The Ringmaster - Bartow had ability to get the best effort from his talented Tigers
By Zack McMillin
Originally published 02:12 p.m., April 1, 2003
Updated 02:12 p.m., April 3, 2008
Handed a technical foul by the Southeastern Conference officials, the Memphis State coach turned to his bench along the baseline at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym and motioned to his players.
Jack Eaton, Memphis State's popular radio play-by-play broadcaster, told those listening on WMC radio that Bartow had beckoned the Tigers to head to the locker room. It was the beginning of the second half - and he was ordering them to just up and leave?
The players, bewildered, walked toward Bartow and huddled.
It was Dec. 30, 1972, and the Tigers were squandering the best half of basketball they had played in this 1972-73 campaign.
For the 2,000 or so Memphis State fans who made the trip, the joy of seeing their Tigers finally fulfilling the massive preseason expectations quickly evaporated. Vanderbilt, ranked 10th in the country, had started to rally and the fans in the old opera house had started to roar.
"It was,'' says Jim Rothman, a 30-year Tiger season-ticket holder, ``the loudest I have ever heard any gym anywhere at anytime in my entire life.''
Thirty years later it is still hard to say whether Bartow's gesture was a momentary lapse in judgment, a shrewd motivational tool or simply a misunderstood reaction to the technical foul.
For those who knew Bartow, the man his players called "Clean Gene," it was an astonishing, electric moment.
``If he said, `Dammit,' it caught your attention,'' says Wes Westfall, one of the team's junior-college transfers. ``You never saw him lose his cool, unless maybe he threw a piece of chalk at the chalkboard.''
Bartow had applied for the Memphis State job after six years at Valparaiso, then a Division 2 school in Indiana. At 42, Bartow had already climbed farther in the coaching profession than he could have imagined when he took his first job, at Shelbina High in Missouri. When he won a state championship at St. Charles (Mo.) High in the St. Louis suburbs, Bartow started dreaming bigger dreams and when he took Valparaiso to the Division 2 NCAA Tournament, he thought maybe he could duplicate that success on a larger scale.
When Memphis State fired Moe Iba in 1970, after successive six-win seasons, Bartow got his chance.
Like Bob Vanatta in the '50s, Bartow took to selling the program to the city. As the story goes, Bartow would give his speaker-circuit speech to a crowd of three guys standing on the corner.
``Gene could apply the salve better than anybody I've known,'' says Wayne Yates, one of Bartow's assistants and his eventual successor as coach. ``He was a great PR man.
``He had Memphis totally sold.''
On this night, however, Bartow felt the referees were disrespecting him and his team. Hence, his outburst and this sudden dramatic moment.
As Bartow gathered the team, Eaton wondered aloud what might happen next.
If Bartow did have thoughts of forfeiting - and he still adamantly denies any such intention - he quickly changed his mind. The huddle dispersed, the roar began building to a crescendo and the Tigers poised themselves for a wild finish.
``We were in a fight for our lives - several things had gone wrong - and I had to get some attention,'' Bartow would say after the game.
The final 13 minutes foreshadowed similar gut-wrenching finishes by this Tiger team.
With four players fouled out - including starters Ronnie Robinson, Wes Westfall and Bill Laurie - the decisive plays came not from reliable hometown hero Larry Finch nor from Larry Kenon, the Tigers' emerging superstar.
They came from the bench.
Kenny Andrews, called Buffalo because his face looked like a buffalo nickel, tipped in a miss.
Clarence Jones, a rangy freshman from Alabama, hit a key free throw.
Doug McKinney - wild man McKinney - dropped in a layup.
The result - a 74-71 win that showed exactly why Bartow would go on to win 647 college basketball games, no matter that some did not consider him a strategic genius.
He knew how to reach people from all backgrounds and convince them to follow his plan for their success.
``We were all young and dumb and crazy, but he was a master genius at supervising everything,'' says Billy Buford, the team's sixth-man. ``He really knew how to narrow things down, and just had that ability to blend us all together.''
Calculated or not, Bartow's antics on the sidelines at Vanderbilt had a galvanizing effect, not just on that game, but on the ongoing process of forging so many disparate personalities into a team.
