I attended more sporting events over the last 10 years than my father did in all 63 of his. That being the case, I was surprised at how easy it is to pick the five most memorable from here in Memphis. Hope you were there, too.
Pujols Homers for Championship (September 15, 2000) — Among the hundreds of sporting events I’ve witnessed live, this is my “grandchildren” game. (You know: “Someday, I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I was there.”) Having been promoted from Class A(!) Potomac only two weeks earlier, Albert Pujols was given leftfield for the Memphis Redbirds when Ernie Young left the team to play in the Olympics. As I recall, he was introduced by the p.a. announcer as “Alberto” Pujols. The point is, no one knew who the guy wearing number 6 was. This team — the first to play in AutoZone Park — had reached the Pacific Coast League championship series behind the likes of Stubby Clapp, Mark Little, Larry Sutton, and Lou Lucca. All popular players . . . and all footnotes now.
With the Redbirds leading the best-of-five series with Salt Lake two games to one, and Game 4 tied at 3, Pujols stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 13th inning. (The game was tied only because a Buzz base-runner had earlier been tagged out having missed the plate.) Pujols drilled a line drive that looped just inside the rightfield foul pole, giving Memphis its first baseball championship since 1990. Still shy of his 21st birthday, Pujols was named MVP of the PCL playoffs. A year later, he was the National League’s Rookie of the Year and on his way to Cooperstown.
Memphis Goes Big League (November 1, 2001) — Thoughts of the ABA, the WFL, the USFL, the CBA, the CFL, and way too many lonely nights at Tim McCarver Stadium ran through my mind as I sat in The Pyramid — with two NBA teams on the floor below — listening to Isaac Hayes sing “God Bless America.” With the Memphis Grizzlies hosting the Detroit Pistons, the Bluff City finally had a team that would impact standings that people check from Seattle to New York. No gimmick, no exhibition, no temporary home. The Grizzlies started Jason Williams, Michael Dickerson, Shane Battier, Stromile Swift, and native Memphian Lorenzen Wright. The first points scored by the home team were on a trey by Dickerson, who would play a total of nine more games in a career shortened by injury. The final score — Detroit 90, Memphis 80 — didn’t matter all that much. But it was a score they checked in Seattle. And New York.
Tigers vs. Cardinals, in Shoulder Pads (November 4, 2004) — Despite the final score, this is among the most important games in Tiger history. Televised nationally on a Thursday night, the game featured remarkable performances by the U of M’s greatest player of alltime and its greatest quarterback, too. Better yet, it was a contest against the U of M’s historic basketball rival (ranked 14th in the country), making the intensity a bit higher than your average Conference USA tilt. Each team scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, and the scoring didn’t end until the Cardinals’ Eric Shelton scored the game-winning points with 37 seconds left in the game: Louisville 56, Memphis 49. DeAngelo Williams gained 200 yards on the ground for Memphis. Danny Wimprine passed for 361 yards and four touchdowns, slightly better than the performance of Louisville signal-caller Stefan LeFors, who passed for 321 yards and three TD’s. LeFors and Williams went on to share C-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Tears and Cheers for Darius (March 12, 2005) — The Memphis Tigers weren’t even supposed to reach the finals of the 2005 C-USA tournament. With 14 losses, coach John Calipari’s fifth Memphis team was already making plans to headline the NIT. Facing 6th-ranked Louisville in the Cardinals’ last game as a C-USA member, the Tigers were a nice hometown story, but little more than lamb for a lion.
The teams each drained a pair of treys — four total — in one sixty-second stretch near the end of the first half, which ended with the score deadlocked. Memphis was leading with but 30 seconds left in the game, only to see the game’s final three-pointer — by Louisville’s Larry O’Bannon — make the difference.
As time expired, Washington was fouled when he shot up a desperation three-pointer, the Tigers down two. Three converted free throws and Memphis would win its first tourney title in 18 years and be fitted for a glass slipper at the NCAA tournament. With no time left on the clock, no players lined up alongside the key, as they would for any other free throw. Washington — as alone on that court as Crusoe was on his island — drained his first shot and turned to wink at Calipari. His second attempt — to tie the game — fell to the side. His third . . . Memphis fans know and will never forget. An athlete collapsed because of injury is hard to watch. An athlete collapsed in tears and regret, though . . . that’s heartbreak. Still the finest college basketball game I’ve seen live.
