This is a story of thanks. Meant for a week during which being thankful registers a little deeper. (Or at least we pay closer attention to those for whom we’re grateful.) It’s a story of six old teammates of mine: Gabby, Cheese, Frog, Tim, Mike, and Audie. Together as Northfield Marauders, we played for Vermont’s 1985 Division III state runner-up soccer team. And quite honestly, that’s where the sports connection ends. Three months of a unified goal. (A time in which each of us achieved a physical condition we can fantasize over today.) But just as we survived an ass-kicking in that championship game without much enduring pain, we’ve survived 24 years of comings, goings, discoveries, and disappointments, and find ourselves on the other side of 40 now. Friendships fully intact. And for that I’m grateful.
Some background: Frog — we came up with nicknames that stuck — is the superintendent of one of the finest golf courses in New England. Cheese is a high-school teacher in Montpelier, and runs a painting business on the side. Tim owns and manages an auto-repair shop in our hometown of Northfield, Vermont. Mike is an airline pilot, and Audie is a major in the Air Force, based in Guam. Gabby calls himself a “lifestyle educator.” Best we can tell, he advises people with serious health concerns — obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes — on ways to achieve healthier lives before relying entirely on pharmaceuticals to change their bodies’ chemistry. A noble enterprise if you ask me.
With Cheesey motivating and Frog making arrangements near his parents’ new home in Myrtle Beach, we put together — and actually executed — a plan to gather for a weekend in October to collectively celebrate turning 40 this year. No wives allowed, no children. And no excuses ... not even living on an island in the middle of nowhere. While boys will be boys, and men should behave like men, there are times in life — stages, I guess — when men acting like boys is healthy. And for three days on the coast of South Carolina, we acted like boys.
The combination of sunshine, golf, cold beer, and midget wrestling will go a long way toward extending one’s life. Despite an ailing back that limited me to “designated putter” duties at Indigo Creek Golf Club, the steady, prolonged laughter of our gathering was unmatched in my adult life. And I say that with as happy a marriage — and the two most rewarding, delightful daughters — a man can claim. This was just prolonged, steady laughter ... of a different kind.
Our oldest friends, you see, serve as soul mechanics. (Tim will appreciate this.) We tend to adjust priorities as we age, hopefully intelligently. Influences — like, say, a wife and children — enter our lives that make the days, weeks, and months less about who we are or who we were, and more about how we can best contribute to a larger cause. And this a good adjustment, a nice shift of gears (again for you, Tim) in the human condition. But old friends provide a realignment for the soul. In the right setting (a beach will always do) and with enough time (a long weekend will suffice), friends from our formative years remind us that we are, fundamentally, products of our youth. Take yourself too seriously at age 40, and a friend from your 17th year will quickly have you back on track. You may have 200 airmen under your command, but not one of them knows the difference your van made in high school. We know, Audie.
Among the memories I’ll carry from Myrtle Beach — beyond the tallest pair of boots I’ve ever seen — is the remarkable consistency in happiness among seven men who have traveled in so many different directions. Each of us is happily married, six of us the parents of healthy children, with Gabby’s wife due in February. I’m not sure what the odds are of such a confluence, particularly among a group from a town so very small. I’ve lived near (and worked with) people for much of the 22 years since I left Northfield for college who don’t know me the way these six men do, distance be damned. We keep making friends, if we’re lucky, throughout adulthood. But the older you get, the harder it is to find a good soul mechanic.
I’m eternally grateful for mine.
It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast within a 24-hour window for University of Memphis athletics. Friday night at FedExForum, 17,584 fans turned out to greet 32-year-old rookie basketball coach Josh Pastner for the Tigers’ regular-season opener against Jackson State. Then at noon Saturday, an announced 18,031 fans sat in the Liberty Bowl to say goodbye to 55-year-old football coach Tommy West, whose dismissal after nine years at the Tiger helm was announced five days earlier.
As tends to happen with greetings and sendoffs, one was positive (Pastner is undefeated as a head coach), the other not so much (West remains a victory shy of 50 with the Tigers). Sports are transient, particularly the college variety. Last weekend will stick, though, for Pastner and West.
“After the game, Mr. R.C. Johnson came and gave me the game ball,” said Pastner to a contingent of media after the Tigers beat Jackson State, 82-53. As if the coaching wonder-boy needed to further enhance his innocent-as-a-choir-boy image, he actually referred to the U of M athletic director as “Mr. R.C. Johnson.”
“I took the ball and I told him — and I mean it — this has nothing to do with me. It’s about the players. The players win the games. This will never be me. Credit goes to the guys. They stepped up, gutted it out, and found a way.”