``I told him on his postgame show," Eaton says, "it was the greatest coaching move I ever saw."
``Why, of all places,'' Sen. Bill Bradley once asked, is the ideal of integration ``closest to being achieved on the basketball court?"
Bradley would have fit well into Memphis State's basketball tradition. Like the first two great Tiger players, Forrest Arnold and Win Wilfong, Bradley grew up in a small Missouri town, not far from the Mississippi River. His destiny would lie in other places - as a Rhodes scholar at Princeton, as an NBA champ with the New York Knicks, as a senator from New Jersey - but in his book, Values of the Game, he wrote about basketball in a way that described the 1972-73 Tigers.
``I believe,'' he wrote, answering his own question, ``it's because the community of a team is so close that you have to talk with one another; the travel is so constant that you have to interact with one another; the competition is so intense that you have to challenge one another; the game is so fluid that you have to depend on one another; the high and low moments so frequent that you learn to share them; the season is so long that it brings you to mutual acceptance.''
Billy Ted Turnipseed is an ol' country boy from Lexington, Tenn., who has served as an administrator for elementary schools on overseas U.S. military bases for more than a decade. He has traveled the world, collected untold numbers of friends and collected a couple of storage sheds of memories.
Turnipseed was one of two student managers for the 1972-73 team. He washed the uniforms, made sure Ronnie Robinson's lucky socks did not get washed, made sure the locker room radio was dialed to WDIA.
He still remembers the camaraderie on that team, and he sometimes finds himself referencing it when he's making a point about teamwork to those working for him.
``I never had a sense of whiteness or blackness anytime in all my tenure there,'' says Turnipseed, now living in Naples, Italy. ``There was just a tremendous amount of respect. I think they loved each other, I really do.''
It started for this Tiger team in the pickup games before the season.
It extended to the early season practices, too.
Everyone remembers the day Kenon soared through the lane and threw down a vicious dunk - dunks were illegal in 1972-73 - to make a point about respect.
``I cannot remember, before or since, being with a tighter-knit group, on and off the court,'' says Jim Liss, a backup point guard who won the Arkansas game with a free throw. ``I don't think people can ever understand the respect we had for one another.''
There was no disputing the team's three stars - Finch, Robinson and Kenon - accounted for 67 percent of the scoring.
But throughout the season - just like that memorable night at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym - the difference between winning and losing often fell to role players.
It might have been gritty point guard Laurie, applying his defense or diving for loose balls.
Or maybe McKinney, the spirited senior with the playboy looks and fearless attitude.
Though Kenon overshadowed them with his playing genius, the team's other junior-college transfers, Buford and Wes Westfall, would carry their own memories of individual glory out of 1973.
This does not happen for teams with fractures between personalities and friction between egos.
``There is no question a lot of the success of our team came because everybody stuck together and knew their role,'' says Laurie.
It even pertained to the coaching staff.
Yates, former Tiger star and Los Angeles Laker, got the best players.
Leroy Hunt - ``Draw 'Em Up Leroy,'' Buford called him - provided the Xs and Os.
Bartow brought the vision together, built enormous confidence in each of the players and created the atmosphere conducive to harmony and, thus, to winning.
``They were a dynamite mix, like three perfect pieces to a puzzle," Turnipseed said. "I always watched 'em in awe.''
Yates, for his part, believes that Finch was the key to it all.
He was a great player, yes. He was a great leader, too.
``The person who should get the most credit for the blending is Larry Finch,'' says Yates. ``He helped establish a great atmosphere, and kept everything positive.''
Headed into the first game of the Missouri Valley season, the Tigers weren't difficult to scout. Robinson and Finch were givens, and Kenon was emerging as the best big man in the country east of UCLA's Bill Walton.
But how does one stop camaraderie? How does one defend cohesion?
``The right path,'' Bradley wrote, ``is really very simple: Give respect to teammates of a different race, treat them fairly, disagree with them honestly, enjoy their friendship, explore your common humanity, share your thoughts about one another candidly, work together for a common goal, help one another achieve it."
