Memphis State: quite a commitment
By Zack McMillin
Sunday, March 30, 2003
Larry Finch could flat shoot the cover off a basketball. Dirty Red, as they called him over in Orange Mound, had hands strong as a bricklayer's, a barrel chest and arms built sturdy in the old-fashioned way, by play and by work and by nature. Nobody ever accused him of explosive leaping ability, but Finch could hover longer than one might imagine.
Because of his strength and his gift for judging trajectory, every time Larry Finch took a shot, it had a chance.
"He put more spin on the ball," says Larry Kenon, one of his famous teammates, "than anybody I ever played with."
So when Ronnie Robinson tipped the ball to him on the late fall evening of Dec. 1, 1970, Finch took four dribbles, eyed the basket 25 feet away, rose up, pointed his right elbow at the rim and loaded the basketball with backspin.
History does not tell us if the 7,123 at the Mid-South Coliseum that night made like a Melrose crowd and let out a collective "whoosh!" when Finch shot.
Newspaper accounts do tell us what happened next. The ball ripped into the cotton netting, and the Coliseum exploded with joy that had been bottled up too long.
Six seconds into his first varsity game for the Memphis State Tigers basketball team, Larry Finch had the first two points of a career that would produce 1,869 points in only three seasons. He finished with 24 that night against California-Davis, and, in the first game for charismatic new coach Gene Bartow, the Tigers scored more points - 99 - than they had in any game of the previous five seasons.
It was the opening scene in a three-year saga that forever changed Tiger basketball, and the unbridled cheers from that crowd began a kind of catharsis in Memphis, on and off the court. Because while nearly all the fans inside the Mid-South Coliseum that night were white, all five Memphis State starters were black - a rarity for a program in the Deep South in 1970.
Maybe basketball lacked the power to solve the city's racial divisions, but it provided both a welcome distraction and a needed point of hope. When Finch, Robinson and company ended their journey with a loss to UCLA in the 1973 national championship game, the Tigers had more than just captivated Memphis with their talent and enthusiasm for playing a simple game.
They had, in the process, helped people in the city learn to get along.
Tiger fans in St. Louis at that 1973 Final Four brandished signs that said, simply: "Believe in Memphis." It captured the mood of that unforgettable season.
"Memphis State and the rest of the city was racially divided," says Maxine Smith, former executive director of the NAACP. "Sport played such an overwhelming part in our community breaking down barriers."
At some level, it's a preposterous claim. Basketball breaking down racial barriers? Barriers that seem, at times, to be as intractable and forbidding today as ever?
But most anyone who lived through that moment in Memphis's history will attest that it's true. The 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team gave something to citizens from every corner of every neighborhood. It spread a collective joy that sports is uniquely equipped to generate, and the way people describe the city's response to that team has turned into a kind of local folklore.
On the 30th anniversary of that Final Four week in St. Louis, The Commercial Appeal will examine the impact that timeless Tiger team had on the city.
How much influence could a college basketball team have in a city polarized by race and class? To what extent did the city change, and did those changes last? Did that team really help white folks and black folks find common ground? Or is it all a happy myth?
And what were the players really like, anyway? While people tend to recall the team as a powerful social force, it was a collection of characters, too, individuals who didn't seek to change their corner of the world, but might have done so, just the same.
There was the coach so square they called him "Clean" Gene Bartow, who came from a Division 2 school to develop a basketball team powerful enough to put a scare in the best team in the history of college basketball.
There was transcendental Larry Kenon, who helped forever change the options available to talented young basketball players.
There was Billy Buford, one of the all-time great voices in the Tiger locker room, and L'il Bill Laurie, a gritty point guard who became a billionaire.
And at the center of it all were Finch and Ronnie Robinson, sons of mothers who earned their livings as what were then called "domestics," who emerged from Orange Mound to become the unlikeliest of heroes for a city in a slump.
When these two buddies took their spots on the varsity squad in December of 1970, the city was just 30 months removed from perhaps its lowest point, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
Black Memphians detested Memphis's mayor at the time, Henry Loeb, who was described by Stax star and Tiger basketball fan Isaac Hayes as a "staunch racist."
In the following three years, the city's public school system would be riven by a federally mandated busing desegregation plan.
The day before Finch and Robinson began their Tiger careers, the city council met with legendary New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, whose company was in the process of purchasing a Memphis TV station. He asked them to name Memphis's biggest problem. The answer was obvious: race.
Things had improved, but the city was at a crossroads.
Councilman James L. Netters: "There is as much polarization at the grass roots level as ever, maybe more. One serious event, one big event could ignite it again."
Council chairman Mrs. Gwen Aswumb: "We're still very far behind."
Councilman Robert James: "The fever is raging."
On the December day of Finch and Robinson's debut, the wind along the river had cooperated just enough to allow workers to put down the first girder on what then was called the Interstate 40 bridge. Looking back, it's hard not to connect the two events.
Downtown, city fathers celebrated the construction of a new, modern bridge, one that would become a symbol of the city, one that would connect Memphis to the national interstate running clear to California.
In Midtown, in a civic building halfway between the Memphis Country Club and Melrose High, a mostly white crowd celebrated Larry Finch hitting a 25-foot jumper.
It is easy to recall the thicket of problems and frustrations facing the city and the nation in the early '70s, and easy to forget something else. There was idealism then, too. The palpable sense that anything was possible, even amid the chaos of a rapidly changing world.
Men were still landing on the moon twice a year, after all.
Believe in Memphis?
