KINGSPORT, Tenn (WJHL) — One of the most beloved basketball players to come from the Tri-Cities is setting his sights on the next level.

John Fulkerson is moving to Europe after signing to play for the Leuven Bears of the BNXT League, the top professional basketball team in Belgium.

Fulkerson revealed in an interview with News Channel 11 that it’s all part of a plan to keep playing the sport that led him from youth leagues in his hometown Kingsport to a remarkable six-season run at the University of Tennessee.

“I’ve been bouncing a ball since I can remember,” Fulkerson said.

John Fulkerson said he can’t remember a time when he didn’t play basketball. “I knew from then that basketball was going to be my future.” (Photo: John Fulkerson)

He remembers playing with other kids in games when they weren’t supposed to be keeping score.

“And I would always ask my parents, ‘Mom did we win? Dad did we win?'” Fulkerson said. “I knew from then that basketball was going to be my future.”

The 25-year-old 6-foot-9 power forward left the University of Tennessee Vols as one of the program’s most beloved players. He leveraged his extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic to play an SEC-record 165 games.

Even Fulkerson admits, he never expected it to end that way.

“My freshman year and came in just a little scrawny white boy,” Fulkerson said. “I’m still scrawny, so nothing’s really changed there.”

Scrawny isn’t how most would describe the Kingsport native who fought through serious injuries during his stunning six years of play that saw the Vols transform from struggling to SEC champs in 2022.

“I played a very, very, very small part in it because I was there for so long,” Fulkerson said. “But I would say that who deserves the most credit is definitely Coach (Rick) Barnes.”

“I think he changed the culture completely at Tennessee,” he said. “Really from day one to the end of year six, he just completely flip-flopped the program.”

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Fulkerson describes himself as “scrawny” when he joined the UT Vols six years ago.

That wasn’t all that flip-flopped. That “scrawny” kid from Kingsport? By his second year at UT, he was an emerging Vol Nation fan favorite.

He thinks fans appreciated the fact that he gave his all in every game.

“I think it was because of how hard I played,” he said. “I can tell you that I’m not the most skilled person out there. I’m not the most athletic person out there. So I kind of have to make up for it in other ways.”

Humility, a trait sometimes lacking in college athletics, also made Fulkerson attractive off the court.

He’s now in demand as a motivational speaker and as a brand representative. After the NCAA allowed athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness, Fulkerson entered into partnerships with businesses he admires – most notably Pal’s Sudden Service based in his hometown Kingsport.

“It’s been great and it’s just that’s also been almost a dream come true,” Fulkerson said.

But “Fulky” as his fans call him says his primary focus is still where it’s always been.

“So what’s next for me is continuing to play basketball professionally,” he said. “I really love the game, and I want to keep playing.”