Ten things to love about Saturday's Civil Rights Game at AutoZone Park:
1) Back for a second year, the Civil Rights Game is beginning to feel like a national Opening Game, even if but an exhibition. Boston and Oakland may have officially started the 2008 season Tuesday in Tokyo(!), but we can certainly consider the Mets-White Sox tilt at AutoZone Park a lid-lifter here stateside.
2) The national exposure for AutoZone Park -- and Memphis -- is magical, and this has everything to do with the mission of the game itself. Say what you will about the crime and poverty problems Memphis suffers, but in hosting the Civil Rights Game, the city becomes a voice for the entire country. A voice that reminds us that the struggles of the civil rights movement remain pertinent, with lessons still to learn.
3) Regarding that national exposure: there are a LOT of TV sets in New York and Chicago. As wonderful as the inaugural CRG was -- played between St. Louis and Cleveland -- there will be millions more viewers tuning in this Saturday.
4) One of this year's Beacon Awards honorees is Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Not only is Robinson somehow one of the most underrated legends in the game's history (586 home runs, a Triple Crown, MVP in both leagues), he belongs in the Club of Class along with Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver. Robinson was also the first African American manager in the major leagues (Cleveland, 1975). The weekend will be made brighter merely by Robinson's presence.
5) For nine years (1948-56), the Memphis Chicks were an affiliate of Chicago's South Siders. Luis Aparicio was a Memphis infielder before he was helping the "Go-Go Sox" win the 1959 American League pennant on his way to the Hall of Fame. The Chicks won three Southern Association championships during this stretch, including two seasons (1952-53) when they were managed by Hall of Famer Luke Appling.
6) After seven years without professional baseball (following the burning of Russwood Park), the Memphis Blues took the field in 1968 at the fairgrounds ballpark that would become Tim McCarver Stadium. And the Blues' big-league affiliate was the New York Mets. These were glorious days for "the Amazin's," with a world championship in 1969 and a National League pennant in 1973. The Blues were winners, too, earning Texas League titles in 1969 and 1973.
7) Let's all hope for a plate appearance by Chicago designated hitter Jim Thome. According to Memphis baseball historian John Guinozzo, only two players have batted in Memphis exhibitions having already hit 500 home runs: Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. With 507 career long ones, Thome would become the third.
8) Few teams can match the star quality the Mets will bring to Third and Union. Centerfielder Carlos Beltran, shortstop Jose Reyes, and third baseman David Wright are among the finest players at their positions in the majors, and should remain such for years to come.
9) The Mets are managed by an African American (Willie Randolph) and have a Latino general manager (Omar Minaya). The White Sox are managed by a Latino (Ozzie Guillen) and have an African American G.M. (Ken Williams). Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente would be proud.
10) The game will be played merely six days before the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis. Which makes the partnership between the Redbirds and the National Civil Rights Museum as poignant -- on many levels -- as any sporting event might be.
As the Memphis Tigers gather steam in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, the composition of the team begins to stand out. As valuable as coach John Calipari's bench has been all season -- and certainly will when the Tigers face Michigan State on Friday -- this team has been built around a prototypical starting five. Had Dr. Naismith taken as much care in drawing up a blueprint for positional expectations as he did for his original 13 rules, he just might find a perfect match in the 2007-08 Tigers.
What follows is a breakdown of the five standard basketball positions, first with a description of the job's chief requirements, then a look at the Memphis player filling that role in this year's Big Dance.
POINT GUARD (1): Ball-handling first and foremost. Court vision. Quickness, both with the ball and defensively. Lateral movement. Game smarts.
DERRICK ROSE: With the possible exception of Antonio Burks, Rose is the quickest player I've seen in a Tiger uniform. And he's more under control in his drives through traffic than Burks was. His court vision -- witness his bombs to Chris Douglas-Roberts on the break -- draws comparisons to future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd. His quickness makes up for positioning errors on the defensive end, and he's patient enough when forced into a half-court set to find an open shooter before driving into the lane. His shooting touch has been a pleasant surprise.
SHOOTING GUARD (2): Despite its tag, this position requires a kind of versatility that makes the player's shooting touch secondary at times. Must be able to defend big guards and even small forwards. Ball-handling a plus. Offensive value more from perimeter than as penetrator.
ANTONIO ANDERSON: There's a reason Calipari calls Anderson "the glue" of this team. The junior swingman typically guards the opponent's top scoring threat, unless he's the size of Georgetown's Roy Hibbert. Any scoring Anderson brings is purely complementary, but his efficiency with the ball in his hands is stellar. He had a six game stretch earlier this season with 30 assists and but a single turnover. He's not a great shooter, but will drop a clutch three-pointer now and then. Don't bet against him under pressure.
