Former players hold gala to raise funds
By: Justin Kissell
Sports Reporter, Daily Helmsman, Univ of Memphis
It's crunch time for former Tiger basketball coach Larry Finch and his former players are working the April 27 shot clock to pull through for their coach.
Ken Moody, who played at The University of Memphis (then Memphis State) from 1985 to 1987, and Rodney Douglas, who played from 1985 to 1989, have spearheaded two upcoming events to raise funds and awareness for Finch.
"As much as he's done for us, we should do our part for him," Moody said.
The players, part of the Friends of Larry Finch organization, have helped plan a gala dinner on April 27 to help raise funds for Finch's rising medical bills. The dinner is new to this year's festivities, which also includes a golf tournament for the second year in a row.
"We're just trying to be the messengers for Coach Finch," Douglas said. "Being unable to move a lot gives him a huge challenge, and we feel compelled to help."
Finch has suffered strokes and a heart attack and remains confined to a wheelchair in a long-term care facility. But he doesn't pass the days alone.
Former players and friends visit him regularly, which is part of the reason Douglas wanted to help his former mentor so badly.
"I went to see him in the hospital one time and his foot had been injured badly, in addition to the strokes and heart attack," he said. "My heart was hurting the whole way home because of what I witnessed."
Finch is also diabetic, something that makes his condition worse. But Douglas said whatever his condition, the coach always perks up when someone stops by.
"The nurses have told us when he saw a former player, he did better with his attitude and motivation for a while," he said.
So how much does Finch mean to The U of M?
Douglas said he is the "legacy of Memphis basketball."
Moody said it "all started with Larry Finch."
Former Tiger Herb Hilliard, who played from 1966 to 1969 and was the first African-American player in school history, said Finch helped bring the city together when racial tensions were high in Memphis. "To me, he's done more for this city than any other person I know," he said. "He did an awful lot for the people of this city."
And he helped the Bluff City in numerous ways - on the court and then on the bench with his trademark rolled-up paper.
Finch (the player) started his Memphis career in 1970. He led the Tigers to the 1973 national championship game against UCLA, averaging almost 27 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Finch (the head coach) started in 1986 and promptly led an underdog team to a 26-8 record and won the Metro championship. He went on to sign local high school stars Anfernee Hardaway, Elliot Perry and Lorenzen Wright in his career.
In 1992 Finch participated in his 500th game as either a player or coach. He also led the Tigers to an Elite Eight appearance in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, the furthest a Memphis team advanced until the 2005-06 Tigers.
Finch ended his coaching career after the 1996-97 season, when he stepped down from his position.
"The Memphis Tigers were (to me) created by Larry Finch," Douglas said.
Maintaining the Finch legacy on campus is something Moody and Douglas are trying to accomplish with their work - something the current staff seems well aware of.
"Coach Cal has been awesome through all this," Moody said. "He's done everything we've asked."
That includes getting comments and video messages from famous basketball personalities throughout the country, like Dick Vitale and former UCLA star and Tiger fan favorite Bill Walton.
Finch undoubtedly helped make Memphis into a basketball town, one reason some believe the NBA awarded the Grizzlies to the city. Their relocation helped spur one of the most emotional moments in Memphis/Larry Finch history.
On Jan. 20, 2003, the Grizzlies hosted a Martin Luther King Day game against the Portland Trail Blazers that included a halftime show involving many prominent African-Americans. Bob Johnson, BET founder and the first African-American NBA team owner, as well as actor Danny Glover were some of the participants. But the most emotional moment came last. NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell brought Finch on the court in his wheelchair. The darkened arena, which had been loud throughout the ceremony, rumbled even louder as teary-eyed fans rose to their feet chanting, "La-rry!"
It was one of the ways Memphians have given back to their legendary coach.
They now have another opportunity to do so, and his former players and friends are pleading for help.
"We want people to embrace what he did and who he did it for," Douglas said. "Just please give your heart with Larry Finch."
Hilliard said the city has an obligation to help Finch. He described Finch as a model citizen when he was a player and coach, did all the right things and always had time to talk to anyone.
"I used to go to the mall to go Christmas shopping with him," he said. "We'd always be stuck there for about four hours because everyone wanted to talk with him, so I told him next year I couldn't go with him."
He described Finch's personality as that of current NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. Finch related well to both kids and adults, Hilliard said.
"We're doing this because coach always told us to give back," Douglas said. "We've dedicated our lives to him because of all he did for us."
Moody said one large change the group has made to this year's fund-raiser is the ability for people to write off any of their donations on their taxes.
Donations received and profits from the golf tournament and dinner will be used towards Finch's medical bills and to start a youth foundation which would pair up Memphis high school students with former Tiger players as mentors.
The Friends of Larry Finch Gala Dinner will be held April 27 at the Finch Center. Tickets are $100 per person and $1,000 for a table.
On April 28, the group will host two shotgun starts at the Larry Finch Golf Tournament. It will be held at Galloway Golf Course and tickets are $125 per person or $500 per group.