All the Way - Tigers didn't waltz into UCLA meeting
By Zack McMillin
Friday, April 4, 2003
They took two tapes to play on locker room stereos on the road, Billy Buford explained to the national media covering this Final Four team from Memphis State, and the Tigers felt good about the selections going into Saturday's game with Providence.
Larry Finch, the homegrown star for the 1972-73 Tigers, had donated his new Temptations tape.
"And, naturally, we've got to have that Shaft tape,'' Buford said, alluding to the music of Memphian and avowed Tiger fan Isaac Hayes.
That, Buford promised, was the right combination to finally break the jinx clouding Memphis State's history in St. Louis. The Tigers were oh-for-St. Louis, having lost all seven times they had made the five-hour trip north to this other river city, and they were four-point underdogs to Providence, ranked fourth in the country with a 27-2 record.
Memphis State coach Gene Bartow reminded the assembled media that he'd had some success himself in St. Louis, back when he coached suburban St. Charles High to a state championship.
"I don't think,'' said Bartow, his voice raspy from a barrage of interviews, "the players are even concerned with what's happened in the past.''
As soon as the game began, however, it looked like the Tigers were going to run their record to 0-8.
The Friars looked inspired, the Tigers sluggish and those lyrics from one of the '70s signature songs - Hayes's Shaft - seemed to apply.
Who's the cat that won't cop out
When there's danger all about?
Providence guard Ernie DiGregorio was putting on a dazzling show, and the Friars were making these Tigers look meek, indeed.
Ernie D, as everyone called him, hit shots from every angle and fired passes that defied the imagination. Providence big man Marvin Barnes neutralized the Tigers' expected inside advantage.
As the Providence lead grew, nothing worked for Memphis.
Finch's shot was off.
Neither Larry Kenon nor Ronnie Robinson, the Tigers' talented big men, could establish a consistent inside presence.
Nothing Bartow called seemed to slow Providence.
In The Arena, a cavernous building hosting the Final Four, Tiger fans in the crowd of 19,000 - Isaac Hayes included - could not believe what they were seeing. This looked nothing like the squad that had waltzed through its first two NCAA Tournament games.
Where was the confidence? Where was the zest? Where was the team the entire city had begun believing could challenge seven-time defending champion UCLA and its 73-game winning streak?
This was not how anyone had imagined it.
The city had all but shut down for the game, and WMC estimated that 250,000 TV sets locked to NBC's signal and another 100,000 radio sets carried Jack Eaton's call on WMC-AM 790.
Rick Spell, then a student and now one of the program's largest financial benefactors, was at work pumping gas that day.
"All morning long, we were busy,'' Spell says. "Then the game started. In two hours, three cars came in.''
When Barnes twisted his knee trying to block Robinson's shot, with more than 12 minutes left in the first half, it looked like the Tigers had caught a break.
No such luck.
Ernie D ran the Friars' fast break to perfection and as the Providence lead pushed to 13 points, there was an ominous feeling in The Arena and back home.
The outlook was certainly bleak for the Memphis State Tigers that day.
Signs of the times
Up until that moment, the NCAA Tournament had been a joyride. If anyone thought the city could get no more intoxicated with a group of basketball players, if they thought the hoops hysteria had finally hit a saturation point, they were mistaken.
And if anyone thought the team could do no more than it had already done to unite the city, they underestimated March Madness's grip on the city.
The signs were everywhere.
"Go Tigers, Take Providence and then . . .,'' urged the marquee at the Admiral Benbow Inn on Union.
Next door, at Chuck Hutton Dodge: "Go Tigers. World Champs.''
Over at Prescott Memorial Baptist: "Have faith in the Tigers.''
Grocery store ads in the newspaper included rallying cries and pictures of Tigers. A local chain, Corned Beef House, put together a Good Luck card that stretched 150 feet and eventually included 20,000 signatures.
"Man, it was like, `Shout Hallelujah!' '' says Wyeth Chandler, the mayor in 1973. "The entire town could finally just sit back and enjoy something together.''
The hindsight of 30 years brings the easy epiphany - Memphis did not just become the basketball town it is today, one in which little old ladies and adolescent boys are equally rapt with enthusiasm for the game.
Those Tigers helped make it that way.
"When I was growing up, I did not know anything about basketball,'' MSU freshman Margo Bryant told The Commercial Appeal, "but now everyone I know - black people, white people, purple people, green people, parents and little kids - care about the Tigers.''
