Memphis has found itself near the top of far too many national rankings of late. Crime. Obesity. Political corruption. Makes you want to toss your newspaper at times, or click to another web site. One devoted to, say, sports.
This week (and beyond?), though, for the first time in a quarter-century, Memphis is at the very top of a list Memphians have WANTED to head for more than a generation. The undefeated Memphis Tigers, of course, are the number-one college basketball team in the land. When the North Carolina Tar Heels lost their first game of the season Saturday (to the Maryland Terrapins), all John Calipari's team needed to do was beat Southern Miss at FedExForum to reach the mountaintop. They did so with a holding-to-formula 37-point drubbing of a Conference USA rival.
On the football field, Memphis-USM has come to be called "The Black-and-Blue Game," and a hardwood variety of such broke out after Saturday's tip-off. The Golden Eagles were whistled for nine fouls in the first nine minutes, prompting Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy to ask an official, "Are you going to give us 40 fouls tonight?!"
The Tigers' Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 14 of his team's first 26 points, and Joey Dorsey blocked two shots early to establish the home team's defensive backbone. Southern Miss would shoot a mere 25 percent in the first half, a figure that jumped but a percentage point in the second. Derrick Rose contributed 13 points and four assists for the Tigers, while Antonio Anderson contributed six assists with nary a turnover.
With 2:30 remaining in the game, chants of "We're number one!" from the crowd of 18,108 bathed the players below, who somehow came across as less celebratory than their coach. With a minute to play, Calipari stood up from the bench, turned to the crowd, and, after applauding himself, danced his version of what might be considered a jig. It was, after all, Saturday night in downtown Memphis.
The players weren't willing to acknowledge the significance of the win -- yet -- as the chance remained that undefeated Kansas might leapfrog Memphis when Monday's rankings were released. (In the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, Kansas received 10 first-place votes, to the Tigers' 21.)
"It wasn't about North Carolina in the locker room before the game," said Anderson as he dressed for the sub-30 temperatures outside the arena. "Hopefully [the top ranking] will happen, but we're just trying to play our game."
"We're really, really talented," conceded Dorsey, "and the freshmen are playing really well. Shawn Taggart's backing me up really great. Look at the teams we've played, the hardest non-conference schedule in America, and we dominated that. I don't know how to act right now. I'm just happy for the city. I go by my apartment and fans have been so excited, saying North Carolina barely won. Now that they lost, I don't know how they're gonna act. Everybody's gonna go out and party tonight, but I'm not! I just hope we're number one Monday."
Calipari has actually been here before, his 1995-96 Massachusetts squad spending several weeks atop the polls before falling to Kentucky at the Final Four. After Saturday's win, the coach was more willing than his players to discuss the coveted ranking. "I said before the game, let's win the game, then we can talk about number one. I wanted [the players] to enjoy this moment for the program."
"It takes a village," added Calipari, who notched his 198th win as Tiger coach. "Coming together, everybody understanding they have a part in this. You can't have a program like this unless that building is full like it was tonight. Let me tell you the significance of a non-BCS team being number one. Tell me the last one. It's unusual, for this program to do the things we're doing. Enjoy this. Live in the moment."
Where were you for that solitary week in January 1983, when sophomore Keith Lee and the Memphis State Tigers were the top team in the land? (Or were you like every member of the 2007-08 Tigers and not yet a gleam in your parents' eye?) Calipari was a 23-year-old, first-year assistant coach at Kansas. (Perfectly ironic that the Jayhawks are the only other undefeated team still standing in 2008.) There was no such thing as a Memphis Showboat, Memphis Redbird, or Memphis Grizzly in 1983. Willie Herenton wasn't even mayor. But it felt nice, didn't it? That one week on the mountaintop of college basketball.
Sir Edmund Hillary passed away earlier this month, his legend firmly in place for having been the first to survive a climb to the summit of Mount Everest. "Well, we knocked off the bastard," he famously said upon returning to his base camp. More remains for the Memphis Tigers to "knock off" if this basketball season is to fulfill the ambitious dreams of U of M fans young and old. But for all those fans under the age of 25, enjoy this first view from the mountaintop. What a climb it's been.
North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky are considered by traditionalists as the basketball hotbeds of the United States. But when you look at the college game in 2008, the Volunteer State must be part of the conversation. Through Sunday, the combined records of the University of Memphis, Vanderbilt, and University of Tennessee come to 45-2. Which begs the question: When will Tiger coach John Calipari get the Commodores on his schedule? Vandy and the Vols play this Thursday night in Knoxville.
The sad truth to the ongoing (and growing) steroid controversy surrounding Roger Clemens is that it comes down to what amounts to a modern-day cliche in professional sports: an athlete's inflated ego vs. reality as perceived by everyone else.
