Larry Kenon honors ties to Memphis
By David Flores
Web Posted: 03/21/2007 11:01 PM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
While Memphis prepares to face Texas A&M in the NCAA South Regional semifinals tonight, some of the players on the Tigers' first Final Four team will gather for a funeral in a small Kentucky town.
Thirty-four years after UCLA's 87-66 victory over Memphis in college basketball's title game, the surviving members of the 1972-73 Tigers squad share a bond that reflects their memorable season.
"We were a great team, but we also had guys who genuinely liked each other," former Spurs forward Larry Kenon said Wednesday. "It was amazing."
The relationship between Kenon and Billy Buford, both junior forwards and roommates that season, embodies that spirit to this day.
"Our friendship has lasted a lifetime," said Kenon, 54.
Kenon, who lives in the Boerne area, gave up his tickets to the Memphis-A&M game after he learned the funeral of Buford's mother was today.
Kenon never has forgotten the generosity of Eunice Collins, who died this week in Glasco, Ky.
"It was a no-brainer to come," Kenon said Wednesday night, shortly after arriving at the funeral home. "When Billy's mom would come visit us in college, she would bring him new pants and shirts. And she would bring me the same thing."
Kenon flew from San Antonio to Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, then drove about 90 miles to Glasco.
"I'm not sure what other players from the '72-73 team are going to be here, but I'm sure at least a couple more will be here," Kenon said.
Two starters on the team, Ronnie Robinson and Wes Westfall, have passed away.
Kenon, who is scheduled to fly back to San Antonio late Friday, said he would be at Saturday's South Regional final.
He spoke with Memphis coach John Calipari before departing for Nashville.
"I told him they can beat A&M," Kenon said. "A&M is a great team, but Memphis has a formidable group of kids. They won't wither during the storm. They're quick and don't rattle easily."
It speaks well of Kenon that he would travel such a long distance to attend the funeral of his college roommate's mother.
In these cynical times, it's easy to dwell on the negative. But the human spirit can soar high when, as Abraham Lincoln said, we respond to the better angels of our nature.
"Billy was the kind of fellow who brought out the best in his teammates because he was unselfish," Kenon said.
Memphis finished the '72-73 season 24-6 under coach Gene Bartow, who succeeded John Wooden at UCLA two years later.
The Tigers beat South Carolina (90-76), Kansas State (92-72) and Providence (98-85) in the NCAA tournament before running into the Bruins on March 26, 1973, in St. Louis.
"Nobody expected us to do what we did, but we stayed focused and stayed together," Kenon said.
Memphis State, as it was called then, dropped to 2-3 after an 80-79 loss to Texas at home. But that last-second defeat, Kenon said, proved to be a turning point for the Tigers.
"I had never witnessed people my age in college cry before," Kenon said. "When we lost that game, Billy, who was a great defensive player and was guarding the Texas guy who hit the winning basket, cried. After that game, we came together as a team."
The Tigers reeled off 14 consecutive victories before losing to Louisville. But the loss was only another bump on the road during their historic run.
"When you're making history, you really don't know you're making history because you're too young," said Kenon, who played at Amarillo Junior College before going to Memphis State.
UCLA All-America center Bill Walton ended Memphis State's hopes for a national championship by turning in one of the greatest performances in tournament history. With Kenon guarding him most of the night, Walton hit 21 of 22 field-goal attempts and finished with 44 points.
Kenon never has seen highlights of the game.
He chuckled when he recalled an episode in Hong Kong about 12 years ago, when he was on a tour of the Far East with a group of former NBA players.
"We had just landed when this guy, who can hardly speak English, says, 'I know who you are. Bill Walton scored 42 points on you.'" Kenon said. "I thought it was pretty funny and amazing."
Although he played at Memphis State for only one season before turning pro, Kenon said he thinks of his former teammates often.
Such are the ties that bind.