There was good reason for the optimism, even from those overzealous fans looking ahead to UCLA and past Providence.
In Houston, at another roundhouse of an arena called Hofheinz Pavilion, the Tigers had dismantled their opposition in the Midwest Regionals.
In a region that included four teams ranked in the top 13 in the nation, Memphis State won its two games by a combined 36 points. As the Missouri Valley Conference champion, the Tigers had received a bye into the Sweet 16 of the 25-team tournament.
"We had some dog in us,'' says Buford, the Tigers' jive-talking junior-college transfer from Paducah, Ky., and he meant that as a good thing. "When you said Memphis State, we wanted it to strike fear just like when you said UCLA.
"The fans had gotten cocky, too. It was just this feeling, `We come to whoop ya.' ''
The Tigers had actually entered the tournament on something of a down note, having lost at St. Louis in the regular-season finale. It was the most disappointing game of the season for Wes Westfall, the junior-college transfer starting at forward, coming in his hometown in front of his friends.
Even more distressing for Westfall, Bartow informed him during practices leading to the NCAAs that Buford would move off the bench and take his starting spot.
For Buford, the chance to start was both a reward and a source of pressure. In South Carolina - the Tigers' first opponent - the Tigers had drawn an opponent with two future NBA players as freshmen - Alex English and Mike Dunleavy - a consensus All-American at guard in Kevin Joyce, another future NBA standout in Brian Winters and a 7-0, 240-pound center named Danny Traylor.
The Big Three of Larry Finch, Robinson and Kenon would need help to beat South Carolina and its hall of fame coach, Frank McGuire.
"Coach Bartow did more for me than he knows,'' Buford says. "I had always gotten everything I wanted, and this was a growing-up period for me and for me to see the end result was I get to start in the NCAA Tournament, that meant a lot.''
Westfall made for an interesting character study. As pleasant and easygoing as any Tiger player, Westfall could be extra-sensitive to criticism, but he usually came around to seeing the bigger picture.
Maybe this had something to do with his childhood when, as a 6-year-old, Westfall suffered third-degree burns all over his body when a fire consumed his family's house.
At one point, doctors wanted to amputate one of his legs.
"My mother wouldn't let 'em do it,'' Westfall said.
Still, Westfall never forgot the lonely agony of spending 18 weeks in the hospital, unable to do anything to quench the irritation of his healing wounds.
"I just had to be really quiet and not move around too much,'' Westfall said.
Perhaps that is why Westfall found the discipline necessary to swallow his frustrations at such an important moment in the season.
"I almost got to where I didn't care,'' Westfall said. "Then I said, `No, we've come too far for a guy to be a sourpuss.' We've got a great bunch of guys. One bad apple can ruin it for everybody.''
As it turned out, nothing could spoil the Tigers' fun in Houston.
Before the South Carolina game, Bartow asked if anyone had anything they wanted to add to his brief pregame speech.
It was the quietest Tiger, Larry Kenon, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, who volunteered.
"I don't know about you guys,'' said Kenon, "but I'm about to start playing.''
Says Kenon today: "I don't know what came over me. I just had this feeling.''
Kenon scored 30 points, grabbed 24 rebounds and South Carolina and its roster full of future pros never had a chance.
Two days later, Larry Finch dominated against ninth-ranked Kansas State and its star guard, Lon Kruger. Despite a night without sleep - Finch and Robinson watched "the all-night movie . . . some spy movie'' until 7 a.m. - Finch scored 32 points and helped the Tigers shoot 60 percent in a 20-point victory.
"That's the hardest I've worked in a long time,'' said an exhausted Finch afterward. "All I want to do is go home tonight.''
As the Tigers' plane from Houston descended toward Memphis airspace, the pilot came over the intercom.
"Congratulations to the Memphis State Tigers,'' he said, "and I understand there is quite a mob at the airport waiting to bring y'all back home.''
The passengers could peek out of their window seats and see silhouetted figures pressed against the airport's giant windowed walls.
The scene topped anything anyone could remember in the city, at least when it came to a spontaneous, collective outpouring of joy.
By 12:20 a.m., when the team arrived, an estimated 5,000 fans had congregated inside the airport, just to greet the Tigers. Photographs of the scene show a diverse mix - young and old, black and white, male and female.
It looked like some kind of strange airport music festival.
