Sunday, March 04, 2007
Great Article on Former Player, Coach Larry Finch
Finch coached the Tigers to six NCAA Tournament berths before he resigned under pressure 10 years ago. These days, Finch resides in a rehabilitation center after suffering a heart attack and several strokes.
Ex-Tiger player, coach keeps sense of humor despite woes
By Ron Higgins
March 4, 2007
The fingers of his right hand, the one that flicked that feathery jump shot as a player, the one that gripped a rolled-up game plan as a coach, are clenched shut.
Those sturdy legs, the ones that attracted his future wife's attention the first time she saw him, the ones that used to stomp on the Mid-South Coliseum and The Pyramid courts when he screamed for his team to "D-UP!," can barely raise from his wheelchair.
His once-strong voice is now soft, the words strain to get past his lips. The terrible strokes suffered in September 2002 robbed him of his basic functions.
It is gut-wrenchingly hard to see Larry Finch this way, because you want to remember him when he was knocking down 29 points in then-Memphis State's 1973 NCAA championship game loss to UCLA, or as a coach guiding the Tigers to six NCAA tourneys, including a regional final in 1992.
You want to remember the Larry Finch who won games, graduated players, turned boys into men, refused to cheat in recruiting, made few enemies and made you laugh every conversation that you had with him.
The Larry who could charm the mothers of recruits, the Larry who could guide the team bus in any city on a road trip to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Larry who loved to watch "Amos and Andy" tapes with his wife Vickie, the Larry who always had time to be a father to his three children.
That Larry will likely never be fully back.
But on the 10-year anniversary of a forced resignation that ended a 21-year association with the university where he became an icon, there are some things you must know about Finch as he spends his days in room 106 at the Quince Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
He still loves basketball.
"I watch basketball every night (on TV)," he said.
He still adores his old coach.
"I love Gene Bartow, he's a good man," he said.
He still has only one favorite team.
"I will always love Memphis State," he said.
He still has a sense of humor, like when he was asked why he helped UCLA center Bill Walton off the floor after Walton sprained an ankle when he scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting in that '73 national title game.
"Because," Finch said with a huge laugh, "he was kicking our (butt)."
He's still here
It is a moment like that, even if his words tumble out slowly, that after all these years of heartache, you are comforted that the heart and the soul of the old Larry Finch are still there.
"I play film all the time of Larry while he was coaching," said Vickie Finch, Larry's wife of 31 years, who works as a physical education teacher at Ridgeway Middle School, just more than a mile from Larry's nursing home. "I want to see that man when I come to see him. I know he's still there, but it's hard to see him sitting there not being able to do all the things he was so full of life doing.
"That's what I had to get adjusted to. I'm still not. I miss him. I miss my husband. When he has his bad days, that's when I miss him the most. On his good days when I come in and he might say or do something silly, I leave the rehab center feeling so good. I tell him, 'Larry, thank you for a good day.' I just thank God for those good days."
For the longest time, Vickie and the Finch children, including daughter Shanae (30) and sons Larry Jr. (27) and James (24), wondered if they would ever see that side of their husband and father again. Finch's good days come now a bit more often.
Give credit to the almost daily visits by longtime friends Leonard 'Game Ball' Draper and Randy 'Big Daddy' Wade, a former Shelby County deputy who's now deputy district director on recently-elected congressman Steve Cohen's staff, or from a group of Finch's former players headed by Ken Moody and Elliot Perry.
It was Moody three years ago who organized an annual charity summer golf tournament to raise money to help pay Finch's medical bills. This past December, Moody added the Larry Finch Classic, a high school tournament that was played at Melrose, Finch's old high school. The 2007 tournament is slated for the Elma Roane Fieldhouse on the UofM campus.
"Larry did a lot of things for a lot of people, and they still remember that," said John Prince, an assistant on Finch's last staff at the UofM. "He had a big impact on the lives of his players and his coaches. We'll be around him as long as we're able."
Moody, Prince, Wade, Draper and some former players like Rodney Newsom and Anthony Douglas gathered in a private room in the Doubletree Hotel a few weeks ago to celebrate Finch's 56th birthday, which was on Feb. 16.
"You know who your friends are when you really get down," Wade said. "Your true friends come to the plate. His players have showered this man with love."
While the man of the hour sat flanked by two nurses from the rehab center, plenty of tales about Finch and his staffs were being told over lunch. Nearly all of them ended in laughter.
"Every time we came in late at night, the coaches knew," Newsom said. "Finally, we found out that (late assistant) coach (Dorsey) Sims was sitting across the railroad tracks from our dorm looking at us through binoculars."
The conversation turned to Finch's shooting prowess, something that never faded, even as he got older. It was rare that any of his players could beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E, because he had a trick bag of specialty shots, including one which he laid on the floor, his head on the foul line, shooting the ball backward to the basket.
