and elsewhere so John could bring the game back home over the Vol Network radio waves. Ward, signing off, would refer to Mr. Balloff as ‘director of transportation’ or something like that.
From talking to Ed and others, the road trips were meticuously planned and adhered to time-honored routines. When I’d show up at a gym in Starkville or Tuscaloosa, Ed would be in the media room, happy to chat. But during the games he would often disappear. He couldn’t stand the tension of a tight game in which the Vols might be in peril of defeat. A couple of years ago I asked him to confirm the story of a game in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington during the “Ernie & Bernie” years. He admitted, yes, he did retreat to the men’s restroom under the stands to suffer in solitude.
“True story,” Mr. Balloff said. “I’d hear the roar when Kentucky scored. So I turned on all the faucets and flushed all the toilets and went from one to the other doing that. Then it got very quiet. And I knew we won the game.”
That was the 90-88 overtime when in 1976 when Ernie Grunfeld scored 43 points and Bernard King made the game-winning shot virtually from the seat of his pants.
Mr. Balloff had a special relationship with Grunfeld. He told me when Grunfeld came on his recruiting visit from New York, coach Ray Mears asked Ed, who was Jewish, to take Grunfeld to lunch. Mr. Balloff and Grunfeld remained friends for life.
After John Ward called his last game in 1999, I didn’t see Mr. Balloff around very often. It was a treat when I did. He remained active until the end, practicing law in LaFollette. The world would be better off with more kind souls like Ed Balloff.