Saturday's showdown between the Memphis Tigers and Tennessee Vols in Knoxville was the kind of basketball game Picasso would have loved: all angles, distortions, and missing parts. The 22nd -ranked Tigers (now 16-3) managed to win the game, 54-52, despite losing their top scorer, Tyreke Evans, to foul trouble for 13 minutes in the first half. (Evans still led Memphis with 17 points.) Not quite a year after these two programs battled as the top two teams in the country (a game won by UT at FedExForum), the win merely gives Memphis bragging rights for the Volunteer State. But it supplants an early season victory over Seton Hall as the Tigers' best mark of the season, extends the U of M's winning streak to 10 games, and silences critics still arguing the Tigers fatten their record on the NCAA junk food that is Conference USA competition.
A small annex to Thompson-Boling Arena could have been built from the bricks slung by the two teams over the course of 40 minutes of basketball. They took a combined 111 shots from the field and missed 74 of them. (Take note, though, Tiger Nation: Memphis converted 11 of 14 free-throw attempts.) All of which brings sweet irony to the fact that a 35-foot prayer of a buzzer-beater drained by Tiger senior Antonio Anderson to end the first half made the difference in the final score.
In measuring rivalries, Memphis-Tennessee is growing into this century's Memphis-Louisville. Tiger coach John Calipari and Tennessee's Bruce Pearl have now split four games, and just as many screams, gyrations, and foot-stomping signals from their respective benches. The Tigers spent the better part of two weeks explaining to reporters how much they were not looking ahead to Tennessee, that C-USA matchups with UAB and Rice were their priorities first . . . meaning exactly the opposite, of course.
Signs to take from the Tiger win for the remainder of the season? First, Memphis is not going to win games by outscoring its opponent. Evans is a talented scorer, Doneal Mack can get hot from behind the three-point arc, and Shawn Taggart has shown a touch inside the paint Calipari hasn't often enjoyed from the center position. But the scoring options are limited, witness the five points Memphis got off the bench Saturday.
Which calls to mind a second warning sign: the bench itself. Willie Kemp was the only Tiger to play so much as 10 minutes off the bench Saturday, and that was largely due to Evans having to sit with two fouls seven minutes after tip-off. Playing time, to John Calipari, is a matter of trust. If the coach can't trust a player to, as he put it after the UAB win, "own his performance," that player will remain a spectator. Wesley Witherspoon played two minutes against Tennessee, Matt Simpkins three, and Roburt Sallie two. At this rate, those three will be sophomores next season, but essentially playing their rookie year of college basketball.
This week brings a trip to East Carolina (Wednesday) then a home tilt with one of the few C-USA teams that can claim the role of contender, Houston (Saturday). Should the Tigers stumble -- and ECU is a notoriously hard place to play -- that age-old excuse will creep into the headlines: letdown. If Memphis can hold serve, though, and beat SMU on February 4th, they'll travel to Gonzaga for a nationally televised February 7th game with a record of 19-3. Wins are wins, even when ugly. Just ask Picasso.
As you plan your Super Bowl party, here are a few appetizers to serve:
In making their first Super Bowl Appearance, the Arizona Cardinals have waited longer than any previous participant. The next longest drought before a Super Bowl debut belonged to the Atlanta Falcons, who made their first appearance in Super Bowl XXXIII (January 1999). The next year, it should be noted, the franchise that was once the Houston Oilers made its Super Bowl debut, but it was only the team's third season in Tennessee, and first as the Titans.
Kurt Warner joins Craig Morton as the only quarterback to lead two teams to the Super Bowl. (Morton lost with Dallas in V and Denver in XII.) On top of that, he is now quarterbacking the franchise that called St. Louis home for almost 30 years . . . the same city he represented as the Rams' quarterback after the 1999 and 2001 seasons.
The Cardinals are the first Super Bowl team to feature three 1,000-yard receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston).
The Steelers' James Harrison is the first Defensive Player of the Year to play in the Super Bowl since Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks six years ago.
In years with a presidential inauguration, the AFC (or AFL before it) has won six Super Bowls (including the last two) and the NFC has won four.
Arizona joins the 1979 Los Angeles Rams as the only 9-win teams to play in the Super Bowl. Those Rams lost to Pittsburgh.
Teams named after birds are 1-4 in the Super Bowl. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
The last four Heisman Trophy winners on Super Bowl rosters all lost. 2004 winner Matt Leinart is Arizona's backup quarterback.
The quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls after years ending with 8 are all in the Hall of Fame: Joe Namath (1968), Terry Bradshaw ('78), Joe Montana ('88), and John Elway ('98).
If he wins, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin (age 36) would become the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl. Jon Gruden won Super Bowl XXXVII at age 39.
Arizona would become only the fifth franchise to win a Super Bowl after relocating from another city. The Los Angeles Raiders won after the 1983 season, the St. Louis Rams after '99, the Baltimore Ravens (formerly the Cleveland Browns) after 2000, and the Indianapolis Colts after '06.
As a player more than two decades ago, Marc Iavaroni was an ideal teammate. The same qualities that made him such may well have gotten him fired Thursday after a season-and-a-half as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Iavaroni's dismissal was announced as the team arrived in New York for a game Friday night with the Knicks. Memphis has lost seven straight games and has a record of 11-30. Since taking over the job at the start of the 2007-08 season, Iavaroni's mark stood at 33-90. Former interim coach Lionel Hollins will take over after Johnny Davis handles the duty this weekend (the Grizzlies host New Jersey Saturday night).
As a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982, Iavaroni was thrust into a starting lineup that included a pair of future Hall of Famers (Julius Erving and Moses Malone) and another pair of All-Star guards (Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney). Iavaroni's job was to rebound, defend, and basically not interfere with his teammates' greatness until super-sub Bobby Jones came off the bench. Those Sixers won 65 games and lost but a single playoff game in winning the 1983 NBA championship. They swept a Laker team featuring three future Hall of Famers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy) in the Finals. Upon Iavaroni's hiring in Memphis, I asked Cheeks about the role the rookie played on a team still considered among the ten greatest in NBA history. "He just always did his job," emphasized Cheeks. (In an ironic twist, Cheeks will be an assistant on Hollins' staff with the Grizzlies.)
Guiding an NBA team today, alas, requires more than merely doing one's job. Probably more than any other team sport, a professional basketball team thirsts for motivation from its leader on the bench. With but 30 teams, and active rosters of merely 12 players, NBA clubs are exclusive to the extreme, made up entirely of young men who have known stardom since before they could shave. Add seven-figure (sometimes eight-figure) salaries to the mix, and a carrot isn't needed so much to drive an NBA team as is a stick. Too often this season, Grizzly players -- and Iavaroni himself -- have diagnosed losses with the explanation that "we have to play tougher." Even after rare wins, fans often heard that "we played tougher, we battled." The unspoken implication, of course, is that there were nights when the Grizzlies were not tough, and didn't battle as they should.
Iavaroni's last home game as Grizzlies coach was the Martin Luther King Day Celebration Game on January 19th. With hindsight, the event was dripping with irony, as the largest crowd of the season filled FedExForum, and the most famous of Iavaroni's former teammates, Dr. J himself, received one of two Sports Legacy Awards from the National Civil Rights Museum. Had Iavaroni known this was his Memphis sendoff, however bitter the taste, he probably would have approved the script.
In profiling Iavaroni for Memphis magazine two years ago, I asked Erving to point out what might distinguish Iavaroni as an NBA head coach. Replied the Doctor: "Marc is one of the better human beings I've met in my lifetime. He's a dedicated professional to the game of basketball, and the game of life. He had an air of confidence, but was a team guy from day one."
Iavaroni's career in the NBA isn't over. He'll likely land an assistant's gig and, with the right chain of events, get another shot at the big seat on an NBA bench. But I'd venture to guess his days as "a team guy" are over, that Iavaroni will spend less time trying to figure out the young men under his charge, calculating how he can make life better for them. Perhaps the first step in the evolution of an NBA head coach is learning that it's the players' job to embody the will and dedication of their coach. Pushing twenty-something millionaires to that point requires an under appreciated, and all too rare skill set. Here's hoping Iavaroni gets the chance.
The world changes this week -- may we all hope for the better -- when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. As if the new leader of the free world doesn't have enough already on his plate (economy in the gutter, unrest in Gaza, two wars, and Blago-gate), I have a few suggestions on how the Sportsfan in Chief might improve the games we cheer stateside. Mr. Obama has already suggested adding a basketball court to the White House. (If Nixon could bowl, I'm all for the new prez working on his jumper between staff meetings.) But for sports change that might give us all more hope, President Obama should confront a few larger challenges.
