Continuing last week’s countdown of the 10 sporting events this year I enjoyed the most.
5) Secretariat (October 10) — A cinema may not be your typical venue for a sporting event, but for this Sunday matinee, it sure felt like one. The story of Secretariat’s gallop to the 1973 Triple Crown is the best sports movie since Miracle (Disney has mastered this formula). Diane Lane (as the thoroughbred’s owner, Penny Chenery), John Malkovich (as trainer Lucien Laurin), and Nelsan Ellis (as groom Eddie Sweat) are perfectly cast, and there are at least three stand-up-and-cheer moments, including actual footage from the ’73 Preakness. If you didn’t get goose bumps when Secretariat — in the gate — turned to stare down Sham, you must have been refilling your popcorn.
4) Redbirds 8, Bees 7 (August 19) — Over the first eight innings of this roller-coaster ride, the teams combined for six runs. Then they scored a total of nine in the final frame. The Redbirds had what looked like a comfortable 5-1 lead with three outs to go, and brought in closer Fernando Salas to finish the job. (Salas was 18 for 18 in save opportunities, though with a four-run lead, this didn’t qualify.) The Bees attacked the PCL All-Star, though, and scored six runs to take a 7-5 lead. But then in the bottom of the ninth, Joe Mather — having struck out a franchise-record six times in a game earlier in the week — drilled a two-run homer to tie things up. Mather was immediately followed by Mark Hamilton, who snuck an opposite-field homer inside the leftfield foul pole, his second bomb of the game, and a walk-off memory-maker for a sparse Thursday-night crowd.
3) Braves 4, Marlins 1 (July 3) — I have some happy memories from Atlanta. My little sister was born 10 days before Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. (Hard to steal a Home Run King’s thunder, but Liz managed.) Then in 1982, I was in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when the St. Louis Cardinals won their first National League pennant in my lifetime. (Never has a silent stadium sounded better.) But last July I made my first trip to Turner Field with some old friends from middle Tennessee, one of them a longtime Braves fan. Saw an 11-inning win by the home team on a Friday night, then enjoyed baseball under sunshine the day before flags and fireworks took over. Atlanta scored all four of its runs in the fourth inning, plenty for starting pitcher Tommy Hanson. Bill Wagner — a borderline Hall of Famer — got the save in his final season, and Cody Ross scored the only run for Florida. Ross would become famous three months later in helping lead the San Francisco Giants to the world championship (he was MVP of the NLCS).
2) Tigers 73, St. John’s 71 (March 17) — Had things gone a little differently 25 years earlier at the Final Four in Lexington, these two teams would have played for a national championship. But on this night — with the smallest crowd of the season at FedExForum, many of them in green instead of blue — the Tigers and Red Storm battled for a second-round berth in the NIT. And it was some kind of battle. Memphis took a nine-point lead at halftime, thanks to 10 three-pointers. But they needed a trey from Wesley Witherspoon — the only one they’d make in the second half — to regain the lead with less than a minute to play. Witherspoon also made two free throws in that final minute, but it was the last play of the game that 10,200 fans will be talking about years from now. With the game tied at 71, Witherspoon took a pass from Elliot Williams and drove through the lane, throwing up a desperation shot off the glass as time expired. Only after the buzzer sounded did the ball gently fall through the net, setting off the kind of pandemonium that would make a roomful of leprechauns proud.
1) Andy Roddick vs. James Blake (February 17) — These are the two best American tennis players since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were in their prime in the late Nineties. As recently as 2006, Blake was number four in the world. Roddick was the last player not named Federer or Nadal to end a year atop the world rankings (in 2003, the same year he won the U.S. Open). It was a showdown that managed to live up to hype, and in front of a standing-room-only crowd in excess of 5,200 at the Racquet Club of Memphis stadium court. Dressed in black from his cap to his sneakers, Roddick broke Blake in the fourth game of the first set on his way to a 6-3 win. In the second, Blake answered a Roddick break with two of his own for a 6-4 win. Then, down 5-4 in the third set, Blake managed to break the world’s seventh-ranked player and extend the match to a third-set tiebreaker. Roddick won a pair of points on Blake’s serve in the tiebreaker to win, 7-3. Unfortunately, the match took place in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships (a reflection of Blake’s ranking having recently tumbled into the fifties). Roddick went on to lose in the quarterfinals.
This week (and next), a countdown of the sporting events I enjoyed most in 2010.