SMALL FORWARD (3): Just as corner outfielders are expected to hit with power, small forwards need to score. Inside/outside threat offensively. Get to the line and make free throws. Among the five positions, this one has the least defensive responsibility.
CHRIS DOUGLAS-ROBERTS: George Gervin, Alex English, and Adrian Dantley all but changed this position's name to "smooth forward." And CDR ain't smooth. But his scoring touch in traffic, combined with a shooting range beyond the arc, would make that trio of NBA scorers proud. With a career free-throw percentage above 70, Douglas-Roberts is the best Tiger to see at the charity stripe. (We'll forget that miss against USC earlier this season that should have cost the Tigers a win.) Only a junior, CDR is already 11th in career scoring at Memphis.
POWER FORWARD (4): Defend the paint and baseline. Block shots. Hit the boards with passion. Pick up junk points, second-shot opportunities.
ROBERT DOZIER: The 6'9" Georgia native is the George Harrison of this team. He'll never make an all-conference squad, he's rarely surrounded by microphones after a Tiger win, but he seems to always be involved in separating his team from the opposition. His rebounding is second only to Joey Dorsey's, and he's a quiet -- too often overlooked -- scoring option (witness his 19 points against Georgetown and 18 against Arizona). In the game's modern lexicon, Dozier has great "length," which has great value on a team as guard-heavy as these Tigers.
CENTER (5): Defend and rebound. Rebound and defend. Correct the defensive mistakes of your teammates. Ball in hand, dunk it. And don't dribble. Ever.
JOEY DORSEY: Not since bull first met china store have we seen the kind of damage Dorsey administers in playing defense. If he has fewer than two fouls 10 minutes into a game, it's a win for Calipari. His proclivity for foul trouble aside, Dorsey changes the way Tiger opponents play with his shot-blocking ability -- six against Mississippi State on Sunday -- and strength on the glass. And he's a nice lob target for Tiger guards able to dribble-drive into the lane.
If blueprints won championships, this team would already have its rooms booked for San Antonio. Four games left to win for this to be truly a roundball architectural masterpiece.
With a name like Murtaugh, St. Patrick's Day is bound to be special. And considering my dad was born on March 17, 1942, the one day Americans devote to all things Irish is indeed a highlight on my calendar. This is the third St. Patrick's Day I've experienced since I lost my father, but I retain a belief in good fortune, good cheer, and yes, good luck. And in the world of sports, we all know the cliche: better to be lucky than good.
Here are a few wishes -- tied to the games we play and cheer -- that could use a four-leaf clover or two:
Shooting touch for the Memphis Tigers. What a remarkable season the 2007-08 Memphis Tigers have enjoyed. But aside from five weeks atop the national polls, there's a degree of redundancy, believe it or not, to this team's high achievements. Thirty wins? Done that (the two previous seasons). Conference USA championships for both the regular season and postseason tourney? Done that (the two previous seasons). Undefeated in C-USA play? Yep (did it a year ago). C-USA Player of the Year? Twice before (2004 and 2006).
For this year's Tigers to separate themselves from the blur of excellence Memphis fans have enjoyed recently, the team will have to -- minimum -- reach the Final Four for the first time in 23 years. And for that to happen, a team that struggles with its shooting is going to have to make shots. Andre Allen and Willie Kemp are capable of dropping five treys each. But will they under the heat of the NCAA spotlight? What about Doneal Mack (4-for-5 one game, 2-for-8 another)? This team can win four games in the NCAAs on the backs of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts. But they can win a national championship with some shooting luck from its supporting cast.
A senior season for Chris Douglas-Roberts. The Tigers' All-American -- and NBA prospect -- might define "luck" a little differently than the fans who cheer him. But if CDR were to return for the 2008-09 season, he would increase the likelihood that his class (which includes Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier) would leave Memphis as history-makers. They've already achieved something no college basketball player outside Lexington, Kentucky, can claim: three consecutive 30-win seasons. Why not make it four-for-four, and set the bar for Tiger greatness as high as it can possibly reach?
