Rough Start - Tigers tumble early in season, despite their stars
By Zack McMillin
Sunday, March 30, 2003
Wayne Yates never much liked airplane travel, so as the turbulence buffeted the Continental flight, the dapper Memphis State assistant coach tried to calm himself.
Headed to Amarillo, Texas, to see a junior-college recruit named Larry Kenon, Yates stared straight ahead as the West Texas squall threatened to knock the plane from the sky.
"Folks," the pilot said, coming over the intercom, "this is what we call threading the needle."
As the lead recruiter for Tiger basketball coach Gene Bartow, Yates endured airplane travel as a part of his profession, and the trip to Amarillo had become a common destination.
Yates knew he needed to do more than just find replacements for senior big men Don Holcomb and Fred Horton. To compete for a national title - and this was the goal for Memphis State in 1972-73 - the Tigers needed impact players to help Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson, best buddies from Orange Mound.
With the plane tossing one way and his stomach turning another, Yates just hoped he'd make it to Amarillo.
"It was a real white-knuckler," says Yates. "It was awful. I remember wondering, `Is this really worth it?' "
If Yates required any reassurance, he needed only reflect on how far the basketball program had traveled in the two years under Bartow - and remind himself how much the city was counting on the 1972-73 squad to do something special.
"From the end of Larry's and Ronnie's junior year, everyone . . . felt that if we could get just a little help, we'd get to the Final Four," Yates says. "That's all that was talked about. Everyone believed in it. It was like a religion."
Finch and Robinson had exceeded all expectations after joining the varsity squad as sophomores (freshmen were not then eligible to play) for the 1970-71 season.
Their decision to play for Memphis State - so unpopular in and around their Orange Mound community - had been more than vindicated.
As Finch and Robinson rejuvenated the program, the embrace of the Tiger faithful grew stronger, and as the affection for them grew, they seemed to respond with even better basketball. It was a cycle that constantly seemed to regenerate.
It was just as Verties Sails, their mentor at Melrose, had predicted when Finch frustrated many in his neigborhood by signing with the Tigers and then-coach Moe Iba.
"You go out there," Sails had told him, "and you do well and everybody that didn't want you to go, they gonna jump on the bandwagon like most fans."
When Bartow replaced Iba in 1970 after successive six-victory seasons, he installed an up-tempo offense and Finch and Robinson thrived, making the All-Valley squad as sophomores and juniors.
In 1970-71, the Tigers won 14 of their first 16 games and the Mid-South Coliseum began selling out regularly for the first time since it opened in 1965.
In 1971-72, with Finch earning league player of the year honors, the Tigers beat Louisville twice to tie the Cardinals for the regular-season championship of the Missouri Valley Conference. It took a wildly controversial Valley playoff game with Louisville, in Nashville, to keep the Tigers from the NCAA Tournament and a likely run to the Final Four.
But if the basketball was inspired, the reaction to the team was unprecedented.
Thousands of fans made that trip to Vanderbilt for the ill-fated playoff game, and those who remained home remember a Saturday night with streets empty of traffic.
Unlike the 1957 team that made the NIT finals, this team truly looked like all of Memphis - some white players, some black - and the two star players, Finch and Robinson, grew up one neighborhood removed from the university.
"This team has unified the city like it's never been unified before," Mayor Wyeth Chandler said after that season. "Black and white, rich and poor, young and old are caught up in its success."
It was against this backdrop that Yates pursued Kenon, and not even that rough plane ride could shake Yates's belief that Kenon was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.
"I went to see him play many, many times; I was never disappointed," says Yates. "I never lost my focus. He showed me every night he could play."
Billy Buford and Wes Westfall, two other junior-college recruits, possessed their own charms as basketball players, and Memphis State's main high school recruits - Bill Cook and Clarence Jones chief among them - were highly coveted, as well.
But anyone who saw Kenon knew his presence would transform the Tigers. Many describe his hands as the largest they have ever seen - Kenon's palms made the basketball look like a grapefruit - and, for someone so long and so lanky, Kenon possessed astonishing agility and balance to go with explosive leaping ability.
Even though he did not play organized basketball until his junior year at Birmingham's old Ullman High, Kenon was a natural. He averaged 27.6 points and 25.1 rebounds his sophomore year at Amarillo, and earned the honor of trying out for the 1972 Olympic team.
"It was pretty clear he was a pro," says Denny Crum, then the Louisville coach.
Add Kenon to the team's two homegrown superstars - Finch and Robinson - and the Tigers would have a starting lineup on an equal footing with every college team in America save UCLA.
Yates found recruiting much easier once he brought players to campus, where they found Finch earnestly entreating them to join him and black Memphians like Leonard Draper and Isaac Hayes helping woo them.
Not to mention a city all agog with Tiger basketball.
"Tigers to NCAA - '73," it read on the Owen Lumber marquee over on Summer.
"The credit to that great recruiting year goes to the atmosphere that existed in Memphis at that time," says Yates. "Everyone, without exception, was behind the basketball program."
In other ways, Memphis faced enormous challenges.
Like so many other places in America, and especially in the South, Memphis was going through a kind of adolescence in 1972-73 - enduring the pains of growth and coping with an ever-expanding set of new realities.
Busing had started in the city, with more than 7,000 students leaving the school system.
In Vietnam, B-52 bombers hit Hanoi, trying to achieve what President Nixon called "an honorable peace."