There was also the last thing he did at every practice on the road. As his players put on their warmups to get on the bus for the ride back to the hotel, Finch would challenge an assistant to a shooting contest.
It was one shot, basically out-of-bounds, in the deep corner. Finch's bet: A three-piece all-white dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"When I left Larry's staff (to become head coach at Austin Peay University in 1990), I think I owed him 184 three-piece all-white chicken dinners," said Dave Loos, Austin Peay coach and athletic director. "I lost every time, but we had such great times. He kept it fun. The players and the coaches liked that. I learned so much from him that I still use today."
The long, hard, puzzling road
There are many people who thought that the day Loos left was the day that Finch's program began slipping ever so slightly.
"I think the trust that Larry and Dave Loos developed was so strong that he could never replace the trust," said Verties Sails, longtime men's basketball coach at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Sails should know. He was an assistant at Melrose when he first met a 12-year-old Finch. As the years passed, Sails remained one of Finch's closest confidants. It wasn't unusual for them to talk every day on the phone into the wee hours of the morning.
"We talked about everything," Sails said. "Larry knew I would always tell him the truth. Sometimes, he didn't want to hear it, and a lot of times he had people around him he trusted who countered what I would tell him. But he knew I'd never lie to him."
Like when Finch, after being essentially fired by the UofM at the end of the 1996-97 season, pushed hard for the coaching vacancy at Tennessee State three years later. Sails, already worried about Finch's health, discouraged Finch from pursuing the position that went to Nolan Richardson III.
"I didn't think Larry could handle the situation, because I knew he'd work himself to death," Sails said. "I was told that during the interview process that he had a little seizure, a little spell. That's the only reason why he didn't get the job. It was cut-and-dried he'd get that job until that happened."
Nearly every one of Finch's closest friends, including his attorney Ted Hansom, said Finch never recovered from getting fired by the UofM, especially in the matter-of-fact manner it was done.
The official press conference announcing the resignation came after a regular post-game press conference following a victory over Southern Miss.
"While nobody owes you anything in this business, the way Larry's release was handled showed a great insensitivity," Hansom said. "Perhaps it was because of two outsiders (then-new school president V. Lane Rawlins and athletic director R.C. Johnson), but they had no idea what Larry meant to this city as a player and a coach.
"As a player, he made a big difference pulling the city back together after the Martin Luther King assassination. People didn't look at Larry as a black player. They just looked at him as Larry.
"The way that the university got rid of Larry shocked and hurt both of us. It broke his spirit, it was like getting a divorce. He felt like he had devoted most of his life to his school, and it turned his back on him.
"His world fell apart, he didn't know where to go, what to do or where to turn."
"Larry never thought that the University of Memphis would do that to him," Sails said. "He was one of theirs. He was their hero.
"But I had a booster tell me when they were about to get rid of Larry that 'we gave him 11 years and that's nine more than we promised.' Larry was way more successful than they'd thought he'd be. He had his hands tied in a lot of ways, but he did a fantastic job.
"He took over a program on NCAA probation. He didn't make his own schedule, but he still won. He took guys that most people said wouldn't graduate, and those guys did and are doing well with their lives.
"But in the end, there were some boosters who were just tired of him and wanted a change. When the school fired Larry, he was lost right then."
Finch was given a $413,660 buyout. A job as a special assistant to Johnson was discussed, but never pursued.
At the time, Finch was hurt, but put up a public front that he'd have a new job soon. But in the months that followed, he missed out on jobs at Georgia State (who hired former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell) and South Alabama (who hired former Ole Miss and Texas coach Bob Weltlich).
Finch gave politics a shot, losing by 127 votes to Guy Bates in the county register's race in August of 1998. In April of 1999, he applied for Southwest Missouri State's head coaching job. Then in April of 2000, Tennessee State bypassed him.
At the end of that year, Bartow became president of the new ABA 2000 franchise in Southaven called the Memphis Houn'Dawgs. He hired Finch as his vice president of player personnel, but the franchise moved after six months.
"It puzzled me why no one ever hired Larry," Bartow said. "I thought he could get a good mid-major job. I pushed him for the South Alabama job, and I thought he was in good shape with Tennessee State.
"If he would have gotten either of those jobs, he would have been tremendously successful. When I hired him as my assistant at UAB (before Finch went to Memphis as assistant under Dana Kirk prior to becoming head coach in 1986), Larry brought in good players like he was the Pied Piper."
In August 2001, a few months after the Houn'Dawgs folded, Finch had a minor stroke and gall bladder surgery. A little over a year later, he had a massive heart attack and two strokes that left him partially paralyzed and affected his speech.
