Spirit of '73
Sunday, April 6, 2003
In the middle of the posh Tiger Clubs room at The Pyramid, Ronnie Robinson proudly wore a sweater with the University of Memphis logo and listened politely as fans told him stories of the old days.
This was in February, when the U of M honored the members of the 1972-73 Memphis State Tigers basketball team, and Robinson, the old Big Cat himself, had entered the room tentatively, as if he were not sure what kind of welcome he would receive or whether he'd feel at home.
It had been 30 years since Robinson helped his close friend, Larry Finch, lead the Memphis State Tigers to that national championship game loss to UCLA, and little remained the same. The school had retired Robinson's No. 33 jersey, sure, and it hung in the rafters of The Pyramid alongside Finch's No. 21.
But Robinson had never quite gotten over the feeling that the university no longer embraced him. The way in which the school handled the firing of Finch as its coach still gnawed at him, too.
The night before, while his former teammates socialized in a hotel ballroom in East Memphis, Robinson had chosen instead to attend the Whitehaven basketball games to watch his daughter, Ashley, and son, Ronnie.
His wife showed up to retrieve the gifts the school prepared for the former players. Doug McKinney, one of the team leaders 30 years ago, urged her to relay a message to Robinson.
"You tell Cat that tomorrow is about us," McKinney said. "It's not the university. He better be there."
So Robinson showed up with son Ronnie. The reception in the Tiger Clubs room preceded the U of M's Conference USA game with UAB, the program started by Gene Bartow, who had been the Tigers' coach in 1972-73.
Most of his teammates had not yet arrived, so Robinson looked at the collage of pictures put together in the center of the room. Someone admired Robinson's hair in one of the pictures, and that drew a laugh.
"I'm just trying to hold on to what I got," Robinson said.
As Robinson talked to Tiger fans, activity in the front corner of the room drew a crowd.
Through the huddle of people, Vickie Finch was nudging Larry Finch along in his wheelchair. Four months had passed since Finch left the hospital following a devastating heart attack and stroke, and he had begun making public appearances again.
For those unused to seeing Finch in his debilitated condition, the first moments were the hardest. His face seemed blank, and his left arm lay motionless on a small tabletop attached to the wheelchair.
As Vickie moved Finch through the crowd, Robinson washed his gaze over the image of his old friend. He seemed shaken.
"I hate seeing him the way he is," Robinson had said a few weeks earlier. "It makes me sick to even think about it."
Robinson quickly composed himself, and stepped forward to greet his old friend. Not long after, Robinson was pushing Finch around the room. He rarely left him the rest of the night.
So much has changed in the three decades since Robinson and Finch and their Tiger teammates captivated the city with their run at a national championship.
Memphis never got that NFL team it so badly wanted, but Tiger basketball has become a local institution, and the NBA approved the Grizzlies move in part because of the city's well-earned reputation as a basketball town. The team ownership includes black businessmen who made their success in Memphis.
The Tigers play downtown now, at The Pyramid, a move the program made over the objections of its then-coach, Larry Finch, who wanted an on-campus arena. That move, however, contributed to downtown revitalization that includes the new downtown baseball stadium, AutoZone Park and, soon, the Grizzlies' new FedExForum.
In 1973, Tiger coach Gene Bartow made $17,000 a year, with a $1,000 bonus for his TV and radio duties. He paid $32,000 for his new house out east.
Thirty years later, Tiger basketball coach John Calipari is guaranteed a yearly compensation package of $1.1 million and has a clothing allowance of $15,000. He paid $1.5 million for his house near the university.
When Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson joined the basketball team, the mayor at the time, Henry Loeb, was reviled and considered a racist by the black community.
Three decades later, Memphis has a black mayor, Willie Herenton, in his third term. Shelby County elected its first black mayor, A C Wharton, by a resounding margin in the 2002 election.