Memphis considered putting a dome on Memorial Stadium to enhance its NFL chances, and Memphis State unveiled unfunded plans for a 16,000-seat on-campus arena.
The Supreme Court decided, in Roe vs. Wade, for a woman's right to choose.
The city grappled with how - and whether - to approve cable TV ventures.
Presidents Truman and Johnson died. Nixon defeated McGovern in a landslide, and, according to a Gallup Poll, was the man Americans most admired, far ahead of the No. 2, Billy Graham.
Memphis moved up to No. 16 in a list of the nation's largest cities, two spots behind San Francisco and two in front of Boston.
Apollo's 17th and final mission ended.
Bellevue Baptist Church welcomed a new pastor to Midtown, a Florida man with a "golden deep voice" and "magnetic appeal" named Adrian Rogers.
Chief Justice Lewis F. Powell, in a speech to the American Bar Association, condemned a "new ethic" in America, saying, "The overriding concern - not merely of the youth but of large segments of our people - often seems to be a highly individualized self-interest. One's chief allegiance is to his own conscience and his own desires."
In Memphis, at least, basketball had found a way to unite large numbers of people with uncommon interests.
When Kenon pledged to become the cornerstone of an eight-player recruiting class, the Tigers emerged as favorites to win the Valley and a darkhorse pick to make the Final Four in St. Louis.
The sports information director at Memphis, a sparkplug of ideas named Bill Grogan, captured the city's basketball fever with his own interpretation of the old song, Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie.
There in the preseason media guide, Grogan called out a challenge to mighty UCLA, winner of six straight national championships.
Meet me in St. Louis, Wooden,
Beat your Bruins there!
By August, there were no season tickets available - the Mid-South Coliseum was sold out for the entire season. In November, just two weeks before the season opened, Bartow announced that UCLA had added Memphis to the schedule for the 1974-75 season.
Such was the mood when the Tigers opened the season Dec. 2 against Missouri-Western at the Coliseum, with Tiger fans giddy to greet the season.
"Everybody could not wait for the ballgames - it was like the greatest show in town," says Bill Cook, who turned down offers from across the nation. "That old roundhouse over there, man, it got very vocal and very rocking.
"I just wanted to be a part of it."
And yet, just 18 minutes into the first half of the first game all the buildup seemed suddenly like a cruel taunt.
Robinson, the Tigers' senior big man, lay still on the hardwood, and his shouts of pain indicated the worst. His trick knee had given way, sending the man everyone called Big Cat collapsing to earth.
The next morning, The Commercial Appeal ran a picture of Robinson's long, lean body stretched across the floor, head cradled in his arms.
"I remember looking over there and seeing Bartow ready to swallow his tie," says Bob Jones, the beat writer for The Commercial Appeal. "It was a scary moment."
Scary, because Robinson had overcome doubts about his ability and become the Tigers' warrior. It was hard to conceive of winning a Missouri Valley Conference title - and its lone NCAA Tournament bid - without his inside power.
"Ronnie, being from Orange Mound, he'd go out on the court and he'd say, `Come on and get some of this, you ain't gonna do nothing with this team,' " says Buford, the Tigers energetic sixth-man. "He's the one who would tell us, `C'mon, fellas. Let's go. Let's get busy.' "
Robinson had a unique style. Stronger than he looked and blessed with athleticism, Robinson would time missed shots just so, bounce high off the ground, squeeze the basketball and then kick his legs out, wide as you please.
He more than retrieved missed shots. He snatched them forcefully and cleared out space with those arms and legs all akimbo.
On offense, who could forget that lefthanded turnaround jumper, as sweet as the coconut cakes and sweet potato pies Momma Robinson used to bake for the team?
Tiger radio man Jack Eaton tagged Robinson with his nickname because, as he put it, "when I saw this cat jump over the fence in my backyard, it was just like Ronnie Robinson going up for a rebound and so he was the Big Cat."
His knee problems dated back to high school, though Robinson did not have surgery to repair them until his freshman year at Memphis.
Sails, Robinson's assistant coach at Melrose, believes the procedure did more than simply repair old damage in the knee. Eight days of inactivity combined with regular hospital meals transformed Robinson.
"They brought him his clothes," remembers Sails, "and he couldn't fit into any of them. He'd gained 20 pounds."
With the knee flaring up again, nobody could know for certain how long Robinson would need to recuperate. A preseason Bartow described as ragged already had the coaching staff concerned about effectively blending talented newcomers with the established stars like Finch and Robinson.
Robinson's injury only added to their early season frustrations.
"We weren't what I would describe as a fine-tuned machine," says Bartow. "We weren't hitting on all cylinders."
In the season's second game, at Louisiana State, Robinson played only 17 minutes and the Tigers lost by 13 to a team that, with new coach Dale Brown, was picked to finish last in the SEC.
Like the city itself, the Tigers were struggling to find harmony.
"The chemistry hadn't arrived," Bartow said.
That LSU game began a troubling seven days for the Tigers. They would lose three of four games, hitting bottom after blowing a 10-point second-half lead to Texas at the Coliseum. It was only the third time in three years the Tigers had lost on their home floor.
Buford sat crying in the locker room after the one-point loss, a moment Kenon recalls as a turning point for the team.
"It had a profound effect," says Kenon. "For some reason, I felt like we'd be a good team after that."
It was hard to see then, but Kenon's premonition was a good one.
Bartow, the basketball coach with the mad scientist glasses, was about to work his basketball alchemy.