The Favorite Son - On-court heroics of Finch, others helped `change hearts and minds'
By Zack McMillin
Wednesday, April 2, 2003
Cato Johnson can still remember the evening he came upon his car in the parking lot at Memphis State, its four tires slashed. u "This guy walked out and said, `Why are you here?' " says Johnson, Methodist Healthcare vice president. "I said, `What do you mean?' He said, `We do not want people like you out here.' I will never forget that.''
This was in 1969, when Johnson was a part of the first generation of black students at Memphis State. It wasn't long after the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Tensions ran high.
"When I came back in the spring of '68,'' says Breen Bland, an MSU law graduate, "it was one week after Dr. King was killed and the hostility level had gone through the roof - blacks didn't like whites and vice versa and everyone mad at everyone.''
Says Ted Anderson, now the coach at Hamilton High: "It could not get any worse. Or we are not going to exist.''
By 1973, much of this had started to change. Black enrollment had increased to 14 percent, with nearly 3,000 black students. Compared to 1959, the year when eight students integrated the campus, this was enormous progress.
But tensions still existed, even if the edge had come off them slightly.
Anderson, like many other students of the time, was a veteran. After serving in Vietnam, he was thrilled to be home, even if it meant 22-hour days going to school at Memphis State and pumping gas at the Union 76 at Poplar and Avalon.
Like many Memphians, Anderson reveled in the success of the Memphis State basketball team, traveling to many away games in his new Buick Riviera.
"At least I wasn't dodging from Vietnamese,'' says Anderson. ``It was good to be home and to be back around basketball.''
Even so, he still remembers feeling a kind of antagonism and a de facto separation between the races - black students congregated in one corner of the cafeteria and sat in a block together at games.
"You can't say that is all because of race, totally,'' says Anderson. "Am I racist because I am comfortable with people like me? Are you racist because you are more comfortable with people like you?''
This is where the basketball Tigers entered the equation, serving as a both a rallying point and an ice-breaker for all Memphians.
No team sport is better suited to developing bonds of intimacy and familiarity between the participants and the observers.
The field of play is relatively tiny, a 4,700 square-foot rectangle that can be surrounded by thousands of people. Players wear shorts and tank tops without any protective gear.
So fans sitting even halfway up at the Mid-South Coliseum could see vividly the emotion and effort coming from Larry Finch, Bill Cook or the rest of the players.
Phil Cannon, now the tournament director of the Memphis's PGA Tour event, says he had never seen black players up close until his days as a student in the early '70s.
"White Station students weren't allowed to go to Melrose to watch Larry Finch at the high school," says Cannon. "There was a perception there.''
Those games at the Coliseum helped alter perceptions. Seeing Larry Finch smile his smile and Ronnie Robinson play his old-school game and Billy Buford work his oncourt jive helped Cannon and those like him come to a new understanding.
"I was busy being proud of my city for the first time,'' says Cannon. "I stood in a lot of lines to get my student tickets.''
This was not merely true for students. It extended to older folks as well.
Laverne Turnipseed, the mother of Ted, the Tiger student manager from Lexington, Tenn., recalls an encounter with Ronnie Robinson at the athletic dorm. Robinson had hurt his knee in that evening's game, but as Laverne waited for Ted, she remembers Robinson standing politely and keeping her company for half an hour.
"I knew how bad he was hurt, but he just stood there and talked,'' Laverne says. "You just don't find many young people like that.''
This is how ideas were changed. This is how preconceptions were shattered.
"They changed hearts and minds," says Mike Butler, a Tiger great from the mid-60s, ``and that's the battle.''
For black students like Anderson, who regrets not having had the opportunity to play at Memphis State when he left Hamilton High in 1964, the achievements of Finch and Robinson and the Tigers brought something even more important than understanding.
It created respect.
"After so many people like myself did not get the chance, they welcomed the opportunity to play out there,'' Anderson says. "To see blacks go out there and have that kind of success, it was a feeling of pride.''
Much of the credit for the Tigers' vast crossover appeal goes to Finch, who disarmed whites with his natural charisma and deflected any "Uncle Tom" accusations - and there were some - with his enormous pride and talent.
"When Larry got there,'' says Charles Harrison, third-generation director of the Orange Mound Funeral Home, "that was the birthing of his ambassadorship with that school and the city.''
Finch had everything you'd want in an ambassador.
His power of positive thinking, no matter the adversity.
His style, which was downtown 1970s meets big-man-on-campus.
His heart, big and warm and generous.
And, much as anything, that famous movie-star grin, all 120 watts of it.
"He had a smile,'' remembers Verties Sails, his assistant coach at Melrose, "that would knock you out.''
And then there was his basketball - a mix of old-school moves, modern improvisation and airborne acrobatics at least a half-decade ahead of the times.
Melissa Lofton, a sophomore at the time, remembers sitting on the steps in the Coliseum's student section and feeling the energy transfer back and forth between Finch and the crowd.
