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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Geoff Caulkins - Team tragedy: '85 Tigers had talent, but troubles haunt them

Team tragedy: '85 Tigers had talent, but troubles haunt them

By Geoff Calkins
Thursday, April 3, 2008

The grave lies far from Memphis, to the south, in Mississippi, a good hour-and-a-half drive.

Down I-55, away from the old Coliseum, which is forlorn and empty now.

At Batesville, Highway 278 curves to the East. At Marks, Rte. 3 picks up south again, past chained dogs and slanting porches and finally, on the right, Quitman County Elementary School.

The cemetery is behind the school and its big, commercial Dumpsters. The chain link fence is rusted and falling down.

The grave is just in there, to the left and then right again; beyond the weeds and the bottles and the three decrepit basketball hoops.

It is an unremarkable headstone, with an unremarkable granite flowerpot.

Except the flowerpot bears a name. It says, in large, block letters:


* * *

Can you remember when that nickname meant something? Can you remember the spring of 1985, when it meant the world?

Batman. People smiled just to say it. They smile, even now.

"Batman," says former Memphis coach Dana Kirk, sinking his fork into a stack of pancakes. "Baskerville Holmes. That's a sad story, right there."

Kirk does not have much use for sad stories these days.

"I only do positive," he says.

So Kirk should not read this column about his old team, which is only as positive -- and as tragic and as messy and as complicated -- as real life will allow.

Is cocaine positive? Is prison? Is murder-suicide?

Is an unsolved murder positive? Is a debilitating stroke?

"Why don't we talk about what it used to be like?" says Kirk who, just in case, has brought some notes.

He wants to remember what it felt like when his Tigers owned the town, when the people bought his bumper stickers, when they shouted his name.

"I used to take the players out to the Hickory Ridge Mall," Kirk said. "There would be 10,000 people or more out there, just to meet the team."

The Tigers won three tournament games by a total of five points that year, including a 63-61 win over Oklahoma to go to the Final Four.

"This was when you could meet us at the gate at the airport," says John Wilfong, a backup guard on the team. "When we walked off the plane in Memphis, there were thousands and thousands of people there."

And why not? This was the year, at long last. The Tigers had the team that could win it all.

Keith Lee, William Bedford and Holmes in the front court. Vincent Askew and Andre Turner at guard.

"I played 10 and a half years in the NBA," Askew says, "and I never had as much fun playing basketball as I did back then."

Then, the fun stopped. Memphis lost to Villanova, Rollie Massimino's Villanova, which went on to beat Georgetown in the championship game.

Back in Memphis, the Tigers quietly cleaned out their lockers. They would keep in touch, of course. They would all go on to do great things.

Twenty-three years later, two of the players are dead. One has been in and out of prison. A couple of others have scuffled through life.

According to the NCAA record books, the Tigers never even appeared in the Final Four. Their appearance was vacated for NCAA violations. Kirk was forced out after the 1985-86 season, spent four months in a minimum-security prison and never coached Division 1 basketball again.

Now he sits at a table at a Perkins Restaurant, explaining why he won't tell a reporter his age.

"I have a presence to maintain," he says. "Good, bad or ugly, I have a presence in this town."

He grins at this. He will maintain his presence, two decades later, whatever it may be.

"No hard feelings," he says. "I only do positive."

* * *

On March 18, 1997, Baskerville Holmes opened the door to his house in Frayser and, frantic, thrust the telephone at his girlfriend's brother, Gerald Franklin.

"Talk to the lady," he said.

Franklin put the phone to his ear.

"Hello," a woman said, "911, can I help you please?"

Franklin then saw his sister, Tanya Crossford, lying against the wall, blood pouring down her face.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do this," said Holmes, pacing now.

Franklin desperately tried to clear the blood from his sister's throat. While he was doing this, he heard a bang.

Holmes, 32, had shot himself in the head. Police ruled it a murder-suicide.

"Was I surprised?" said Wilfong, "I was surprised and not surprised."

He says this matter-of-factly, as a man who understands the realities of the city in which he lives.

"I guess, if you grow up in Memphis, you realize there are situations where people die at early ages. I guess you're never surprised."

Wilfong thinks for a long moment. He would like to be able to neatly explain it all away. Why did Holmes end up like that? Why did Aaron Price? Or William Bedford?

Price was shot and killed in West Memphis in November, 1998. The killer took his green Dodge Intrepid. West Memphis police call it an "unsolved homicide."

Bedford was drafted sixth overall in the 1986 draft. He floated around the league for six years, as various teams would fall in love with his gifts (7-feet and athletic) and fall out of love with his habit (cocaine).

"I had a very close relationship with William," Wilfong says. "I played on his AAU team and roomed with him freshman year. He was a sweet, sweet kid. What happened to him was that he got involved with drugs and it wrecked his life."

This happened in the NBA?

"Before," says Wilfong says.

How do you know?

"I know," he says. "It happened at Memphis, I'm sure."

The federal prison system confirms there's a William Bedford in prison in Fort Worth, Texas, scheduled for release in 2013. This William Bedford is 7-feet tall and was born in Tennessee.

"He was a follower," says Andre Turner, on the phone from Spain. "I don't know how you can explain it beyond that. Life happened to William, I guess."

And there is something to this, of course. Life happens to us all.

Larry Finch, one of two assistant coaches on the '85 team, had a debilitating stroke in 2002. Life happened, and it can be hard.

Keith Lee, the unquestioned star of the team, lasted just three years in the NBA because of bum knees. The same body that gave him such glory, ultimately took it away.

"I do think being in the limelight, having attention like that, is hard to let go of for some people," Wilfong says. "I think it was difficult for my uncle, (Tiger great Win Wilfong), who played in the NBA. He looked back at his 20s as the best period of his life. If you do that, you cheat yourself out of the next 40 or 50 years. The key is to look out in the future and say, 'Now I'm going to make the next 40 or 50 years great.'"

Wilfong did that; he's a senior vice president at an investment firm.

Turner did that; he's still playing professional basketball in Spain.

Dwight Boyd did that; he's spent the last 18 years with Pepsi.

"I'm not a millionaire, but I'm happy," he says.

Isn't that the ultimate victory?

To find happiness in the unexceptional life. To enjoy life on life's own terms.

That sort of contentment apparently eluded Bedford and Holmes.

As for Lee, few really know. He keeps to himself. He declines interviews.

"I'm sad for him that his NBA career didn't work out," Wilfong says. "What I'm even sadder about is that I don't think he understands how much the community loved watching him play basketball and how much they still love him."

* * *

Back at Perkins, Kirk is talking about grandchildren. He will talk all day about his grandchildren. It is good to hear him so happy. Grandchildren are positive.

One grandson, Grey, is crazy about the Memphis Tigers.

"He's a Joey Dorsey freak," Kirk says. "He's 6. And he's got more Dorsey jerseys than Joey has."

Grey has his entire class doing a Joey cheer. There is something wonderfully sweet about this.

The grandson of the deposed coach is caught up in the moment. But it is just a moment, as fleeting as it is glorious.

This time, the name is Joey. May it ring forever. Last time, the name was ... well, here is a small test.

Dorsey has just finished practice. He is bathed in sweat. He is brimming with confidence for the task at hand. He will even talk about free throws. Ask him anything.

"Joey, ever hear of someone named Baskerville Holmes?"

Joey thinks about this.

"The name sounds familiar," he says. "Who is he?"

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