"Larry always believed he could do whatever he wanted in life," Vickie said. "All life was an obstacle course and all he had to do was run it and it would all work out.
"You have to move on. That's one of the things that I tried to tell Larry all the time. I'd say, 'Larry, it's not your fault.' A lot of times, he'd say, 'What could I have done differently?' Looking back, I don't see anything he could have done differently."
Finch's harshest critics at the time of his firing said he had lost his recruiting touch, because local prep stars Tony Harris, Robert O'Kelley and Cory Bradford decided to sign with Tennessee, Wake Forest and Illinois respectively.
"I'd been with Larry on several recruiting meetings over the years, and the fathers, mothers, uncles usually wanted money to sign their kids," Hansom said. "One player's uncle threw out a number to us and said another Mid-South SEC school was ready to meet it.
"Larry and I talked about that if he ever started buying players, then the process would never stop. If he did buy players like other people were doing, it would give the school reason to dump him."
Rallying the troops
Just the other day, Sails was going through a closet at home when he came across a browned newspaper clipping from The Commercial Appeal.
"It was that big article with the headline, 'So Long, Larry Finch,' the day Larry coached his last home game at the University of Memphis," Sails said.
"I sat down and read it again. It brought tears to my eyes. I remember when all that hullabaloo was going. But a week or two after his last game, people moved on to something else. Everybody forgot about Larry. But he didn't forget. He couldn't forget."
It is the biting reality of sports that when a coach is fired, the public says, "Next." Athletes are taught the same thing. Win or lose, you move on to the next game. And when the games are finally over, you move on in life, you leave your coaches, teammates and memories behind you.
It was at the Grizzlies' first Martin Luther King game in 2002 when Moody saw his old coach for the first time since he became ill. The sight of Finch being wheeled out to midcourt by NBA legend Bill Russell for a halftime ceremony brought Moody to tears.
"Coach saw me, and he couldn't talk," Moody said. "He started crying. I started crying."
A few weeks later, at the urging of Wade, Moody stopped by the nursing home to see his ol' coach, the man as Moody recalled who "never allowed me to deviate from my upbringing."
"As I sat there talking to him I realized he was still coach Finch, he just had a tough time communicating," Moody said.
"Randy said to me, 'Coach wants to tell you something.' I said, 'Coach, what's going on?' He said, 'I ... need ... help.'
"From that, we began The Friends of the Coach Larry Finch Foundation. We've raised money for him, bought him a special van, bought a wheelchair, paid some of his medical bills. The more I was in touch with his family, it made me realize his needs were tremendous."
Thus, through an unimaginably awful situation emerged a revelation. All the self-analyzing questions that Finch asked himself after he left the UofM have now been answered.
Because maybe now, Finch realizes coaching is what he thought it was all along -- about developing boys into young men who maybe 10 to 20 years down the line can become responsible, productive citizens.
"When I talk to Elliot or Kenny or Rodney Douglas or Andre Turner or Bobby Parks, I see and hear Larry in all of them," Vickie Finch said. "They sound just like him. I see so much of Larry in their beliefs."
Larry can see that in all of his former players who haven't forgotten him, such as Moody, who's the city of Memphis deputy director for the division of public services and neighborhoods. Such as Douglas, who's a pharmaceutical rep, and Perry, who's a minority owner of the Grizzlies among other things. The list of success stories go on and on.
On his worst days, they are Larry's light.
"I love all my boys," he said. "I'm proud of every one of them. My boys look after me."
Never give up
After all the Finches have endured, the most remarkable thing is there is no lingering bitterness toward the UofM.
"I wasn't mad at them," Larry said. "I just hate that I lost my job. They never told me why."
If anyone should be resentful or angry, it's Vickie.
The man she loved from almost the first day she saw him when she was a Melrose High cheerleader and he was shooting ball in the school gym -- "He was wearing these tight cutoff jeans and I told him 'Boy, you got some pretty legs,' " she recalled with a nostalgic look -- never recovered from being fired by the university they both graduated from and adored.
She never wallowed in self-pity, though she eventually had to place Larry in the nursing center, because he was physically too much for her to handle at home.
"Larry tried so hard to come back, even after the first stroke," Vickie said. "At one point, he just felt like he wanted to give up. I said, 'You can't do that. You've got too many people who love you. There's some reason you're still around, Larry. It might be your work here isn't over yet.' "
Certainly not. In his struggle, he is still bringing blacks and whites together in a common cause, like he always has.
He makes us reflect on the past, he makes us self-evaluate on the present, he makes us consider the future.
And most of all, he still makes us laugh. Like when he was asked a few days ago who was the hardest team he enjoyed playing every season.
"Louisville," Finch said. "They came to play every night."
Then after a pause, he added, "We beat their (butt), too."
Cue the laughter.
-- Ron Higgins: 529-2525