#1 vs. #2 (February 23, 2008) — The Memphis Tigers had spent a month atop the national polls when they welcomed the Tennessee Vols — ranked second in both major polls — to FedExForum. Better yet, Memphis was 26-0, having recently surpassed the longest winning streak in the program’s rich history. Safe to say, this game belongs in the conversation for Greatest Sporting Event in Memphis History. (The Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight tilt of 2002 is its only real competition.)
The Tigers led by one at halftime in the nationally televised contest. Defense prevailed, as neither team shot 40 percent. UT star Chris Lofton was held to five points (2 of 11 from the field) while the Tigers’ Chris Douglas-Roberts scored but 14. A late put-back by the Vols’ Tyler Smith broke a tie and gave Tennessee a 66-62 win. The following week, UT ascended to the top spot in the national rankings for the first time in men’s basketball history.
A look back at the local sporting events I enjoyed most in 2009. (Couldn’t reduce the list to five this year.)
• Memphis 108, Lamar 75 (January 3) — Among the dozens of players I’ve seen in watching 19 years of Memphis Tiger basketball, Antonio Anderson is among my two or three favorites. And this was his night. (Appropriately for Anderson, it came against an opponent that didn’t bring any national coverage, and on a date when many hoop fans were still nursing hangovers.) In scoring 12 points, dishing out 13 assists, and grabbing 10 rebounds, Anderson became only the second Tiger in history to achieve a triple-double. (Each of the first two belonged to Penny Hardaway.) Anderson finished his Tiger career in March as the only player in the program’s history with 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists. And he graduated in four years.
• Pistons 87, Grizzlies 79 (January 19) — This was a sporting event that was much more about the moment than it was the action on the floor (the home team’s sixth straight loss in what would be a 12-game losing streak). In hosting the seventh-annual Martin Luther King Game, Memphis put its best and most sensitive foot forward, even if it was wearing a sneaker. Before the game, Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Julius Erving were honored, bringing that much more dignity to the matinee. The biggest cheer was reserved, though, for a scoreboard presentation that honored the man who would — less than 24 hours later — become the first black president in United States history. Regardless of our NBA team’s fortunes, a new era was upon us all. Dr. King would have been proud.
• North Carolina 72, Oklahoma 60; NCAA South Regional championship (March 29) — Memphis has called itself a college-basketball town for generations. So how is it that this was the first time the city had ever hosted an NCAA tournament regional, with a Final Four berth on the line? The bracket gods apparently liked the overdue marriage, as the South Region’s top two seeds — North Carolina and Oklahoma — made it cleanly into the finals. Better yet, fans at FedExForum got to see the 2008 National Player of the Year (the Tar Heels’ Tyler Hansbrough) go up against the player who would take this year’s top honor (the Sooners’ Blake Griffin). The days of Alcindor-Hayes or Sampson-Ewing in college basketball are long gone. But this was close ... at least on paper. Griffin scored 23 points while Hansbrough was limited to 8. The eventual national champion Tar Heels played the part, pulling away in the first half on their way to the school’s 18th Final Four appearance.
• Redbirds 3, Round Rock 2 (July 4) — Independence Day, baseball, and fireworks. On a Saturday night that would please the most patriotic among us, the home team provided a comeback — and a necessary delay to the postgame pyro — for a crowd of more than 14,000 at AutoZone Park. With tough-luck pitcher Adam Ottavino on the hill — the Memphis starter entered the game with a record of 0-9 — the Redbirds fell behind 2-0 before shortstop Donovan Solano drove in a pair of funs in the bottom of the eighth inning to tie the game. With a pair of sharp innings from Jess Todd — named earlier that week to the Pacific Coast League’s All-Star team — Memphis extended the game into the 11th inning, when Nick Stavinoha drilled a game-winning single. The explosive show that followed seemed to merely fit the script on this night.
