Valley Goal - The Tigers' talent, tenacity were essential to winning title
By Zack McMillin
Thursday, April 3, 2003
On Feb, 10, 1973, the Memphis State Tigers walked onto the court at Tulsa, and it's no exaggeration to say the enormous hopes of a season rested on the game's outcome.
Two nights earlier the Tigers saw their 14-game winning streak snapped at Louisville. Led by Memphian Willie Biles, Tulsa had surprised everyone by grabbing second place in the conference. Officials at Fairgrounds Pavilion released 1,000 standing-room-only tickets in anticipation of the largest home crowd in school history.
If they were to earn the Missouri Valley Conference's lone NCAA Tournament bid, the Tigers had to win this one.
Thanks to Larry Kenon, they would . . .
Looking back on it, Kenon landed in Memphis like an angel sent from the basketball gods. He was only with the team one year - he was Dajuan Wagner before Wagner was born - but he left an indelible impression on anyone who saw him play.
Kenon struck quite a figure when he walked into the gym. He was 6-9 with arms and legs longer than some 7-footers, and his Superfly afro only added to the presence.
Off the court, Kenon could appear downright stoic, but the moment Kenon got a basketball into his enormous hands, he commanded the attention of everyone in the building.
Seeing Kenon for the first time hit most folks like a basketball revelation.
Here is Wayne Yates, the Tiger assistant who recruited Kenon: ``First time I saw him, I was awestruck.''
Jim Rothman, a local basketball historian: ``The first game, against Missouri Western, I'll never forget this. There was a skirmish on the floor, in the paint, and Kenon comes in, scoops the ball up with one hand, raises up without putting his other hand on it, and drops it in from four feet. His hands, my God.''
Bill Laurie, starting MSU point guard: ``The very first day I saw Larry Kenon in our afternoon pickup game, he walked up to the floor, palmed a ball in one hand, palmed a ball in his other hand. He hadn't warmed up, hadn't done a thing and he walks up to the basket, jumps up and dunks both balls. I knew at that point he was a very, very special player.''
The most remarkable thing about all this is that Kenon didn't even begin playing organized basketball until midway in his junior year at Birmingham's Ullman High. For Kenon, athletics had never taken priority where he grew up, near downtown Birmingham.
``Nobody in my family really played organized sports; we were just a working family,'' says Kenon, now a car salesman in San Antonio. ``I do remember I grew to about 6-5 one summer, and all of a sudden I was so uncoordinated.''
Once he joined the Ullman High team, Kenon worked to become great. He wore ankle weights all day, to build strength and explosion in those long legs. He jumped back and forth over benches.
Still, Kenon did not attract interest from big-time schools, and Alcorn State appeared to be his likely destination.
He had visited Amarillo Junior College, however, and liked the idea of developing his talent for two more seasons.
``My grandmother, she liked Alcorn and that's where she told me to go, but somehow or another I had visited Amarillo and decided that's where I wanted to go,'' Kenon says. ``I left the house with my suitcase, running. A friend of mine took me to the airport.''
By the time he finished his freshman season at Amarillo, word spread about the obscure kid from Birmingham doing ridiculous things on the court. By the end of his sophomore season, after he had committed to play for the Tigers but before he had played a minute of Division 1 ball, Kenon earned an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic team.
The talent was inescapable. And as Kenon developed into the most dominating player in the Missouri Valley Conference - he was averaging 19.2 points and 17.1 rebounds after 21 games - so was the speculation: Would he stay for his senior season or would he leave school early, which back then happened rarely?
``I haven't really given any thought to it,'' Kenon said midway in the season. ``My main concern right now is Memphis State.''
Someone asked him how he thought he would fare against Bill Walton, the transcendent UCLA center, should Memphis make it to the Final Four.
``I try to keep that out of my mind until we win conference,'' Kenon said. ``I caught about five minutes of him one night. He's a bad dude, no doubt about it.''
But if badness was the measure, Kenon was badder than most.
No game described his impact so much as the thrilling battle for first place at Tulsa.
Kenon scored 27 points, pulled down 24 rebounds and hit an 18-foot jumper to force overtime.
The 91-87 overtime victory gave Memphis a two-game cushion in the Valley with five conference games remaining.
They would need it, but not until after a final two-game stand at the Mid-South Coliseum to say farewell to Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson who had, in the course of three seasons, become the city's most beloved athletes.
``Somehow or another, they made us feel a part of that community as well, even though a lot of us were from out of town,'' says Laurie. ``That was one of the big attributes. All of us on the team felt like, well, we're all from Memphis.''
Since the day he signed with Memphis, in 1969, Finch carried a sense of responsibility. He not only accepted the enormous expectations, he asked for more.
Headed into the final two home games of their careers, Finch and Robinson had been a part of 56 wins, and they were 42-3 at the Mid-South Coliseum.
Their final two home games, blowout wins over Wichita State and West Texas State, came packaged in pomp and circumstance.
``One of the greatest eras in Memphis State's sports history,'' wrote CA beat writer Bob Jones, ``will begin an emotional countdown.''
The final game, a 116-79 rout of West Texas State on a Saturday night, pushed the total attendance for Tiger games in nine seasons at the Coliseum past 1 million.