It's unrealistic to say that any or all of this happened as a direct or indirect result of the 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team, but the question arises, still: What kind of difference did that Tiger basketball team make in the grand scheme of things?
The Commercial Appeal hosted a forum for 10 people from every corner of this community to ask them that question. After 90 minutes of vigorous discussion, a consensus of sorts emerged.
If the 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team did nothing else, it filled a universal need. To move forward, Memphians needed to begin talking to one another in a civil way. They needed something to help transport them past the pain and bitterness that followed the civil rights movement in general and, more specifically, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Memphians needed something worth rallying around, something that could knit the city together.
That something was the 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team.
"There had never been another team or entity or effort or whatever that brought this city together like that team did," says Ted Anderson, the basketball coach at Hamilton and a Vietnam veteran who was then a student at MSU. "It transcended economic boundaries, transcended race. It was one universal theme."
Maybe the Tigers did not cure the town of racism, maybe they did not forge complete understanding between the races, maybe they did not fully heal all wounds.
What person or enterprise could have done all that, anyway?
At a time when the city was desperate for some unifying force, Tiger basketball found a way to touch people from every background, from every neighborhood.
"We were thirsty then," says Phil Cannon, the director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Breen Bland, a CBHS graduate who grew up just north of Frayser, told a story about a club he frequented in the '60s called The Living Room, on Mississippi Boulevard.
"It was mostly a black establishment, but they welcomed white folks down there," Bland says. "There weren't many of us, but we liked the music and we went."
That is, until the King assassination. Bland, in the Navy then, said he did not go back after that.
"Never tried, and that makes me feel bad about myself in retrospect," he says. "But there was just so much hostility. . . . I felt like it was something I couldn't do."
Bland, an MSU law graduate, knows it may sound silly to suggest a basketball team could have changed that sort of dynamic. But, like many other Memphians, he lived it. He knows what the team did.
"People all of a sudden didn't really care too much about the conflicts because these were our heroes and it didn't matter whether it was Billy Laurie or Larry Finch or Ronnie Robinson," Bland says. "These were kids we were in love with. People have talked for years about how they brought this city together, but it was something I honestly experienced and people around me experienced, and it's something that has changed the whole city, changed me."
Nobody would begin to suggest the Tigers permanently erased prejudice or made people from different backgrounds completely trust one another. But at that moment, for that moment, the basketball team filled a need.
"About the time those games came along, there was a togetherness, a coming together of the races in this city we hadn't seen before," says Bennie Crosnoe, who took his wife to the Final Four in St. Louis for their honeymoon. "Sad to say, I wish we could have it now."
It's a telling plea, this last one. Memphis remains a city filled with its share of problems. Racial misunderstanding stands at the top of the list. But does that detract from what the 1972-73 Tigers did for Memphis, or does it make them more inspiring still?
At the hardest of times, when reconciliation seemed even more out of reach than it does today, they managed to make a difference in a city that desperately needed positive news.
They were a distraction and a rallying point. They were a reason to believe.
"Everything wasn't hunky dory," says Wyeth Chandler, the mayor in 1972-73, "and everybody hadn't gone off into the sunset, but it was the beginning of the reuniting of the community."
Almost all the old Tigers were there that reunion night in February, on hand to see one another and to watch the current Tigers play a Conference USA game against UAB.
There was the head coach, Gene Bartow, now a consultant for the Grizzlies. One year after the championship run, his coaching journey took him to Illinois, then to UCLA as John Wooden's successor and finally back to the South, at UAB. He was a coaching pioneer of sorts, doubling and tripling his salary with each step but always maintaining his finest moments came in Memphis.
There was the point guard, Bill Laurie, now the owner of the St. Louis Blues hockey team. Laurie married Nancy Walton, Bud's daughter, and the Wal-Mart inheritance has made them billionaires. They actually made a bid to purchase the Grizzlies before Michael Heisley, but the NBA did not approve the transaction, saying it wanted the team to remain in Vancouver and not move to St. Louis.