A short walk, a long trip
Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson grew up within easy walking distance of the Mid-South Coliseum in the area of Memphis known as Orange Mound, a place where pride has always run deep.
Finch lived over on Select Street, the oldest of Maple Finch's seven children.
His father, who drove a cab, died when Finch was 13, and his mother worked as a domestic, earning $5.50 a day, the two quarters serving as her bus fare.
Finch learned the game on the outdoor courts in and around Orange Mound, and by pestering older players to include him in their games and practices.
"Larry would be out there, as short as he was, trying to look in and see what we were doing," says Charles Hudson, the golf pro at Pine Hill who played for Melrose in the early '60s. "I would see him out in the cold and I said, `There's that little kid, Finch.' "
Ronnie Robinson lived in a three-room house over in Magnolia - "kind of a suburb of Orange Mound," Robinson says - with his mother and seven siblings.
"One of my goals, I said if I ever get up, I want the biggest bedroom I can find," says Robinson. "It was a pretty tough life growing up, but we didn't know it. To us, that was just the way this life works."
Robinson arrived at Memphis State skinny - 6-8, 175 pounds - in part because he would literally compete with his older brother, Neal, at dinnertime.
"The coaches at Melrose used to wonder why me and Neal got showered and dressed so fast after practice," Robinson says. "I told 'em I had to get home before Neal so I could get something to eat."
Finch and Robinson did not meet until junior high, but by the time they began playing together at Melrose, they were inseparable. As two of the city's most prominent athletes - in any sport, on any level - Finch and Robinson led Melrose to a famous city championship victory at a sold-out Mid-South Coliseum.
Memphis State and then-coach Moe Iba pursued Finch from the time he was a sophomore in high school, but convincing him to sign with the Tigers would be difficult.
Black Memphians did not trust Memphis State, and not without reason.
"They felt like it was a tokenism attitude toward blacks," says Leonard Draper, a black Memphian working in local community centers who Iba enlisted to help recruit.
In those days, black high schools played in what were known as the Negro Leagues, and Charlie Cavagnaro covered them for The Commercial Appeal. He can remember watching the best black players in the city - Charlie Paulk, Rick Roberson, Bobby Smith et al - and thinking Memphis State could have won a national title by putting them together.
"There were these absolutely marvelous basketball players coming along in the city," says Cavagnaro, who later became Tiger athletic director. "Every college but those in the South were in here recruiting. Some great ones got away."
Until 1964, the athletic department did not permit coaches to recruit black athletes. Even when the athletic department declared itself open to black student-athletes, there were complications.
It is still not clear what went wrong with the recruitment of Bobby Smith, a fluid forward from Melrose who many still argue is the best basketball player Memphis ever produced.
When Penny Hardaway signed with the Tigers in 1990, many compared him to Smith in an effort to capture the magnitude of his talent. So when Smith signed with Memphis State and then-coach Dean Ehlers in the spring of 1965, the Tigers were poised to begin a new tradition.
It was a move former Tiger guard Mike Butler, as a student in the mid-60s, had urged the administration to make.
"It needed to happen," says Butler, who often ventured to black neighborhoods for pickup games. "Growing up, I had seen all these great black players going away to school. It really didn't make sense.
"Actually, segregation didn't make sense if you really want to get down to it."
Just before Smith was to enroll, however, the athletic department said he did not meet certain requirements on an entrance exam and denied him admission.
Though Smith would land at Tulsa and go on to enjoy a long and prosperous professional career, the episode created an even-larger divide between Memphis State and black Memphians, especially those in the neighborhood right next door, in Orange Mound.
"People in Orange Mound were really disturbed with Memphis State at the time," says Draper.
When Iba took over the program in 1966, at age 27, the Tigers were preparing to move into the Missouri Valley Conference, then considered one of the best basketball leagues in the country.
It was also considered a "black" league, a crude way of saying most teams in the league featured good black players.
To compete in the Valley, Iba knew he had to cultivate the fertile talent of the Memphis Negro Leagues. The only black player on Iba's first team, Herb Hilliard, was an unrecruited walk-on with modest skills.
There would be other reasons for the Tigers' woeful 3-45 league record those first three seasons in the Valley - Iba's plodding offense, for one - but it was impossible to ignore the head start other Valley schools had in recruiting black players.
"We had a mostly all-white team and it was quite an adjustment for the talent we had," says Iba, a part-time NBA scout now living in Fort Worth, Texas. "Memphis State had just never recruited black athletes. We had to break some ground."
This is what Iba was facing in his recruitment of Finch. Memphis State had never recruited, signed and played a black Memphian out of high school.
"He had to recruit some athletes to stay home," Cavagnaro says. "It's why Larry was so important."
Finch could think of many reasons to stay home and become a Tiger: His family, his growing friendship with Draper, the trust Iba had built with Melrose assistant coach Verties Sails and the commitment the Tigers made to also offer a scholarship to Robinson.
Even with all that, there was immense pressure on Finch within the community to sign elsewhere.
"Larry said, `Coach, if you say not to go, I won't go,' " says Sails, the local junior-college coach who is now a Memphis coaching icon. "I said, `Larry, if you want to go, I'd be crazy if I didn't tell you to do what you want to do.'"
Sails could handle the heat, he told Finch.
"The key was," remembers Sails, "could he handle the heat?"
When Iba assured Sails he was committed to the package deal of Finch-Robinson, Finch finally decided to follow his heart and sign with the Tigers.
William Collins, Larry and Ronnie's coach at Melrose, like many in Orange Mound, felt hurt by the decision. He refused to attend the signing ceremony.