The 11,600 fans at the game were given commemorative certificates featuring pictures of Finch, Robinson and fellow seniors Doug McKinney and Jerry Tetzlaff.
Even the coach, Gene Bartow, received love on this night. In the student section, someone held a sign that read, ``Bartow for Mayor.''
When it was all over, Finch and Robinson were given a pair of scissors so they could cut down the Coliseum nets.
On one end, Robinson hoisted Finch while he snipped, and, at the other, Finch helped hold Robinson up to the goal.
``It's just a big thrill playing for the people who come out and cheer for you like that,'' Finch said. ``It makes you proud to be a part of Memphis. I just love the fans.''
As the Memphis State band played Auld Lang Syne, Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson walked off the court together, wearing the nets around their necks.
It was a sweet moment. It felt triumphant, even. All around Memphis, there was a sense that, with a two-game lead and three to play, the Valley championship was a foregone conclusion. But with one trip remaining on the Valley road, in three of the most hostile environments in the league, "mayor-to-be" Bartow still felt the pressure.
``Let's wait and see whether they want me next week,'' he said. ``It'll be a fight to the wire.''
A win away
When Finch scored 37 points to help win at North Texas State's famed "Snake Pit," the Tigers, ranked 11th in the country, headed to New Mexico State knowing a victory would clinch the Valley championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
But trouble brewed in Las Cruces.
Student protests at New Mexico State - over the refusal of the school's regents to allow coed visitation rights - led to confrontations with police, and, on the eve of the game, two buildings on the campus burned down.
Officials at the school made contingency plans should more trouble erupt, including the possibility of playing without spectators or forfeiting the game to the Tigers if "the excitement becomes too excessive."
``I remember that environment,'' says Laurie. ``It was an unusual situation, no question.''
For Laurie, there was an additional measure of uncertainty because Aggie coach Lou Henson had listed the team's all-American candidate, John Williamson, as ``possibly doubtful'' to play at all.
Laurie was a strong 5-10 guard who had led the state of Missouri in scoring as a senior in tiny Versailles, Mo. His role on this team, however, involved less glamor. He got the ball to the three main scorers - Finch, Robinson and Kenon - and usually guarded the opposing team's best scoring guard.
"L'il Bill was 5-10 but he was strong as an ox," says Kenny Andrews, a reserve forward who was the best man in Laurie's wedding. "He wasn't going to back down from anyone."
Everyone called him, "Li'l Bill,'' but his bushel of blonde hair and his boy-scout smile belied an intense competitive spirit. Even now, at 51, Laurie plays in competitive basketball leagues.
``Bill was a gutty little player and just as hardnosed as anyone you've ever seen,'' says Wayne Yates, the assistant coach. ``If someone knocked him down, he'd jump right back in their face.''
Says Wes Westfall, a starter at forward: ``He was tough with a capital T.''
Nobody then knew what Laurie would one day become. They knew his girlfriend, of course, Nancy Walton, and often would see her at the Casual Corner, where she worked with Kenny Andrews's girl, June.
Back then, the name of Nancy's father, Bud Walton, didn't mean much. Wal-Mart stock had only recently hit the New York Stock Exchange.
``It was simpler times,'' says Lou Strasberg, longtime travel coordinator for the team. ``We just thought her daddy ran a little ol' five-and-dime over in Arkansas.''
Nobody could guess that one day Li'l Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy, would become billionaires. Nor could they forsee Laurie as the owner of the NHL's St. Louis Blues.
He was just another vital cog on the team, another player the city leaned on for its collective joy and inspiration. Laurie's play against New Mexico State would add to his reputation as one of the toughest guards to ever play for the Tigers.
With Finch in foul trouble - he scored only eight points - the game turned into the fiercest defensive battle of the season. Williamson played and finished with 18, but missed 14-of-23 shots.
``John was elbowing him and elbowing him, and I remember seeing the back of Bill's head and all that hair kept flailing back,'' Kenon says. ``I said, `Just let him go and I'll block his shot,' but he never let him go.''
Still, the half-filled arena - the campus had stayed trouble free - sensed an upset, with the Aggies ahead by three.
Wes Westfall, one of the Tigers' poorest free-throw shooters, hit a pair of key free throws, Finch followed with a pair of his own and the Tigers took a one-point lead in the final minute.
As the clock slid toward 15 seconds, Williamson got the ball on the left side. He drove to the basket, looking to penetrate, but Laurie made him settle for a 17-foot jumper.
The ball glanced off the rim, Kenon stretched one arm high for the rebound and fired one of his famous baseball outlet passes to Laurie.
After dribbling out the final seconds, Laurie tossed the ball to the ceiling, crashed into press row and, as he ran from the court, was embraced by Bartow.
The league couldn't make them play a bogus tiebreaking playoff game with Louisville, not this year. The Tigers were outright champs of the Valley and headed for the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional.
``I just remember it was a great relief,'' Laurie says. "It was a very satisfying moment.''
Forget the program's 0-3 mark in previous NCAA Tournament appearances - these Tigers were proving they transcended everything that had ever come before them, on and off the court.
"There was," Laurie says, "a lot of jubilation."