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Knoxville News Sentinel file photo by Caitie McMekin via AP / John Fulkerson is returning for a sixth basketball season at the University of Tennessee, the school he dreamed of playing for while growing up in Kingsport.

It's easy to list all that's wrong with college basketball these days. One and done. Transfer portal. Name, image and likeness. Block-charge. Instant replay. The slowness, or complete absence, of NCAA justice for those who cheat.

But the University of Tennessee's John Fulkerson has once more reminded us of all that's right, or at least once was right, about college athletics in general. Especially when it involves an in-state kid falling in love with his most recognizable in-state university at a young age, then one day playing for it.

Fulkerson did what almost no one does these days when he announced Friday that he was coming back for a sixth season AT THE SAME SCHOOL.

"I think it just shows everyone my love and passion, first of all, for basketball," Fulkerson told the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum. "And then secondly for the University of Tennessee. Playing for my home university, my home state, Coach (Rick) Barnes and his staff, the players we have coming in, the players we have returning, Knoxville, the fans. I knew I couldn't pass it up."

This is remarkable on so many fronts. And refreshing. And heartwarming. And loyalty affirming (if such a phrase exists.)

First of all, until COVID-19 changed everything everywhere, you pretty much had to come back from the dead, or at least athletic death through injury, to get a sixth year of college sports eligibility. The NCAA typically gives you five years to complete four years of competition. Two years lost to injury can occasionally get you six, but it's rare. But in a rare show of humanity and sensitivity to all that's been lost emotionally by our college athletes due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA provided a blanket waiver on eligibility that allowed decisions like the one made by Fulkerson.

What makes Fulkerson so refreshingly different is that most athletes coming back for a sixth season are doing so at some place other than their original school. And as long as they've already graduated from their previous college, they can take that diploma and become immediately eligible for one season as a graduate transfer at the school of their choice.

It's so easy a caveman — apologies up front for any cavemen emotionally scared by that remark — could do it.

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AP file photo by James Crisp / Tennessee basketball player John Fulkerson addressed the Vols' fans this past week when he announced he would return for a sixth season with the program.

And Fulkerson could certainly have taken his Energizer Bunny zeal for the game, his quirky post moves, his splendid defense and been welcome anywhere. Duke, Kansas, Gonzaga, UCLA — anywhere.

He could have also chosen to get on with his life. Pursue his pro basketball options, which might be plentiful in other countries. Or begin a professional career in something other than sports, which probably also wouldn't have been too difficult if he remained in the Volunteer State, given his widespread popularity here at home.

That he chose to return to Rocky Top instead, to the dreams of his youth, to the only place he'd ever really considered if they would consider him, almost never happens anymore. And how sad that is. How sad that college athletics is merely seen as a necessary layover to get to the pro ranks, whether it be football or men's basketball.

Oh, they're so put upon, these young men. They have to work 20 hours a week to pay for a four-year college degree that probably costs a minimum of $140,000 to anyone not on an athletic scholarship. Where oh where is the fairness in that?

But not Fulky. No, Fulky still represents the fan in all of us, the guy who once dreamed of how sweet it would be to wear the Orange, to play in the same program that once had Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernie (King) grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. To play for the program that first reached No. 1 under Bruce Pearl. To represent the program that could (and still can) get under Kentucky's skin like no other.

Though hearing it from Fulkerson is far better.

"It seems like just yesterday that I was a little kid in Kingsport, Tennessee, developing a love for the game of basketball by watching UT teams, led by guys like Wayne Chism, Skyler McBee and Tyler Smith," he wrote the fans on Friday.

"Those guys grew up in Tennessee and worked hard enough to earn the opportunity to be a Vol. They were like heroes to me. They helped me to believe that maybe I could one day follow in their footsteps. Fast forward to today and that kid in Kingsport is now a man who looks back on the five incredible years I was blessed to try to be a role model for the next generation of dreamers. I still sometimes ask myself if this has all been real. Am I really a Tennessee Volunteer?

Then: "My path still points to Rocky Top."

Every person's path is different. Every person's needs and responsibilities are unique. And to be fair to all athletes who leave college early for financial opportunities, most of them have family members — be it moms and dads, siblings, their own children — in desperate need of them cashing a paycheck as soon as possible. There just aren't a lot of student-athletes out there who can afford to spend six years in college.

But it's also awfully nice to find someone in this regrettable one-and-done, transfer-portal, show-me-the-money era of college athletics who wants to play for his university for as long as possible rather than as briefly as necessary.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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