One way in
In 1972-73, the NCAA Tournament's calculus was unforgiving. If you played in a conference, there was one way to earn a bid - by winning your conference outright.
To go to the NCAAs, Memphis needed to win the regular-season championship of the Missouri Valley Conference.
That task began on the always perilous Valley road.
To be precise, it began on an icy Iowa highway three days into 1973, aboard a bus going 20 mph through the frozen Midwestern night.
Beating Drake at Drake could be tough enough in normal circumstances. Doing it after a harrowing night of travel made the task more daunting.
``I thought we were going to die,'' says Bill Cook, a freshman guard who, like most Tigers, was not accustomed to severe winter weather. ``There were these mounds of snow in the parking lot; they looked like big ol' igloos.''
The Commercial Appeal beat writer, Bob Jones, described the Tigers' Missouri Valley Conference opener with Drake as ``a double-overtime thriller that had a Veterans Auditorium crowd of 11,100 constantly clutching at its heart.''
It also had the Drake fans searching their programs for the bundle of energy wearing No. 20 for Memphis State, one Billy Buford.
``Billy Bipp,'' Larry Finch would tell Sports Illustrated later that season, ``he's our fire man.''
In other words, B.B., as many called him, supplied the spark. He came off the bench to rescue the Tigers in times of crisis.
By February, Buford would come to relish his role, but, as the Tigers prepared for Drake, he still believed he should be treated as a star.
He'd been a star at Glasgow High and Paducah Junior College in Kentucky. He'd been an all-American in junior college and turned down a slew of big-time schools eager to add a smooth 6-7 forward to their roster.
``I struggled with that,'' says Buford. ``A lot of that had to do with my ego and my pride.''
The 51-year-old Billy Buford understands things the 21-year-old Billy Buford was only beginning to realize. A former heroin addict who now is a supervisor for an alternative drug sentencing program in Bowling Green, Ky., Buford takes great pride in, as he puts it, ``being a Tiger.''
What's that mean? Try this: During the 2000 season, upon watching Louisville lay a first-half whipping on the Tigers, Buford bolted out of the luxury suite at The Pyramid and angrily confronted the Tigers before they returned to the floor.
Buford remains one of the greatest talkers in the history of Tiger basketball, and his brash confidence spilled onto the basketball court.
``Billy didn't walk, he be-bopped," said Turnipseed. "He was like Will Smith before there was Will Smith.''
Unlike Will Smith, Buford was not handed a starring role in this production. For Buford, finding his place on a team with three undisputed stars - Finch, Robinson and Kenon - meant redirecting some of his enormous pride.
``For me, the breakthrough came with the removal of me trying to prove something,'' Buford says. ``I personally made the commitment that this ain't about me, this is about my team's success. I just needed to play the time I was getting.''
In the Tigers' 50-minute battle with Drake, Buford found his moment.
It came in the second overtime, after McKinney - of all people - hit a 15-foot jumper over two defenders to tie it at the buzzer.
It was one of only 15 shots McKinney would hit all season.
When Drake took a quick two-point lead in the second overtime, Buford went to work, scoring 10 of the Tigers' next 13 points.
The Tigers won their league opener, 97-92.
They'd trundle through the snow to make it 2-0 two nights later at Bradley.
That game was televised back to Memphis, so Tiger fans could see Finch break the school record for points scored in three seasons. Finch didn't get the 13 points he needed to break the record - he scored just 8 - but even that couldn't stop the Tigers.
As Bartow left the court, an angry Bradley fan delivered an elbow to his stomach.
Clean Gene did not make an issue of it. It's marvelous, how winning can improve a man's humor, and, besides, the Tigers had seven straight home games ahead of them.
The team that left Memphis not yet secure in its championship ambitions returned to the city ready to seize control of its destiny. With busing set to begin in the city schools in just a few weeks, with those B-52s still bombing away ahead of a Vietnam cease-fire, the city prepared to rally around the Tigers for a month-long homestand.
``We have the possibility of being a great team,'' Bartow said after the game. ``And we just might be getting there.''