He may be new to the gig, but Pastner has his victory cliches polished and packaged. And what he’s missing, to this point, is that the 2009-10 basketball season is very much about him. The first legitimate roar in FedExForum this season came during the pregame video intro, when a gleaming face above a sparkling white shirt — that would be Pastner’s — appeared behind the rotating basketball-as-globe, the theme from “2001 a Space Odyssey” filling the arena’s sound system. He will not score a point this winter, nor dish out an assist or grab a rebound. But don’t doubt that Josh Pastner is the star of his team. (The news Saturday that yet another recruiting gem — Atlanta’s Jelan Kendrick – is on his way to Memphis only cements this region’s devotion to The Pastner Way.)
The atmosphere was considerably more subdued when West met the Memphis media one last time Saturday afternoon, after his Tigers fell to UAB, 31-21. (On the list of things West will not miss about his career as Memphis coach, press conferences in the back of what was once the visitors’ locker room at the Liberty Bowl must be near the top.) Unlike his emotional statement on November 9th, though, West had a firm grip on his comments, and sense of humor.
“I’ve got strong emotions,” he said. “But I’m not going to go into a tirade today. If that’s what you’re waiting for, I’m not going to do it. I took four Xanax before I came in here.
“Nine years is a long time. I’m going to miss being here, I really will. This is a good place, and there are good people here. This happens, it’s our business. You hate it for the seniors that you’re having this kind of year. A sour year. I’m not worried about myself. But most of those players won’t play again. I’m gonna coach some more, so it’s not about me. I hate it for them. I’d like to have seen them go out at home the right way.”
West described the calls he’s received from his peers in Conference USA, and managed a chuckle in recollecting the chats. “Everybody likes you this year, because they beat you,” he said.
On an idyllic, 70-degree afternoon for football, I counted a solitary sign in the Liberty Bowl that acknowledged West’s pending departure. Not exactly poetic, it read “W the Coach.” The letter will always stand for “West.” Sadly this year, it can’t be said to stand for “win.”
Pau Gasol was never going to win a popularity contest, at least not in Memphis. He arrived with a strange name, a strange game (a seven-footer with touch!), and an accent to boot. So in many respects, Pau Gasol embodied the arrival of big-league sports in the Bluff City, a foreign concept to generations accustomed to football and basketball B-leagues that didn’t make the sports section beyond the Mid-South. While he didn’t start the very first game in Memphis Grizzlies history (he scored four points off the bench on November 1, 2001), Gasol started 79 games as a 21-year-old rookie, and led Memphis in scoring average for each of his six full seasons here.
My introduction to Spain’s preeminent hoops export came in the form of an interview for a profile in the Grizzlies’ inaugural-season game-day program. I expected a wide-eyed, eager athlete trying to find his way with English, let alone his back-to-the-basket skills. Instead I found a confident — cocky, even — young man playing where he expected to play, in the world’s greatest basketball league. “You have to be confident,” he said, “if you’re going to be able to do things on the court. I’m very ambitious. I want to be one of the best, ever.” He took particular umbrage with the label most European players have been tagged with upon their arrival in the NBA. “You cannot be soft and play in the NBA,” he stressed. “There are more and more [Europeans] playing in the NBA, and we’re doing what we have to do.”
Gasol went on to lead the Grizzlies in scoring (17.6 ppg), total rebounds (730) and blocked shots (169). Despite Memphis winning only 23 games, Gasol was named the league’s Rookie of the Year (the first European to earn such honors). Among the players he topped for the trophy: San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Golden State’s Jason Richardson, and Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko.
Gasol averaged 19.0 points and 8.8 rebounds in 2002-03, the season Hubie Brown took over as coach. The following season remains the Grizzlies’ finest to date: 50 wins and the franchise’s first playoff berth (where they lost to San Antonio in the first round). Gasol topped the team in scoring in 34 games. Lacking the flash of point guard Jason Williams or the off-the-court charms of swingman Shane Battier, Gasol was merely an efficient difference-maker at both ends of the court. Ironically, this was the only season as a Grizzly that Gasol did not shoot higher than 50 percent from the field (48.2). He paced the team in scoring in the playoffs, too (18.5 ppg), but was unable to thwart a sweep at the hands of the Spurs.
Gasol was the centerpiece for playoff teams again in 2005 and 2006, but found himself twice more on the wrong end of series sweeps. He averaged a career-high 20.4 ppg in 2005-06 and earned the first All-Star nod in Grizzlies history. Playing for a Western Conference squad that featured fellow-Europeans Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker, Gasol failed to score but grabbed 12 rebounds in 14 minutes of action. The shaggy beard Gasol sported during the 2005-06 campaign added a dose of personality to his game. But despite becoming the hairy face of the franchise, he never gained unqualified devotion from Grizzly fans. An 0-12 playoff record will do that to a star.
Despite missing 23 games with a broken foot, Gasol led the 2006-07 Grizzlies in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (9.8). But the club fell off the playoff wagon rather violently, losing 60 games. With the team on its way to another 60-loss season, Gasol was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers on February 1, 2008. (Along with a pair of future draft picks, the trade brought the rights to Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, to Memphis.) Gasol left the Grizzlies as the franchise’s career leader in points (8,966), rebounds (4,096), blocks (877), and games (476).