"If he was in kind of a lull, they would play this little drum beat and he would get in a rhythm and he would dribble,'' she says. "I would say, `C'mon, play his tune, play his tune.' ''
If his ballhandling mesmerized fans, his shooting awed them.
"Larry was the first guy I ever saw who could change directions in the air, like you would see with Michael Jordan,'' says George Klein, then a local DJ and one of Memphis's biggest hoops junkies.
Midway in his senior season, however, Finch was frustrated.
Though the Tigers were 10-3 overall and 3-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, league opponents had taken to gimmick defenses to limit Finch's effectiveness. With big men like Larry Kenon and Ronnie Robinson, it made some sense for coach Gene Bartow to use Finch as a decoy, but this ignored the essential truth about the 1972-73 Tigers: The Tigers fed off Finch's energy as much as Finch yearned to score.
The Tigers had won seven straight, sure, but the games stayed tense in part because Finch wasn't touching the ball very often.
So Sails met Bartow and his assistant coach, Leroy Hunt, over lunch one Tuesday near campus.
"If you let Larry alone and let him play, you won't have to sweat every night,'' Sails told them. "Some of these games will be runaways and blowouts.''
The following Saturday, against Division 2 St. Joseph's College, Finch got loose.
By the time the first-half buzzer sounded, Finch had made 13-of-15 shots for 33 points. Eight minutes into the second half, he had 42 points, leaving him four shy of Forrest Arnold's single-game school scoring record.
Near the end, with the record in sight, Bartow yelled: "Get the ball and go, Larry!''
A 17-foot jumper from the right side of the free-throw circle broke Arnold's record, and the crowd cheered long and loud when Finch left the game with 48 points.
The record still stands.
"It's all in your confidence,'' Finch said after the game, "and now I've got my confidence back.''
This was not good news for Memphis State's next opponent - arch-rival Louisville, headed to town in five days for the Tigers' most anticipated home game of the year.
Finch was at his best against Louisville, another urban school that has been the Tigers' biggest rival for five decades. Nobody before or since Finch has given Tiger fans so many joyful moments against what is still the school's biggest rival.
"He's the only player I ever knew, who was not intimidated by Freedom Hall," says Lou Strasberg, a U of M administrator who has traveled with Tiger teams for more than 30 years, "Nobody liked beating Louisville more than Larry Finch.''
In terms of tradition and history, Louisville has always been a kind of big brother to the Tigers of Memphis.
According to the current University of Memphis media guide, "Some say the true arrival of (Tiger) basketball came on Feb. 2, 1957, when the Tigers upset No. 3-ranked Louisville at the Ellis Auditorium, 81-78.''
Sixteen years later, the rivalry had grown deeper and richer still.
Confrontations involving former Tiger big man Fred Horton and Louisville's Al Vilcheck had flared tensions.
Tiger fans found irritating the brash attitude of second-year Louisville coach Denny Crum, a former UCLA assistant.
And of course there was a controversial Missouri Valley playoff game in Nashville the previous March, when the league gave Louisville one last chance to beat the Tigers. Louisville won the game and the Valley's NCAA Tournament bid, then advance to what some considered the Tigers' rightful place in the Final Four.
So as the city awaited the Jan. 25 game at the Mid-South Coliseum, the rivalry had never run hotter.
"I've always been one who loved those situations,'' says Crum. "Absolutely, it was the No. 1 rivalry we had back then.''
Although Louisville held Finch to "only'' 20 points, he made all the difference. Against the Cardinals, he always did.
Before Finch's arrival, Memphis State had gone 2-13 against Louisville.
As a player, Finch played seven games against Louisville, going 4-3.
As head coach of the Tigers from 1986-1997, Finch went 12-8 against the Cardinals.
In its 88 years of basketball, Louisville has won 65 percent of its games. Against teams on which Larry Finch was the primary leader, the Cardinals lost 60 percent of the time.
This time, Finch took over with the Tigers down six points with 12 minutes remaining. When he capped a rally with a driving bank shot and two free throws, the winning streak hit 11.
The win moved the Tigers to 13-3 overall and 4-0 in the Valley. When they finished off the homestand with three more wins - over Drake, Bradley and New Mexico State - the winning streak hit 14 and the Tigers moved to No. 16 in the national polls.
Even as the city began the torturous process of integrating the public schools through busing, even as letters to the editor reflected a bitter racial backlash, the Tigers were generating positive energy.
Not everyone could agree on whether Interstate 40 should go through Overton Park, or how best to desegregate the schools or if the city should spend millions to renovate Memorial Stadium to lure an NFL franchise.
But there was no dissension when it came to Tiger basketball.
"It was kind of strange,'' says point guard Bill Laurie. "We were a bunch of guys who really enjoyed what we were doing and being around one another, and it just felt like our fans were connected to us in a way, needless to say, none of us had ever felt.''