Let's start with the big picture, and create a U.S. Sports Commission, in charge of (as Major League Baseball would put it) "protecting the interests" of American sports and all it encompasses (athletes, coaches, officials, agents, mascots, and most importantly, fans). Among the countless problems we have in sports are the splintered standards from one "governing body" to the next. A player busted for steroids in baseball is punished differently for one caught with the same juice in football. Performance incentives (appearance fees) differ in golf from those offered in tennis. And don't get me started on the alphabet soup that is professional boxing. (The sweet science can be saved -- don't laugh -- but we must do away with the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO, and any other organization that has the temerity to declare the 12th-ranked heavyweight in the world "champion." There's only one world, folks. There can (must!) be only one world champion.
Now, who might be seated on this all-powerful board of blood, sweat, and tears? Exactly three people. A triumvirate, in the tradition of ancient Rome. The new president should name an official from the world of finance, another from health, and a third from education, the three areas that stand to gain -- or lose -- the most in relation to the integrity and growth of U.S. sports. (By the way, the education official cannot be affiliated with an NCAA program.) Like the Supreme Court, these three "sport justices" would be appointed for life. Baseball's commissioner would answer to them, as would football's, even the NBA's mighty David Stern. The Sports Commission would not have profit margin in mind (as do the commissioners) when deciding what might help or hurt a particular enterprise. They would be considering the same virtue any modern fan must consider a given before she or he enters an arena: fairness.
The new president has hinted at a preference for a playoff system to determine college football's national championship on the field. And this simply has to happen. (You tell the undefeated Utah Utes that they didn't earn a shot against Florida, because I couldn't.) For this to happen someone is going to have to gather NCAA officials, university presidents, and bowl representatives into the same ballroom . . . and let them have it. President Obama can enlist his new Sports Commission for these hearings on the right way (and wrong way) to treat the great game of college football and its multigenerational fans.
This could be done without eliminating a single solitary bowl game. All it would require would be six fewer teams going to those 34 events. (Sixty-two teams in the "postseason" are enough, people.) On New Year's Day -- a return to the historic, rightful place for bowl season's peak -- four games would be played among the top eight teams in the country (as ranked, I'm afraid, by the BCS system until a better methodology is unearthed). How about the Fiesta, Cotton, Gator, and Liberty Bowl (darn right) for the national quarterfinals? The following week, the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl would serve as the national semis. Then around January 15th (merely a week after the current system wraps things), the national championship would be played in the granddaddy of 'em all, the Rose Bowl.
Finally, Mr. President, two important pieces of legislation for baseball, once (still?) this country's national pastime. First, the DH should be as illegal as HGH on a baseball diamond. The designated hitter is an abomination and has insulted fans, managers, and especially pitchers who can hit for 35 years now. Be gone!
Then, of course,
there's National Baseball Day. Welcome to the White House,
President Obama. I'll see you at the stadium.
Last week I suggested that Stephen Gostkowski (first team) and DeAngelo Williams (second) recently became the first former Memphis Tiger football players to be named All-Pro by the Associated Press. And I stand corrected, on three counts.
Tackle Harry Schuh (with the Oakland Raiders) was second-team All-Pro in 1967 and '68, then first-team in 1969. Linebacker Tim Harris (with Green Bay) was second-team in 1988 then first-team a year later. Most recently, wide receiver Isaac Bruce was a second-team selection with St. Louis in 1999.
The temporal juxtaposition is impossible to ignore. On January 19, 2009, a nation takes pause to honor the man an African American who was and remains the personification of the civil rights movement in the United States. A day later, in the same city where Martin Luther King once dreamed about the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners joining in brotherhood, the son of an African man and a white woman is sworn in on a bible once held by Abraham Lincoln as the 44th President of the United States. Some dreams come true . . . others are exceeded.
Here in Memphis on Monday, as part of the citys tribute to the man who died here almost 41 years ago, our NBA outfit conducted its seventh annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration Game, the one and only chance this season for the entire country to see the young (and too often inept) Grizzlies perform. In front of the TNT cameras, Memphis scored but four points over the last six minutes of the game and dropped its sixth straight game to the Detroit Pistons, 87-79. Allen Iverson led the Pistons with 27 points as Detroit ended its own five-game skid.
The announced attendance of 17,483 was the largest crowd of the season to date at FedExForum, and there was plenty to cheer, both in terms of the action on the court and the atmosphere in the air. Before the late-afternoon tip-off, Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Julius Erving were honored with the fourth-annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award. A longtime Piston, Bing recently announced his candidacy for Detroit mayor, so whatever challenges the Grizzlies may feel theyve undertaken this season pales in comparison to the challenge Bing is ready to confront in a city all but broken by the decline of Americas auto industry.
