BRISTOL, Tenn. – John Fulkerson is used to being cheered for his exploits on the basketball court.
It was his turn to return the favor on Wednesday, visiting with the Ambulance Service of Bristol, Inc. during EMS Week, which recognizes Emergency Medical Services across the nation.
“I just think being here and hopefully using my platform and what I do being a popular face and hopefully a familiar face to the community and just trying to thank them and show the support from regular people like us to make them know that we really appreciate them and we know what they do is not an easy job,” Fulkerson said. “I think just showing your support for them and just thanking them for all that they have done.”
Fulkerson’s visit to Bristol was set up by Mark Cox, a local paramedic, who has been a part of Dobyns-Bennett basketball since 1993. Fulkerson played for the Indians for three seasons before transferring to the Christ School in North Carolina for two years.
“One of my closest friends I will ever have. We talk to each other from Kingsport to Knoxville at least once a week after ball games,” said Cox, who is an avid Tennessee fan, unless they are playing Kansas, which they did last season. The Jayhawks pulled out a six-point win. “John was gracious enough to come up here and talk to us. A lot of guys up here are Tennessee fans as well as I am and they wanted to meet him because there are very few people that have come up there like John.”
Fulkerson, a resident of Kingsport, was an All-Southeastern Conference second team honoree last season, contributing 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Volunteers, who were 17-14 and preparing for their SEC Tournament opener with Alabama on March 12 in Nashville.
“When everything happened we were walking through the tunnels about to get on the floor and they canceled everything,” Fulkerson said. “It was really weird. Everything kind of came to an abrupt end. It is like we were going and it just like stopped, everything got canceled.
“It was really weird, but I definitely understand and I think they made the right decision to cancel everything. It was definitely something I will never forget.”
The 6-foot-9 Fulkerson had a terrific season for the Volunteers, who had lost a bulk of its offensive production from its Sweet Sixteen team in 2019. He played in 36 games that season, averaging just 3.1 points a game.
It’s safe to say he picked it up.
“I think my team needed me to. I didn’t really have any other option rather than to step up my game and really be a leader and really just contribute on both ends of the floor,” said Fulkerson, who also connected on 61.2 percent of his field goal attempts and 74 percent from the free throw line. “I think my team really needed me to do that and I think confidence really helped me.
“I think you being confident in anything you do really helps, just being confident and my teammates and coaches just putting me in a good position to be successful.”
Fulkerson reached double figures in 23 games last season, including a high of 27 in a win over Kentucky, the second to last game before the pandemic cancelled the season. He also had 15 points and 12 boards in the loss to Kansas, having matched up with Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike, who outweighed him by nearly 60 pounds.
“This year he was the catalyst for UT because they lost so many players,” Cox said. “You don’t see a lot of 6’9 players get on the floor and hustle.
“He goes up against men bigger than him. He told me he had Azubuike and he was rough. You talking 7’0, 265 or 270, but John held his own. UT gave Kansas all they could handle, as well as did ETSU.”
Fulkerson, who completed his degree in sports management, will return to Knoxville in the fall as a redshirt senior, with one more season to play for the Volunteers, the team he followed while growing up in Kingsport.
“I was definitely a Tennessee fan, especially when they were good when Bruce Pearl was there,” said Fulkerson, who chose Tennessee over an estimated 48 offers that included numerous SEC and ACC schools. “They had some great teams there. I definitely grew up a Tennessee fan so it was almost like a dream come true going and playing there.”
Fulkerson spent three seasons at Dobyns-Bennett before making the move to North Carolina, looking to challenge himself with more competition, which certainly paid off in the end.
“Probably sophomore year of high school is when I realized I wanted to play college basketball,” he said. “I got slowly better as I got through high school so I really got more focused and more determined and more focused in on wanting to play college basketball.
“I made it a goal and I was just trying to work as hard as I can and put in a lot of time, effort and energy to get to be the best I can be.”
It was that effort that Wallace Elliott, the owner of the Ambulance Service of Bristol, feels is similar to what his employees do in their position, serving such a vital purpose in the local community.
“It certainly is nice to set a little time aside to thank everybody and recognize the sacrifices people make being out in the field. As the majority of the country has been home for the past couple of months, we have been at it,” he said. “We have been very fortunate. My guys and girls have stayed healthy through this process and not really missed any work for that matter. Just because the pandemic is around doesn’t mean we aren’t needed, actually it is quite the opposite.”
He was pleased that Cox could get Fulkerson to visit during EMS week, with him signing autographs and speaking to employees and local youth, including Elliott’s son who plays at Tennessee High.
“You can even make a parallel to say that the sacrifices that John has made the last couple of years to become a better player and leave it all out on the court, our guys and girls do every day,” said Elliott, who credits the local health system and communities for keeping the impact of COVID-19 to a minimum in the region. “[That is] a neat parallel in my mind.”
Fulkerson, who continues to communicate virtually with teammates and coaches, will be ready to get back to Knoxville when the time comes.
“I think our first goal is just to get back to Knoxville. Just to get back to practice and start working out as a team,” he said. “I think we have just got to get to that point first and then once we get to that point, just really trying to mesh together as a team and our team chemistry really come together and build up. I think team chemistry is really important.
“As team goals go for the season, I think just really taking it one game at a time. Playing in the SEC, it can be hard at sometimes so focus on just one game at a time and just trying to win as many games as possible, I think is very important.”
Until then, Fulkerson is enjoying being back home, something that has been rare for long periods of time in recent years.
“I have been in Kingsport for eight weeks now. It has been the longest I have been home for like six years,” he said. “Me being at home this long, it has been really fun because my family is probably most important to me.
“I love being at home with them, but it has just felt really weird and different since I have been home for so long. I am not going to complain at all because I love being home.”
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