In less than two full seasons as Kobe Bryant’s new sidekick, Gasol has played twice in the Finals (earning a championship ring last June), played in a second All-Star Game, and earned third-team All-NBA honors. Whether or not his path leads to the Hall of Fame, though, Gasol will always be the first big-league star Memphis could call its own. Worthy of Athlete of the Decade honors. Almost.
[The countdown is almost complete. After Stubby Clapp (5), Danny Wimprine (4), Chris Douglas-Roberts (3), and Pau Gasol (2), only one slot remains to be identified. Memphis’ Athlete of the Decade will be profiled here in December.]
Tommy West is among the most genuinely decent men I’ve written about as a journalist, and that includes the many sources and subjects I’ve met outside the sports arena. Which makes the countdown to his almost-inevitable ouster as University of Memphis football coach especially difficult. Last week’s embarrassing loss to East Carolina on a damp Tuesday night, in front of an all-but-empty Liberty Bowl (and on national television to make things worse), will likely be the game West’s critics recall as the shouts for a replacement grow in volume. The outcome surely indicates a growing chasm between the Tiger program and Conference USA contenders. And if the U of M cannot contend for a championship in a second-tier conference, ticket sales will continue to sag and the likelihood of joining a major conference will drop. The first person accountable for the team’s sagging performance, of course, is the head coach.
If West is indeed dismissed, though, athletic director R.C. Johnson and university president Shirley Raines had better have a candidate who personifies improvement in mind. This would seem to make common sense: don’t let go of a known quantity — however he may be struggling — without a better option behind the curtain. The last time Johnson dismissed a football coach (Rip Scherer, after the 2000 season), he had West — with credentials from his days running the Clemson program — behind that curtain as Scherer’s defensive coordinator. Due respect to current coordinators Clay Helton (offense) and Kenny Ingram (defense), neither is remotely buzz-worthy. And neither would sell an extra ticket if named head coach.
The Tiger football program has so many leaks, on such a large scale, that a head-coaching change would be merely a sponge on a listing ship. A new coach cannot shrink the Liberty Bowl. (4,117 fans may look small in a stadium that seats 30,000, but in the 60,000-seat Liberty Bowl?) Boosters line up to give money to the the school’s basketball program (which is reflected in salaries like the one John Calipari enjoyed for nine years). The football program is in the hands of a smaller group of diehards, with pockets not as deep. And while a basketball team can be made with four or five top recruits, a football team’s two-deep roster requires 44 capable players recruited in the heart of SEC country. Sound like a job you’d get in line for?
You won’t find in this space suggestions for a successor to Tommy West. Unless you know the names on Johnson’s speed dial, coaching candidates are speculative at best, random rumor at worst. And either way, entirely unfair to the man still challenged with winning four football games this year.
Empty seats scream in a football stadium. As Johnson and Raines respond to those screams, we’ll see how mindful they are of a one-man fix being nothing short of fantasy.
• The closing of Memphis Motorsports Park by Dover Motorsports is a disturbing development, and not just for Mid-South race fans. There’s a Darwinian quality to sports entertainment in the new economy, just like any other industry. But sports facilities are especially susceptible, as they rely almost entirely on the two words – long companions — that have come to be somewhat of an oxymoron: discretionary income. As recently as 2006, MMP was thriving, with total attendance in excess of 600,000. But despite hosting an annual event on NASCAR’s second-tier circuit (currently the Nationwide Series), the park’s business model collapsed under dwindling profits. And consider the facility was run with fewer than 30 employees. Current Sprint Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Carl Edwards all won in Memphis, but star quality simply doesn’t sell like it once did. Certainly not enough to fund a yearlong operation like MMP.
The next local litmus test will be AutoZone Park, where the front-office has been turned inside-out and overhead reduced dramatically in the hopes of closing the gap between dwindling revenue and operating expenses. As much as summer baseball — like race weekends — feels like a given in our community, the enterprise is a matter of business. Here’s hoping the new management team at Third and Union has a tighter grip on profitability than Dover Motorsports did at MMP.
• I find the St. Louis Cardinals’ hiring of Mark McGwire as hitting coach to be especially dubious. Consider: the Cardinals are entrusting the tutelage of their hitters — including the best steroid-free (to this point) hitter in the game, Albert Pujols — to a former player who is on the Mt. Rushmore of the game’s “Steroid Era.” McGwire has been a virtual hermit since his retirement after the 2001 season, his biggest splash being the embarrassing testimony he delivered before Congress on St. Patrick’s Day in 2005. Now, all of a sudden, he’s prepared to face cameras and writers, day-in and day-out, for seven months, with questions about steroid use filling every thought bubble in every ballpark where the Cardinals play?
McGwire has built a reputation as a hitting guru from his home in California, and you’d like to think this will be a reunion with a happy ending. But with Pujols climbing the home run chart — and closing in on free agency — you have to wonder if proximity to a former player held guilty in the court of public opinion for cheating the game is healthy for either party.