As for Erving, he seemed a nice fit for the occasion, the famed Doctor J now sporting a gray beard to match the color of his still-thick head of hair, even if the most famous afro in sports has been gone more than 30 years now. Erving, of course, was a teammate of Grizzly head coach Marc Iavaroni on the 1982-83 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers, still one of the ten greatest teams ever assembled.
The 2008-09 Grizzlies are trying to avoid the distinction of worst Memphis team ever assembled, and they seem to be taking strides in that direction, however small. Mondays game featured 13 lead changes, and the Grizzlies erased a 9-point deficit before finding a lid on the basket at games end. Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo led Memphis with 15 points each and Marc Gasol added 12, including a pair of free throws to give the Grizzlies a 75-74 lead with just over six minutes to play. Detroit would outscore the home team 13-4 the rest of the way.
Losing frustrates you, said Iavaroni during a brief press conference after the game. Keeping a positive spirit is very important. Unfortunately, were going through a tough stretch right now.
A positive spirit, ironically, was central to the event. Even with Bing, Erving, and Brandy (who sang the national anthem and performed at halftime) in the building, the loudest cheer of the night came during a video tribute at halftime, when highlights of Dr. Kings life were followed by a clip from Barack Obamas election-night acceptance speech in Chicago. The crowd seemed to channel November 4th once again, asked once more about the possibilities of America, and the chances for hope. Tonight is your answer, the 44th president reminded his viewers. A standing O for President O.
Before the game, in accepting his award, Erving addressed the crowd and mentioned April 1968, and how troubled he was by the rioting and unrest across the country after Kings assassination. He explained that as a high-school senior, the man now known as the Doctor resolved to become a change agent, to see a better America, one where Kings aspirations might still be fulfilled.
Which brings us again to the 48 hours in January 2009 no Memphian will ever forget, when the citys last basketball game before America had a black president was played.
College football has taken its annual share of abuse -- all deserved -- for the many cracks in the foundation of its postseason format. But this year, the NFL has earned a heap of criticism -- again, deserved -- for its own shortcomings in a playoff format that has come to reward mediocrity and penalize geographic coincidence.
Philadelphia and Arizona will play each other on Sunday for the NFC championship -- and a spot in Super Bowl XLIII -- having each won nine regular-season games. Meanwhile the New England Patriots -- winners of 11 games -- have had their golf clubs out (presumably in a warmer climate than eastern Massachusetts) for two weeks. And it gets worse.
Those Arizona Cardinals put a whipping on the favored Carolina Panthers last weekend, but only after beating the Atlanta Falcons in the opening round of the playoffs. Despite winning 11 games, those Falcons -- a wild-card team due to their finishing second to Carolina in the NFC South -- had to travel across the country to face a team with two fewer wins.
Let's look at the AFC playoff brackets. Despite winning 12 games (and ending the season on a nine-game winning streak) the Indianapolis Colts got to travel to San Diego to play the Chargers in their opening playoff game. San Diego didn't even finish above .500, their 8-8 mark good enough to crown them "champions" of the AFC West. Since the Colts happen to reside in the same division -- the AFC South -- as the 13-win Tennessee Titans, Indy was relegated to wild-card status. Hit the road, Peyton; lotta good that third MVP trophy did you.
With no fewer than eight divisions, it's merely a matter of time before a 7-9 football team "wins" its division, and with it, a home playoff game. Teams that win between seven and nine games are mediocre. And one of them, folks, will be playing in Super Bowl XLIII. (Solution: Each conference should be made up of two eight-team divisions. The four division champions would each have earned their bye, and geography would have little to do in determining which teams qualify as wild cards.)
What might have been a stellar weekend for University of Memphis alumni was ruined by the Panthers loss to Arizona. Carolina's star tailback, DeAngelo Williams, was named second-team All-Pro by the AP on Friday, while his former Tiger teammate -- kicker Stephen Gostkowski -- earned first-team honors. To the best of my knowledge (and I'm getting research help from U of M media relations), these are the first former Tigers to earn such acclaim at football's highest level. (No, Isaac Bruce has never been All-Pro.) Somehow, though, Williams was left off the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
A few angles to consider before next Sunday's two championship games, the best football day of the year:
Arizona is one of only four franchises that existed before 1995 that has never played in a Super Bowl. It should be noted though, that the Cardinals have been in the desert only since 1988, while New Orleans, Detroit, and Cleveland have suffered Super Bowl envy for more than four decades.
