Why I LOVE Memphis Tiger Basketball
Posted by Joel on February 22, 2008
Growing up in Memphis, there are a few passions that you will develop: BBQ, music, and basketball. Let’s be honest, Memphis is not a lot of things. It is not a city of glitz, glamour, and stardom like a Los Angeles, New York, or Las Vegas. It does not have the bravado of a Chicago, or the scenery of Miami. The city has been in the past a hotbed of segregation and civil rights, so much so that to this day, the city’s natives still feel the sting of racism in one way or the other. But the one tie that binds the city’s psyche, the one bond that cannot band different opinions of crime and the city’s mayor, is the love affair for Tiger basketball. There is even division on what the Tigers are or aren’t, but even native Memphians that may have gone on to different colleges or not gone to college altogether by and large root on the Tigers by tipoff…
For me, it started during the Dana Kirk era. During those days, the Tigers ran through competition on the court with little to no problem. Guys like William Bedford and Keith Lee dominated, and led then Memphis State to the Final Four in 1985. Off the court, Bedford used to party like a rock star and Lee couldn’t understand the benefits of Play-Doh. Kirk also led the Tigers into NCAA probation.
Enter Larry Finch in 1986. To backtrack, Finch was a Melrose High School product who went to Memphis State (along with Ronnie Robertson, another local product from Melrose High School). He enrolled at school in the fall of 1968, when racial tensions were at their highest on and off campus. Keep in mind, Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Despite this, he led the school to the NCAA title game in 1972. The Tigers lost to some school named UCLA, and Bill Walton is still a hated man in Memphis. Finch was an assistant coach under Kirk and immediately went 26-8, winning the Metro Conference Tournament. Because of probation, the Tigers could not play in the NCAA tournament.
A string of local talent came in, and though the names of John Wilfong, Cheyenne Gibson, Steve Ballard, Ben Spiva, Elliott Perry (and his big ass goggles) and Brett Mundt are not household names throughout the country, to Memphians, they have a placed reserved in hearts and memory banks for all the broken noses, loose ball dives, and hair styles, whether it was a buzzcut, bald head, jheri curl, or the fade with the part in the middle. The late 80’s had Tiger basketball teams that were good, but always seemed to not get to the glory of another Final Four. Games at the Mid-South Coliseum were loud and fan friendly, bringing together students and citizens of Memphis, sitting together in such a way that your skin color didn’t matter, but the colors of blue and gray did.
The 1990’s came, and change came along with it. There was a conference switch to the Great Midwest Conference and a move to The Pyramid. Now, with a bigger arena to showcase both the city and the city’s team, all was needed was another local star to bring the Tigers back to glory. Enter Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Hardaway was as big of a local legend as you could find on the courts. I remember seeing him in high school completely dominate. I saw him once pick on a player, calling him out 3 different times in an iso and promptly shaking him before backing back to let him catch up, then dunk on him. The other team’s coach called timeout and sat the poor kid on the bench, putting his arm around him as his confidence was completely crushed. The arena, now nicknamed the “Tomb of Doom”, rocked. Hardaway led the team to an Elite Eight appearance and the program rolled. I can remember after one game, then Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins called the Tiger faithful “Obnoxious Memphis Fans”. The next time the Bearcats came to town, just about all of the 20,000 fans had on a blue t-shirt with that phrase printed on it.
Finch was dismissed in 1996, and to this day, that is still controversial, and the Tiger program went through some lean years. John Calipari came in 2000 and the program has not looked back since. Though the University of Memphis now plays in FedEx Forum, right behind Beale St., beer is $10 and BBQ Nachos are $8, the passion for Tiger basketball is the same as it has always been. For those of us who don’t live in Memphis anymore, we log onto the internet to check on the team and stop everything whenever the team plays on national TV, just like we would if we were still in town. We still hope that one day the Tigers can win it all (especially this year, since I live 2 hours away from San Antonio, site of this year’s Final Four). This year may finally be the year. Go Tigers Go!!!