10) Tigers 24, MTSU 17 (September 18) — Most local football fans knew the 2010 season would be a long one for the U of M. But I’m not sure anyone leaving the Liberty Bowl after the season’s third game — and home opener — knew they’d seen the last time these Tigers would score as many as 20 points in a game. Or the last time these Tigers would win a game. Gregory Ray scored on a 9-yard dash early in the second quarter and freshman quarterback Ryan Williams connected with Jermaine McKenzie for a 22-yard score shortly thereafter. The Tigers led 17-10 at the half, then traded touchdowns with the Blue Raiders in the third quarter. With two touchdowns and 121 yards rushing, Ray had the starring role offensively in the only game to smile about last fall.
9) Redbirds 3, Royals 2 (July 20) — I love introducing baseball fans to AutoZone Park. On this night, a friend from Cincinnati — devoted to his Reds and their Great American Ballpark — joined me behind the home team’s dugout for a nail-biter with division-rival Omaha. St. Louis Cardinal rightfielder Ryan Ludwick — in his first at-bat on a rehab assignment — launched a home run over the centerfield wall to give Memphis a two-run first-inning lead. Also on the field was former Redbirds star Rick Ankiel. Like Ludwick, Ankiel was a member of the 2008 Cardinal outfield and, like Ludwick, was rehabbing an injury on his way back to the Kansas City Royals. (He went 0-4 with three strikeouts.) Lance Lynn struck out 11 Royals and Josh Kinney pitched the ninth to earn a save and send our Ohio visitor home suitably impressed.
8) Tigers 78, Arkansas State 71 (December 1) — A good scare can do wonders for a young basketball team. Playing their first game in a week (perhaps still stuffed with turkey leftovers), the 14th-ranked Tigers hosted the Arkansas State Red Wolves, winners of one of their first six games. Form held early, as Memphis stormed out to a 23-5 lead. But then the sloppiness took over. Turnovers, breakdowns on defense, lazy jump shots. Only a missed free throw by ASU’s Daniel Bryant allowed the Tigers to force the game into overtime. Freshman point guard Joe Jackson — benches for some of that defensive sloppiness — returned to the floor with the Tigers down four and 3:30 to play. Memphis scored 13 of the game’s final 15 points. The crowd of over 16,000 didn’t so much applaud as exhale.
7) Memphis 2, Southern Miss 0 (October 3) — Watch out, Josh Pastner. Women’s soccer coach Brooks Monaghan is building (or has built) an institution at the U of M. The Tigers won their fourth consecutive Conference USA championship this fall and earned their fourth straight berth in the NCAA tournament. And for the second straight year, Memphis suited up an All-America (senior midfielder Vendula Strnadova). On a bright, chilly Sunday afternoon at the Mike Rose Soccer complex, my family and I enjoyed a 2-0 Tiger win. The Tigers set a nice standard for my two daughters, already soccer veterans themselves. Taylor Isenhower and Emmaleigh Davis found the net to earn the eighth of 15 wins this year for Memphis.
6) Lakers 99, Grizzlies 98 (February 23) — All Kobe Bryant needs is an opening. On this night, in front of 18,119 — the third sellout of the 2009-10 season at FedExForum — the Grizzlies provided him two. Leading 96-92 with under two minutes to play, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins was given a technical foul for protesting an offensive foul called against the Griz. Bryant drained the free throw. Then clinging to a 98-96 lead with 18 seconds left, O.J. Mayo went to the foul line with a chance to ice the game. With 25 points, Mayo had been the offensive star as Memphis led most of the second half. But he missed both free throws. Bryant proceeded to drain a three-pointer with four seconds left to win the game for the NBA’s reigning champs. The fact that this was Bryant’s first game back after missing five with an ankle injury only seemed to sharpen his dagger. Way too many fans dressed in purple and gold, happy with the outcome.
Next week: The top five.
It was a cold, quiet Christmas Eve when Josh Pastner — nightcap pulled tightly over his curls — settled down for a short winter’s nap, a rare break from the 86,400 seconds he considered so precious every day. It had been barely 24 hours since his Tigers’ epic battle with the Georgetown Hoyas, and Pastner’s thoughts had finally calmed enough to allow a bit of slumber. Unbeknownst to the Tiger coach, though, this would not be a restful night.
At precisely 1 a.m., Pastner awoke to the sound of a dribbled basketball. Standing at the foot of his bed was a glowing apparition, indeed dribbling a basketball. The face was familiar to Pastner, as well as the number — 21 — on his long, blue robe.
“Larry? Larry Finch?”
“Shhhhh,” replied the smiling spirit. “Tonight — for you — I am the Ghost of Tigers’ Past. Take my hand.”
Pastner clasped hands with the spirit and instantly found himself in the upper deck of the Mid-South Coliseum, the seats otherwise empty, but the basketball court below throbbing with activity. On the floor were 10 Tiger basketball legends, the squeak of sneakers and pounding of the basketball filling the air along with laughter (pierced now and then by a vibrant scream from Lorenzen Wright after another rim-bending dunk).
