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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

CA Columnist Geoff Calkins - Tigers bringing much-needed optimism to city

Tigers bringing much-needed optimism to city
By Geoff Calkins (Contact)
Saturday, October 13, 2007

The dunk contest was supposed to be between Jeff Robinson and Doneal Mack, but Memphis coach John Calipari interrupted it with a small request.

"This is for my own enjoyment," he said, summoning freshman point guard Derrick Rose to the court.

Calipari handed Rose the ball. He told him to dunk just once.

The crowd rose to applaud the new kid.

It was almost too much. This was his first public moment at Memphis. He was supposed to dazzle everyone with a single dunk?

The clapping grew louder. Rose calmly bounced the ball high in the air. Then he went up, grabbed it, brought it back down -- nearly to his toes -- and slammed it, backward, emphatically through the hoop.

The place exploded.

"Just a regular dunk," said Rose, afterward.

"JUST A REGULAR DUNK?" said Memphis forward Chris Douglas-Roberts, and then he laughed.

But what a way to start this journey, this basketball trip that will wind on for seven months, and is supposed to end at the Final Four in San Antonio.

"You don't know where it's going," said Calipari, during the Memphis Madness celebration at FedExForum Friday night, "but it looks like it's going to be a lot of fun."

That's right, fun, and just in the nick of time, wouldn't you say?

This city could use a pick-me-up, something to feel good about again. Over the years and the decades, there's not much that has made Memphis feel better than Tiger basketball.

The most famous example came in 1972-73, when Larry Finch and Gene Bartow led Memphis to the championship game against ULCA.

It's the stuff of civic legend now, of municipal mythology.

The Tigers brought the city together. That's what everyone says. Black and white, rich and poor, people put aside their differences to pull for a single basketball team.

What a happy fable, eh? And what a perfect time for it to happen again.

Because, 35 years later, Memphians are divided once more. Or maybe we're just more keenly aware of the things that have divided us all along.

The mayoral race was divisive and ugly. Only one of the three major candidates -- the one who finished third -- was gracious about the results.

Letters to the editor are raw and bitter. People have chosen sides or, worse, chosen to leave town.

If this isn't a job for Memphis basketball, then what the heck is?

And, yes, it is entirely understandable if you are rolling your eyes right about now. It's just a basketball team, after all. Just a dozen players and a coach.

A basketball team can't put a stop to the violence. A basketball team can't lift thousands out of poverty, or make fathers act like fathers, or solve the financial problems of The Med.

A basketball team can't even bring everyone together, no matter the mythology.

Will a basketball team cause Willie Herenton to look inside himself? Or cause his opponents and detractors to see the good in the man?

Of course not. It's just a basketball team. Let's not be naive.

And yet, there is something the Tigers can do, and will do, and even started doing Friday night.

They can make people smile. You remember how to do that, right?

This month's issue of Men's Journal quotes a Kansas University study that concluded "sport fans suffer fewer bouts of depression and alienation than do people who are uninterested in sports."

Most sports fans don't get to pull for a team that's been to two straight Elite Eights, either. Or that comes into the season ranked in everyone's top three.

Chuck Roberts, the public address announcer, was so pumped his voice gave out after introducing just four players Friday night.

"I have no voice," he croaked. From out of the stands rushed local sportscaster Greg Gaston.

"The next player," Gaston picked up, not missing a syllable.

It was quite a moment, really. This Memphis team is so deep, it has a backup PA announcer.

"This is the best team Memphis has had in a long time," said Douglas-Roberts. "We have to get to the final game this year."

Which may or may not mean the Tigers will do it. That's the peril of sports. Nothing is certain but the opportunity, and the continuing devotion of the fans.

Sean Donaldson, 14, showed up Friday wearing a classic, white Memphis State jacket from the mid-1970s.

"I got it from him," he said, pointing to his dad.

Turns out Tim Donaldson, 49, started at Memphis in 1976. He wore the jacket to games in the Coliseum. He remembers Finch and Bartow and everything they meant.

When Donaldson graduated from Memphis, he put the jacket in the back of his closet. He married a girl he had met in the dorms. They had a son, Sean.

Years passed. Memphis changed.

Not long ago, Donaldson happened on his old jacket.

"You want to wear this?" he asked Sean.

Sean definitely did.

So Friday night, Donaldson went to work early, and left work early, all so he and Sean could be at FedExForum 90 minutes before the doors opened.

Donaldson wanted to see Rose, certainly. He wanted to see something else, too.

"This team has to help us get past the petty bickering," he said. "To be honest with you, this is the only glue the city has right now. This is the one thing, no matter your nationality or your politics or your religion, that everyone can get behind."

Father and son waited patiently for the doors to open. For the season -- and maybe the fable -- to begin anew.

To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or e-mail

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