Colby Rasmus for the Memphis Redbirds. Rick Ankiel was fun to watch last season, doing his Babe Ruth imitation at AutoZone Park, proving that a pitcher-turned-outfielder can, in fact, hit the long ball. But not since J.D. Drew first took centerfield at Tim McCarver Stadium during the Redbirds' inaugural season of 1998 has our Triple-A outfit suited up a player with the kind of prospect tag Rasmus could bring. With the St. Louis Cardinals beginning what can mildly be described as a transition year, some luck will be necessary for Rasmus to be in a Memphis uniform beyond April. (To begin with, if Ankiel locks up the centerfield job for the Cards, Rasmus -- having never played above Double-A -- will likely spend a full five months with the Redbirds.) The last two summers have been long for local baseball fans. Young Rasmus will bring smiles -- and win games -- for a minor-league outfit all too green with envy of its Pacific Coast League rivals.
Looking a bit ahead -- to June's NBA draft -- perhaps the playoff-bound Celtics can spare a shamrock for our pitiful Grizzlies. Having lost out on the LeBron (2003) and Oden (2007) sweepstakes, perhaps the Griz can score Kansas State phenom Michael Beasley to accompany Rudy Gay and Mike Conley into a new era of local pro hoops.
Luck is where hard work and opportunity converge. So here's hoping for a magical convergence, dear reader. One where the harder you cheer (read: work) for your team, the "luckier" that team becomes near trophy time.
I miss you, Dad.
Memphis hosts the Conference USA basketball tournament for the fourth year in a row this week, with the hometown Tigers aiming for a third straight championship. (The most distinct memory from these tourneys at FedExForum remains Darius Washington's tears at the end of the epic title game won by Louisville in 2005.)
While the players in uniform for the Tigers will be familiar, there will be 11 other teams aiming to steal some spotlight from the country's second-ranked team. Here are five C-USA stars who have earned some attention.
Robert Vaden, UAB -- The junior guard from Indianapolis is the Tigers' Chris Douglas-Roberts' only competition for C-USA Player of the Year (to be announced on Wednesday). Vaden is among the top 20 scorers in the nation (22.8 points per game) and leads the entire country in three-point field goals (138). He scored 27 points against Memphis on February 16th in a game his Blazers should have won, a miraculous run by the Tigers over the game's final 90 seconds reversing fortunes. Last Saturday at FedExForum, he made only three of 13 three-point attempts and was limited to 13 points in a blowout U of M victory. He scored a career-high 41 points (including nine treys) in a win at UTEP February 27th, earning his second C-USA Player of the Week honor of the season. A transfer from Indiana, Vaden was a second-team All-Big 10 selection in 2005-06.
Robert McKiver, Houston -- This senior guard from New Haven, Connecticut, scored 52 points in a Cougar win over Southern Miss February 27th. The outburst is the highest point total for a Division I player this season and broke a Hofheinz Pavilion scoring record previously held by one Larry Bird. McKiver is the second-leading scorer in C-USA and, like Vaden, among the top 20 in the nation. He scored 20 against Memphis on January 30th, then 21 at FedExForum on February 13th. With more than 120 three-pointers, McKiver is just behind Vaden and among the top 10 long-distance shooters in the country. A three-time C-USA Player of the Week this season, McKiver will certainly be named first-team all conference for the second year in a row.
Stefon Jackson, UTEP -- Miner coach Tony Barbee -- a longtime assistant under John Calipari at Memphis -- has had as talented a go-to scorer as any coach in C-USA. The junior from Philadelphia is sixth in the nation in scoring, averaging more than 24 points per game. Jackson dropped 27 on the Tigers at FedExForum on February 2nd, a game Memphis pulled out in the final minutes, 70-64. Unlike Vaden and McKiver, Jackson's team doesn't have a bye into the tourney quarterfinals. UTEP will play SMU at 2:30 Wednesday, then face Houston Thursday if they can top the Mustangs. A three (or four?) game run by the Miners will leave Jackson atop this week's scoring chart.
Jermaine Taylor, UCF -- Don't confuse this sharp-shooting swingman with the middleweight boxer of the same name. This Taylor's knockouts come from behind the three-point stripe, where he was among the C-USA leaders with more than 70 bombs on the season. The Tigers' Antonio Anderson bottled him up on February 9th, holding him to 13 points and nary a trey. Taylor's Knights are the fourth seed in the tourney and will receive a bye into Thursday's quarterfinals. Should they beat the winner of the Southern Miss/Rice opening-round game, UCF could face Memphis in the semifinals.
Darrell Jenkins, East Carolina -- The Pirates struggled to a record of 11-18 this season, but it was no fault of their senior point guard, who led C-USA in assists for a second straight year, averaging 6.1 per game. He enters the tournament having scored a career-high 30 points against Tulane in ECU's final regular-season game. Along with Jackson, Jenkins will be among Wednesday's headliners, as the Pirates (the 10th seed) face Tulsa in the tourney's opening game at noon.