• Redbirds 1, Albuquerque 0 (September 11) — The Redbirds would still have the Pacific Coast League Championship Series and the made-for-TV Triple-A National Championship to play after this night, but this series-clinching victory in their first-round playoff sweep of the Isotopes was in many ways the peak of their season. A few thousand fans were actually in the stands (not the case during the two rainy night of the PCL finals the next week), bunting was on display, and the baseball was as crisp as the unseasonable late-summer air. Evan MacLane pitched seven shutout innings and David Freese’s second-inning home run held up for the 1-0 final score. Best of all, I enjoyed the game with a longtime friend on his first visit to AutoZone Park. He’ll be back.
Grizzlies 111, Cavaliers 109 (December 8th) — Simply put, the most exciting NBA game I’ve seen in Memphis. The game’s reigning MVP (LeBron James) in town with his new sidekick (Shaquille O’Neal) ready to make mincemeat of the home team. Cleveland led by six after 12 minutes and by 11 at the half. An unusually large crowd for a Grizzlies home game — 16,325 — was seeing what many expected to see. But then the Grizzlies showed the kind of fight — and talent, it should be emphasized — rarely seen since Hubie Brown’s magical 2003-04 season. Zach Randolph scored 32 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Rudy Gay (21 points), O.J. Mayo (28) and Mike Conley (game-winning layup in overtime) all hit clutch shots to turn back the Eastern Conference heavyweights. But perhaps the most memorable player from a game in which LeBron James scored 43 points was Grizzlies reserve center Hamed Haddadi. Called into duty (eight minutes) when Marc Gasol got in foul trouble, Haddadi dunked on Shaq and knocked King James on his backside with as violent a screen as you’ll see this season. May have been a foul, but it was the metaphorical centerpiece for this amazing night of NBA basketball in Memphis.
Next week: A look at the five most memorable Memphis events I witnessed this decade.
I’ve had The Wizard of Oz on my mind as the first month of basketball season gathers momentum. Remember how loyal and deferential all the winged monkeys and foot soldiers were to the Wicked Witch ... until Dorothy washed her away? Remember how they rejoiced at the removal of their “queen,” and actually broke into song? Both the Tigers and Grizzlies seem to have undergone a cultural shift along these lines. However successful the team was under John Calipari, the Tigers were a tense operation. It showed on the floor and you could hear it in the locker room with every post-game comment. Expectations were such that no player was allowed a mistake, let alone a slump. Now this, from junior guard Roburt Sallie as he emerged from a shooting slump last month: “I honestly can’t tell you where I’d be last year if I started out the first three games like this, shooting-wise. I probably wouldn’t have seen the floor for a month or two. But Coach [Josh] Pastner lets us play through mistakes. You know, he’s in his first year, and he makes mistakes, too. We let him know. That’s the kind of relationship we have. It’s a good one. I’m appreciative to be here.”
As for the Grizzlies, the story since Allen Iverson signed with the club late last summer was how and when Iverson would fit the franchise. Who would have to sacrifice minutes to make sure AI stayed happy and productive? Could "The Answer" be a leader off the bench? How would Iverson and a coach with no track record of success cooperate? Well, each of these story lines was washed away when Iverson packed his things and chose retirement — and eventually, his old club in Philly — over Beale Street Blue. While the Grizzlies may not be playoff caliber — yet — winning nine of 14 games and beating the likes of Portland, Dallas, and Cleveland is new to Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and O.J. Mayo. Better yet, the team can learn from and build upon slices of success without the concern of pleasing one Hall-of-Fame-bound veteran.
So let’s sing together for both our basketball teams: Ding-dong, the tension’s dead!
• I was thoroughly pleased to learn last week of Whitey Herzog’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the museum’s Veterans Committee. If imposing a philosophy of the game is as important as merely winning championships, the White Rat should have been enshrined years ago. After leading Kansas City to three division titles in the Seventies, Herzog moved on to St. Louis in 1980, where he immediately began building a team that would thrive on the artificial turf in cavernous Busch Stadium. Having designed his club around speed (Lonnie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman) and defense (Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Terry Pendleton), Herzog led the Cardinals to three pennants and the 1982 world championship. Take this to the bank: no baseball team will ever again win a World Series with its leading home-run hitter having hit but 19 (as George Hendrick did 27 years ago).
