Memphis Still Hurts
It's hard to dislike the Tigers.
May 16, 2008
By Case Keefer
Inevitably, the national championship victory comes up everyday. You know it does.
It might be when you wake up and internally debate if Mario Chalmers released the shot with 3.9 or 3.8 seconds left to play. It might be when you open your closet and have to decide which of the wardrobe-full of national championship shirts to wear that day. It might be when you’re driving to class and see the national championship license plate frame on a Nissan Pathfinder with Illinois tags. Wait – I actually did see that Pathfinder this morning.
Nevertheless, it happened, Kansas 75, Memphis 68, and it’s made being in Lawrence as jolly as an episode of Father Knows Best for the last month.
But for a second, reverse those feelings. Imagine if Sherron Collins doesn’t make an incredible steal on an in-bounds pass and drain a three-pointer with two minutes to go. Imagine if the Tigers actually could shoot free throws like coach John Calipari insisted they could all season long. Think of the heartbreak. Picture the despair.
Welcome to Memphis, Tennessee. While Lawrence has basked in its glory, Memphis is left to contemplate what could have been. This column, Tiger loss is a tough one to let go, by Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal perfectly illustrates the attitude of the town since that night - April 7th, 2008.
I’m not saying it’s unfair. I’m not saying Memphis should have won. And I’m certainly not suggesting that Lawrence hasn’t felt that hurt all too often in the last 20 years. But it’s always interesting to look back at the other side of the battle in perspective. In this case, it shows you how much the Tigers meant to their town.
Memphis is a great city. It’s more than Elvis’ birthplace (of course, because it’s my birthplace). But seriously, Beale Street is one of the more under-rated tourist attractions in the nation and there’s plenty to keep you occupied around the city. And it’s a passionate sports town.
When the NFL announced it was expanding in the early 1990s, Memphis and its citizens put their hearts and souls into getting a team. They would be called the Memphis Hound Dogs and play at the Liberty Bowl. It was going to happen. It had to happen. It….failed.
Jacksonville and Charlotte were announced as the locations for the two expansion teams. Memphians were as lifeless as their native brethren Elvis. Adding insult to injury, the Houston Oilers bypassed Memphis and decided to move to Nashville a few years later. But wait - the Oilers had no where to go while their Nashville stadium was being constructed. Someone came up with the bright idea of having the team play in Memphis for two years.
Memphis was understandably bitter. No one, I mean no one went to the games. Despite an exciting team led by 24-year olds Steve McNair and Eddie George, Memphis wanted no part of this. The eight home games were some of the poorest attended events in the history of the NFL.
No thanks, we don’t want someone else’s team. There’s no reason to support these vagabond Oilers. That was the city’s attitude. The Oilers scrapped the idea of staying for an extra year. They got out faster than Amy Winehouse at rehab.
Not that there aren’t happier Memphis sports stories. AutoZone Park, home to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, is the nation’s premiere minor league baseball facility and cost a staggering $80 million to build. The city finally lured a professional sports franchise when the NBA’s Grizzlies descended upon the home of the blues seven years ago.
I only chose to tell that story because of how well it describes the sports culture of Memphis. The NFL failures show how desperately the town wanted a team to be proud of. Memphis longed for a winner for the last 15 years. The city found that in the Tigers.
Calipari deemed this year’s Tigers as a “dream team”. And it’s hard to argue against that.
Before the national championship, Memphis flirted with perfection by only losing one game all season.
Yeah, yeah, its Conference USA schedule was noticeably easier than most of the nation’s elite teams. Memphis gets to play Rice, East Carolina and the Texas School for the Athletically Inclined every year instead of say, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.
(Upon further review, the Texas School for the Athletically Inclined is not in the CUSA but the MIC - My Imagination Conference. I apologize.)
But that didn’t really matter this year. If you watched the games, it was obvious that Calipari’s squad was something special. More importantly, they were easy to root for. Just take a glance down the starting roster.
Derrick Rose was the Axel Rose of the group. A Chicago-bred point guard, who will be a star in the NBA as early as next season, was simply dazzling to watch. Junior guard Antonio Anderson served as the defensive stopper with the kind of unselfishness that would make his pre-school teacher proud. That’s without even mentioning the team’s best college guard, All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts.
The starting frontcourt was so intimidating it could probably scare away whatever was inside of Emily Rose. Senior center Joey Dorsey and junior forward Robert Dozier made it a habit of embarrassing opposing big men.
These kids weren’t from Overland Park – or the Memphis-equivalent Germantown – either. Calipari plucked them straight out of the inner city. As the Kansas City Star’s Jason Whitlock wrote in this column, Calipari not afraid to take a chance on kids, Dorsey’s Baltimore home was basically a real-life version of HBO show The Wire’s setting.
But Calipari was able to coach them. Sure, there were trying times as there are with any college basketball program. In the end, though, the five guys on the court collectively were playing as hard as they could for not only themselves but the city of Memphis.
In fact, they were playing for the city of Memphis above all else. Want proof? Check out the welcome home video here from April 8th. Dorsey, Douglas-Roberts, Rose and the bunch couldn’t stop talking about Memphis.
That’s not normal. College athletes always thank the fans, the coaches and their teammates but rarely do they feel as strongly about their city as the Tigers did.
It’s far from surprising, though. Nope – not if you understand the way Memphis embraced this basketball team.