Some fans arrived four hours early to gain prime spots from which to see their heroes.
Those who arrived later stood atop garbage cans or climbed on the roof of the 1973 Ford Galaxy on display in front of the American Airlines counter. The Galaxy's white vinyl roof eventually collapsed, and a bass boat on display in another terminal was also damaged.
"We're No. 1!'' the crowd chanted. One sign proclaimed: "UCLA - The Memphis State of the West!''
It took the team nearly an hour to get from their gate to the airport exits.
"It was madness,'' remembers Bill Cook, then a freshman guard for the Tigers. "They just wanted to be a part of it. And everybody was.''
The honeymoon looked as if it were coming to a disappointing end.
For Bennie and Janet Crosnoe, the improvised honeymoon to St. Louis to see the Tigers play in the Final Four seemed destined for a bummer of a conclusion.
It was halfway through Memphis State's first trip to the Final Four, and the Tigers trailed fourth-ranked Providence, 49-40. Sure, bad, bad Marvin Barnes had left the game with an injured knee midway in the first half, but Ernie DiGregorio had not yet shown signs of slowing down.
Ernie D was carving up the Tigers quite nicely all by himself. He scored or assisted on 24 of Providence's first 28 points, and his passing artistry - behind-the-back lasers while looking the other way - completely undid Tiger point guard Bill Laurie and his teammates.
"We weren't used to that hurly-burly stuff,'' Finch said.
If any of the Memphis State fans among the 19,000 at The Arena had a reason to think things might work out, the Crosnoes were those fans. Things had certainly worked out for them, after all.
One week earlier, on the Saturday morning before the Tigers played Kansas State - the morning before their evening wedding at Leawood Baptist - Bennie called Janet and made a suggestion. If the Tigers win and make the Final Four, what about they cancel the trip to Biloxi and make a week of it in St. Louis?
It was the second marriage for both Bennie and Janet, and both of them had two kids, so these kinds of adjustments didn't much faze them. So what if they didn't have tickets, they loved the Tigers. Why not?
Thirty years later, when it is suggested there are things a newly married couple might think of doing other than basketball, Bennie interrupts: "You don't know how big a fans we are.''
Their devotion would win them tickets. Janet talked Bennie into staking out the Tigers' team hotel until the team arrived at 11 p.m. on Thursday night, and it was there they ran into a reporter from The Commercial Appeal.
The paper did a story on the hoops-mad honeymooners, and the sports editor of the time, Roy Edwards, hooked them up with a coach who gave them tickets.
"I had to pinch myself to believe we were actually here,'' Janet said at the game.
The Tigers would reward their perseverance.
Providence fans will forever argue that Barnes's absence decided the game, but the Memphis State players reject the notion. The lead was only six when Barnes left, and it was the inability to slow Ernie D that allowed Providence to build that 13-point first-half lead.
"We still would'a won that game, because we were a much better team,'' Robinson says. "Sooner or later, your rhythm breaks down and the momentum switches and it's off to the races. Maybe they looked like they was gonna beat us, but it's a 40-minute game.''
Robinson and Kenon dominated the second half, in which the Tigers outscored Providence, 58-36. They combined for 52 points and Finch added 21 in what became a 98-85 victory.
Laurie dribbled out the clock, picked the ball up and spun it Globetrotters style on his finger while handing it to the referee.
The Tigers would play 48 hours later against the winner of the second game, between UCLA and Indiana, in the NCAA's first Monday night, prime-time final. If it was UCLA, then the challenge would be steeper than anything the Tigers ever imagined for themselves: The Bruins had not lost a basketball game in 26 months.
It did not much matter to a jubilant bunch of Tigers.
"At that juncture, there was just the pure enjoyment of getting to a level we never dreamed of,'' says Laurie.
As the Tigers left the court, they encountered the UCLA team in the tunnel, preparing to run onto the court.
Bill Walton, the Bruins center and national player of the year twice over, congratulated the Tigers before smiling and, 30 minutes before his tipoff with Indiana, adding one more thing.
"We'll see you guys,'' he said, "on Monday night.''
Back in the Tiger locker room, Isaac Hayes, dressed in a full-length gray fox coat, hugged Finch and Robinson and yelled: "These are my men!''
When photographers turned to take photos, the three sons of inner-city Memphis grinned and held up one index finger.
"There's only one more left,'' Hayes said in his famous baritone.
"Just one more time.''