With Herzog’s election, consider the remarkable stretch of history among Cardinal managers. Presuming Joe Torre (1990-95) and Tony LaRussa (1996 to the present) are elected shortly after they retire, and with Red Schoendienst (1965-76) already a member, St. Louis has had Hall of Fame credentials in its manager’s office for 42 of the last 45 seasons. (Vern Rapp managed the Cards in 1977, Ken Boyer the next two seasons.)
• You gotta hate the BCS. (Though bless the decision-makers who put Boise State and TCU in the Fiesta Bowl together. It will be the best game of the postseason.) There will be at least two undefeated teams after the bowl games are played; three if Cincinnati can upset Saint Tebow in the Sugar Bowl. What would be wrong with an additional week of college football, and one more game to decide a champion on the field? I chase this question in circles every year, convinced that the moneymakers behind each of the 34 bowl games will cling to the current system as though it’s the last piece of driftwood after the Great Flood. But wouldn’t a single winner-take-all, post-bowl-season Game of the Year make more money than any bowl game under the current structure? I can’t figure it out.
The greatest Memphis athlete of the 1970s was Larry Finch. In the Eighties, Keith Lee. The Nineties, Penny Hardaway. But the 2000s have been a Memphis sports decade unlike any before. And the days when Bluff City sports began and ended with Tiger basketball are over. The person who most embodies the spirit of the transition we fans have enjoyed is himself the latest Memphis Athlete of the Decade: former Tiger great — former Tiger football great — DeAngelo Williams.
When I told Williams of his latest honor — late last summer — he reacted as you might expect had you witnessed any postgame interview with the easy-to-smile, humble native of Wynne, Arkansas. “Sweet,” he said. “I’m numero uno?” When I explained that the honor brought no trophy, and was selected by a committee of one, he was just as gracious. “That’s sweet, man. I really appreciate that.”
The only challenging debate in reflecting on more than 80 years of Tiger football is coming up with the second-greatest player to wear blue and gray. Williams was the kind of player who would have starred at USC, Alabama, Texas, or Florida State. But he chose to play at Memphis.
After a modest freshman season (by his later standards), Williams shattered the Tigers’ single-season rushing record by almost 400 yards, with a total of 1,430 in 2003. He also accumulated 384 yards through the air and scored a total of 13 touchdowns. A late-season knee injury kept Williams out of the New Orleans Bowl, the program’s first postseason game in 32 years.
As a junior in 2004, Williams introduced himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation. In piling up 1,948 yards and 23 touchdowns, Williams had no fewer than four 200-yard games, including 262 against Houston and a school record 263 against South Florida. Labeled a “compact” back by some, Williams was a workhorse. In the Tigers’ biggest win of the season — over Eli Manning and Ole Miss — Williams carried the ball 37 times. He ran for 120 yards in his first bowl game, a loss to Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl.
Williams established a third-straight single-season rushing record for Memphis in 2005, with 1,964 yards (topped off by 238 in his college finale, a victory over Akron in the Motor City Bowl). His career total of 6,026 yards made Williams only the fourth running back at college football’s highest level to gain 6,000 yards. (The others: Tony Dorsett, Ricky Williams, and Ron Dayne.) For the third consecutive season, Williams was named Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year, and he earned second-team All-America recognition from the AP. His career totals of 34 100-yard games and 7,573 all-purpose yards were NCAA records.
Former Tiger coach Tommy West had the best view of Williams’ heroics, and sees the impact his star tailback made as being larger than the game of football. “He was the total package,” says West. “I’ve got my DeAngelo shrine. When he returned a kickoff against the Miami Dolphins, he gave me the ball for Christmas. He’s a special person. As special a player as I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a player that I felt like I was friends with. He’d come bopping in my door and we’d talk like two grown-ups.”
And just how did such a player land in Memphis? He came here because he wanted to be the guy,” stresses West. “He wanted to be something special. If he’d gone to Arkansas, he would have been like someone else. Here, everybody else is always going to be compared with him.”
After rushing for a total of 1,218 yards his first two seasons with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, Williams broke out in 2008 with 1,515 yards and a league-leading 20 touchdowns. Having already broken the Panthers’ franchise record for career yardage, Williams has gained 1,022 through Sunday, good for sixth in the NFL.
In a city where basketball tends to steer conversation, DeAngelo Williams made football front-page news. It’s doubtful we’ll see another like him.