We may learn as early as February -- when Clemens, among other players named in the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball, is scheduled to appear before a Congressional hearing -- just how much truth has been stretched in the Rocket's quite public defense against former trainer Brian McNamee's allegations that Clemens was injected with various performance enhancers over a three-year period. But in all likelihood, we won't, "sworn testimony" or otherwise. (Remember that finger Rafael Palmeiro pointed his questioners' way on St. Patrick's Day three years ago? Less than six months later, a player who had "never, ever" taken steroids was suspended . . . having tested positive for steroids.)
Clemens will deny ever touching the juice. McNamee, presumably, will insist he has told the truth all along. So what we baseball fans have is a case of dueling egos: that of a trainer who -- if he's lying -- is seizing his one, desperate opportunity at national fame by outing the most famous client he'll ever have against that of a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who, having struck out a few hundred too many, perhaps, believes his version of "truth" trumps the real McCoy.
Am I the only one who wishes these types would find the same island, somewhere in another hemisphere?
As the New England Patriots march their way toward the second undefeated season in NFL history, fans of America's most popular spectator sport can be forgiven for mourning the death of parity. But then take a look at the National Football Conference. Regardless of who wins Sunday's NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, the NFC will send its seventh different team in seven years to the Super Bowl. If the favored Packers win, it will be eight teams in eight years -- fully half the entire conference. And only one of those teams -- the 2002 Buccaneers -- actually won the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Parity may be dead, but mediocrity is alive and well in the NFC.
This is going to be my only criticism of the mighty Patriots, whether or not they finish their remarkable season unblemished. (By the way, they'd lose a Fantasy Bowl to the 1989 '49ers and the 1985 Bears.) The worst kind of cheater is one who doesn't NEED to cheat. President Richard Nixon had the 1972 election in his hip pocket, yet still signed off on the infamous break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C. Despite George McGovern's having no chance at victory, the paranoid Nixon extended himself to criminal lengths to assure himself the presidency for four more years.
The New York Jets, like apparently the rest of the NFL, had no chance of beating the Patriots last September when Pats coach Bill Belichick was discovered to have authorized the video recording of the Jets' play-calling signals from the sideline. The "extra step" on the part of this three-time Super Bowl-winning coach is positively Nixonian, and my hope is that the transgression is not forgotten by football historians, however extraordinary New England's on-field performance proves to be. Pay attention, Hall of Fame voters, when Belichick becomes eligible.
I'm about as good at predicting sporting events as I am at dunking a basketball. (You should see me at preschool playgrounds.) So I'm getting this out of the way nice and early. You need a few things to watch for in 2008? Read on.
The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl, and officially become the New York Yankees of the National Football League. Okay, I started with an easy one. But Bill Belichick's juggernaut has become too good to stomach. Whether or not they cheated in filming their opponents, they are to pro football what Microsoft is to the computer industry. Necessary, I suppose, but hard to cheer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win the Daytona 500. In joining the Patriots of NASCAR (Hendrick Motorsports), Junior now has the same resources (read: financial backing) that 2007 Nextel Cup champ Jimmie Johnson and four-time champ Jeff Gordon enjoy. As popular as stock-car racing has become, it needs its most popular driver to be in the headlines for stories other than family squabbles. Think there won't be some tears in the infield if Junior can win the race where his daddy died seven years earlier?
The Memphis Tigers will return to the Final Four! That's the good news. The 2007-08 Tigers are too deep, with too much defense and scoring options to fall shy of a top seed in the NCAA tournament, which will punch their ticket to San Antonio. Alas, the Tigers will not cut down the nets. Their Achilles heel? You've heard it before: free-throw shooting. Gonna cost them.
At least one prominent major-league baseball player -- one NOT named in the Mitchell Report -- will be suspended before the 2008 All-Star break. If I've learned anything from observing professional baseball players over the last 30 years, it's that they never learn.
The Memphis Redbirds will win at least 60 games. This is hardly a stretch, you might say, considering they play more than 140. But considering our Triple-A outfit has managed but 58 and 56 victories the last two seasons, five dozen wins would be a step in the right direction. I get the impression the culture of the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system will transform under the watch of new general manager John Mozeliak.
Roger Federer will break through and (finally) win the French Open, thanks to a pre-final upset of his nemesis, Rafal Nadal. But the mighty Federer will NOT win his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. Nadal gains a measure of revenge.
Pau Gasol will not be a Memphis Grizzly on Opening Night of the 2008-09 season. Whether or not Gasol is moved before this season's trade deadline, I can't say (odds: 50-50). But it's growing clear that our local NBA club is Rudy Gay's team. Having not won a playoff game in what will be seven years with Gasol, and with Gasol still an attractive trade chip for the many teams needing a scoring touch down low, Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace will make the move so many disgruntled Grizzlies fans have called for.
The football-stadium debate will die with a whimper. The Tigers can't sell 40,000 tickets unless Ole Miss or Tennessee is in town. The Liberty Bowl contest thrives in its current home. As does the Southern Heritage Classic. The Pyramid, folks, is a dust-gathering asset that the city needs to address, and soon. Comparatively speaking, the old home of the football Tigers simply ain't broke. And without community-wide support (read: tax dollars) to support an improvement, it's not getting "fixed."
Happy New Year everybody.