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.