There was Doug McKinney, the inspirational senior leader, still irrepressible and still the life of the party.
There was Larry Kenon, the missing piece, who settled in San Antonio after an all-star career in the ABA and NBA.
Other key players were there, too, like Wes Westfall and Billy Buford, the other junior-college transfers, and Bill Cook and Clarence Jones, the two star freshmen.
Jim Liss, Kenny Andrews, Ed Deschepper, John Washington, Jerry Tetzlaff and even Shannon Kennedy showed up, too. Some of them barely played that season, but all of them still felt the bonds of team.
When the members of that team were introduced at halftime, the crowd gave a long and emotional standing ovation, with the spotlight shining down on Finch, with Robinson next to him.
They had grown apart in the intervening years, had Finch and Robinson; both gave a few years to the ABA before moving on.
Robinson played in Europe, Finch began his coaching career at Richland Junior High, and the usual thing happened. They fell out of touch. They developed different circles of friends, landed in different neighborhoods, pursued different ambitions.
Robinson eventually got his degree from the university and hopped from one high school coaching job to another, never quite realizing the kind of success he craved. He says it has taken him the better part of the past three decades to come to terms with his place in the world.
"Once you've been on a mountaintop and then you come down here among the masses, it's a tough thing," says Robinson, who now works in the Fayette County school system. "Sometimes you can't adjust after they put you on such a high pedestal. It's something you've got to deal with. If you ain't careful, it will suck the life right on up out of you."
Bartow got Finch started in college coaching by making him his assistant at UAB, and the rest is literally history.
Finch helped Dana Kirk assemble the Memphis State team that made the 1985 Final Four, and when he succeeded Kirk as coach in 1986 - again serving as a healing presence for the city - Finch went on to become the winningest coach in the history of the program.
His 11 years at Memphis produced 220 wins and 130 losses. He made five NCAA Tournaments before being forced to resign in 1997.
Finch was only 46 at the time, and had clearly been worn down by the pressure and expectations he himself helped build.
The man who led the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament victory saw his grip on the job he loved begin slipping after a first-round upset in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
The man who paved the way for other black Memphians to become stars at the university was undone finally when three local stars - Tony Harris, Robert O'Kelley and Cory Bradford - all rejected Finch and their hometown school.
"Larry's such a nice guy that he wouldn't use any of his leverage and wouldn't be pushy," says George Klein, the famous deejay at WHBQ in 1973 who befriended Finch in high school. "He would just be Larry and accept stuff."
When Finch was forced out as coach, many believe it broke his heart. "I know it did," says Klein.
When other schools declined to hire him - notably Tennessee State University in Nashville - the noticeable decline in Finch's health seemed to accelerate. A minor stroke in 2001 was followed by the debilitating stroke in 2002.
Finch has shown progress in therapy sessions, but doctors say his recovery will be difficult and gradual.
"I don't think Larry would be in the shape he is in today if he was still coaching somewhere," Leonard Draper says. "You know, some people just regroup faster than other people."
Draper says Finch is invigorated by the response he receives at public appearances, even if he does become emotional. That's what happened when Finch was introduced with the rest of the team at halftime of the reunion game.
He composed himself though, and as he sat in the wheelchair flanked by Robinson and Kenon, the spirit of '73 seemed palpable.
The Tigers were led by a local kid, an inner-city product named Antonio Burks. They were on a winning streak that would captivate the city once again.
When the lights came back on, the Tigers of 30 years ago hustled off the court to make way for the 2003 version.
Robinson pushed Finch toward the baseline, but when they reached the end of the wooden court, there was a sharp drop to the concrete floor.
Robinson reached down, lifted the chair off the ground, and gently lowered Finch until the wheels were level.
As Robinson pushed Finch toward the exit cutting beneath the stands, Finch moved his head back and forth.
He was looking into the stands, drinking in the moment.
It was still his team, still his city.
He was seeing what had become of it.