If the favored Steelers and Eagles each win, we would have only the third Super Bowl in history between teams from the same state. In Super Bowl XXV (after the 1990 season), the New York Giants beat Buffalo in one of the most memorable championships in history and in Super Bowl XXIX (after the 1994 season), San Francisco demolished San Diego.
Twenty-one Super Bowls were played before Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to "go to Disney World" as world champion. It seems astonishing that 20 Super Bowls have been played since that Redskin victory over Denver without another black quarterback raising the trophy.
The Steelers are aiming to become the first franchise with six Super Bowl victories. Should they beat Baltimore this Sunday, no matter who wins the NFC championship, their opponent will be seeking its very first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
If you call yourself a Memphis sports fan and didn't have fun over the first weekend of 2009, you'd best get comfortable with your Wii. In a veritable three-day festival of athletics, the Bluff City set a standard unlikely to be matched over the next 51 weeks.
Last Friday, playing in weather borrowed from early October, Kentucky erased a 13-point deficit to beat East Carolina in front of 56,125 fans at the 50th AutoZone Liberty Bowl Classic. The game's singular highlight, of course, came on Wildcat defensive lineman Ventrell Jenkins' fumble recovery, which he returned 56 yards for the game-winning touchdown with three minutes to play. Jenkins delivered the finest stiff-arm since the Heisman Trophy was sculpted, dropping Pirate quarterback Patrick Pinkney on his way to paydirt.
The outcome, alas, is hardly a ringing endorsement for Conference USA. When C-USA's champion is knocked off by a Kentucky team that was merely the sixth or seventh best squad in the SEC, the divide between the "mid-major" league in which the University of Memphis plays and the BCS big boys only seems to expand. For what it's worth, since the Liberty Bowl adopted its current C-USA-vs.-SEC format after the 2006 season, the SEC representative hasn't won by more than eight points.
Saturday night at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers played their sixth home game in 18 days, handling the Lamar Cardinals, 108-75, in the Tigers' highest scoring game of the season. (The win seemed more significant than it should have, with former Tiger coach Tic Price sitting on the Lamar bench, an assistant to Steve Roccaforte, himself an assistant to Memphis coach John Calipari for three years.) Longtime fan favorite Antonio Anderson not only seized the spotlight, but made history. Tagged with somewhat of a euphemism as "the glue guy" for three 30-win teams, Anderson became only the second Tiger player to achieve a triple-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists). And even Penny Hardaway -- who performed the feat in 1993 -- couldn't claim the remarkable 13-0 assist-to-turnover ratio Anderson managed in the Tigers' 10th win of the season.
"No turnovers?," asked Anderson after the game. "Usually I sneak one in." When asked about the historical stat line, Anderson smiled and said, "I've never had [a triple-double]. I'd been slumping, but Coach just told me to work out of it. My teammates stuck with me, and now I'm coming out."
The Tigers -- unranked for the first time in three years -- hope they turned a corner with the move of freshman star Tyreke Evans to point guard three games ago. "Tyreke should have been our point guard from the start of the season," admitted Calipari after the game. "Whose fault is that? Mine. He now has the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time. We need to get to where he has it 95 percent."
The switch is one Evans -- the team's leading scorer, he had 25 points against Lamar -- has welcomed. "Everybody seems to be on the same page," said Evans. "As point guard, I have to get into the lane and find people for open shots. I'm used to having the ball in my hands, so I'm glad [Calipari] put it in my hands, to let me show what I can do. I have to make the right pass, and at the right time." When he's not scoring himself, that is.
To cap off the weekend Sunday -- back at the barn on Beale -- the Memphis Grizzlies ended a 13-game losing streak to Dallas by drubbing the Mavericks, 102-82. The Griz shot an astounding 67 percent in the first quarter and trailed only briefly in the third, beating their divisional rivals for the first time at FedExForum. O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Hakim Warrick all had at least 18 points for the Grizzlies as they ended an overall losing streak of four games. A much younger team than the Mavs, the Grizzlies also were the quicker, more energetic, more lively basketball team in this rare matinee. And what is early January if not a time for youth and vigor?
Add the Ole Miss victory in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day and the first four days of 2009 were a winning streak unlike many the Mid-South has seen as one year gave way to the next. With a general consensus that 2008 is a year best left behind, why not start in the world of sports?