NOTE: The tourney's top seed, Memphis will open play at 6 pm in Thursday's quarterfinals. Should they advance, they'll play in the semis at 3:30 pm Friday. The championship will tip off at 10:30 am Saturday and be televised nationally on CBS.
This Saturday at FedExForum, before the Memphis Tigers end their regular season against UAB, the U of M will honor Joey Dorsey and Andre Allen with its annual Senior Day. The rite of passage has become somewhat of an oddity, as many recent Tiger stars -- Dajuan Wagner, Darius Washington, Shawne Williams, and presumably Derrick Rose -- never so much as reach a fourth season as a Tiger, leaving campus early for the siren call of professional basketball.
The pregame march to center court, family and flowers in hand, remains a touching tribute to the young men who do, in fact, give all they have in terms of eligibility to the Tiger program. But I'm going to go out on a limb - a thick and sturdy one -- and say the U of M has never honored as mercurial, as vexing a class as they will with the pair we'll see Saturday. (Neither Allen nor Dorsey is on schedule to graduate in May. They'll be encouraged -- like every former Tiger still shy of his diploma -- to continue their education toward its completion.)
Allen enrolled at the U of M having starred at Booker T. Washington High School, where he was twice named Class AA Mr. Basketball and his 949 career assists established a Shelby Metro record. But Allen couldn't possibly have started his college life more astray than he did. Compounding difficulties in the classroom, Allen was arrested for soliciting prostitution and sat out his entire freshman (2004-05) basketball season.
He persevered, though, and became the face of the Tigers' 2006 NCAA tournament run, draining three treys against Oral Roberts in the first round and proving that height -- Allen stands 5'10" when he wears extra socks -- has little to do with stature during March Madness. As a backup to point guards Washington, Willie Kemp, and this season, Rose, Allen has been that proverbial spark plug off the bench for coach John Calipari, keeping the pace of the Tiger offense in the red line even with the second unit on the floor.
I remember sitting in the media room after Joey Dorsey's first game as a Tiger, a whitewashing of Savannah State on November 11, 2004. I asked local sportscaster Greg Gaston if this freshman from Baltimore was supposed to get 16 rebounds in his collegiate debut. Greg was just as astonished at Dorsey's stat line (which included 10 points). Four seasons later, the most astonishing aspect of Dorsey's career is how very little he seems to have improved from that night well over 100 games ago. He'll leave Memphis second only to Keith Lee in career rebounds. And he's won more games in a Tiger uniform than any other player in the program's long, proud history. (Dorsey's been a part of 116 wins as a Tiger. With four more, he'll have more notches on his belt than Elliot Perry and Penny Hardaway COMBINED.)
But even with his athleticism and a body that would have many NBA players negotiating with the devil, Dorsey's value to his team is impossible to gauge. Three days after grabbing 22 rebounds in a big Tiger win this season at Houston, he managed but four boards in a near-loss to UTEP at home.
And Dorsey's trouble off the court somehow trumps Allen's. As a sophomore, he was in the middle of a water-throwing incident on campus, apparently drenching a female student. Last September, it was Dorsey slinging money from atop a bar in a downtown club that spurred a near riot and earned handcuffs for teammates Shawn Taggart and Jeff Robinson. And with UAB in town for Senior Day, Tiger fans will fight flashbacks to February 16th in Birmingham. With Blazer fans slinging more than epithets after a last-second Tiger win, Dorsey was kept from returning fire only by the restraints of his coaching staff. Dorsey unleashed has become a horrifying proposition.
The cheers for these two seniors as they near their Tiger hoops coda will be tremendous. Dorsey, in particular, has been among the most popular Tiger players of the last decade, kids and grannies alike embracing their Joey as a lovable -- flawed, as we all are -- giant. Allen and Dorsey need to soak up those cheers, as they will reach the pinnacle of their basketball lives in the coming weeks, however far the Tigers advance in the NCAA tournament. Neither player will make a living in the NBA.
Ironically, both Dorsey (24) and Allen (23 in April) are older than most current NBA rookies. They will be, yes, unleashed from Calipari's watch, from the loving gaze of Tiger Nation, each with most of his life in front of him. Having played central roles in the most successful three-year stretch in Tiger basketball history, these two interdisciplinary studies majors will aim their lives toward the right track, one must hope. And within that premise -- and that wordy major -- is perhaps an answer for the riddles of their college lives.
With discipline, comes success.