“What is this?” asked Pastner, rubbing his eyes, wondering if his last bottled water of the night had been somehow enhanced. “That’s Elliot Perry! And Keith Lee. Wait ... isn’t that Andre Turner?”
"Sure is,” said the Ghost of Tigers’ Past. “And check out my man, Ronnie Robinson. He’s making Bedford look silly!” There was Win Wilfong, taking a pass on the wing from Penny Hardaway, draining a jumper over Antonio Anderson. On the sideline, Gene Bartow clapped his hands in the dignified manner in which he did everything. Coaching the gray team was Dana Kirk. Even Kirk smiled when Wilfong winked at him as he ran back down the court.
“This is incredible,” said Pastner, shaking his head. “An all-time All-Star Game for Memphis Tiger basketball. I’ve got goose bumps, Larry ... I mean, Mr. Spirit. Why aren’t you down there on the floor?”
“Because I’m teaching you tonight, Coach. I’ve had my day in the spotlight, and I will again. But tonight, it’s a lesson for Josh Pastner.”
The action on the floor gradually blurred to darkness, and Pastner again fell asleep, a smile across his face. But at the first strike of two o’clock, he was startled — again — by a dribbling form at the foot of his bed. This time, the robe featured a number 1.
“Joe! What in heck are you doing up at this hour?!”
“Coach, take it easy. I’m not Joe Jackson tonight. And you’re not my coach. I’m the Ghost of Tigers’ Present. Take my hand.”
Pastner grabbed the hand of what he thought was his point guard and found himself floating above the city of Memphis, first downtown, near FedExForum, then through Midtown, East Memphis, and over Germantown, Collierville, the outer reaches of what had become known as Tiger Nation.
“You gotta see this, Coach ... I mean, Josh,” said the spirit, lowering into a subdivision, easily 20 miles from the arena where Pastner did his work on game nights. They peered through a window into a living room aglow with the lights of the Christmas tree. Hanging from the mantel were four stockings, each adorned with that familiar Tiger-leaping-from-the-M logo. Under the tree was a brand-new basketball, branded with that same logo. Next to a bookshelf — filled with programs, media guides, and VHS cassettes labeled with the dates of big Tiger wins — was a framed picture. Smiling in the shot were a couple, their two kids (a boy and a girl), Pouncer the mascot, and Josh Pastner (with the biggest smile of all).
“Wow.” It’s all Pastner could get out.
“See, Josh,” said the spirit. “In this town, you’re bigger than Santa Claus. Logos on the stockings? You gotta be kiddin’ me!”
The pair flew back up into the darkness, into sleep for the young coach. Well, not quite.
At 3 a.m., Pastner was again stirred, this time by the loudest dribbling yet. The robe — black now — featured no number. But the face of this tallest spirit looked familiar. [image]
“Hush! I’ll be Adonis Thomas this time next year, and filling the bucket for you. But tonight, check me out. I’m the Ghost of Tigers’ Future. Take my hand.”
Pastner grabbed the giant paw, blinked once, and found himself in a neon jungle once known as The Pyramid. He was on the concourse, high above a basketball court that had somehow been squeezed between a giant fish tank — was that an alligator floating on the surface? — and a playground decorated with stuffed deer, ducks, and geese. Signs hung everywhere — all neon — flashing the names of businesses that had more to do with outdoor life than basketball or a university. Why was he here?
“Why are we here?,” asked Pastner. “And who is that down on the court?”
“Those are the Memphis Tigers,” answered the spirit. “Take a look at the coach.”
Pastner looked at the man in the blue sweat suit, a whistle dangling from his neck. And he stopped in his tracks.
“It can’t be. There’s no way.” The black hair was now entirely silver, except for a single black streak that ran from his forehead across his temple, and down to his neckline. It was hair that would make Cruella de Vil squirm, and it belonged to John Calipari.
For the first time all night, Pastner began to sweat. “What’s Coach Cal doing here? Where am I? What happened to his hair?!”
“Calm down, Josh.” The spirit wasn’t smiling anymore. “You’ve been in Chapel Hill these 10 years, coaching the Tar Heels. Cal, he came back last year ... when no one else would take him.”
The spirit went on to describe Calipari’s return to Memphis. He had won back-to-back national titles at Kentucky, only to have both stripped by the NCAA when it was discovered that six of his players had not so much as attended elementary school. Instead, they had enrolled in something called the Calipari Basketball Academy for 12 years, literally raised to play hoops for Coach Cal.
“After you left,” continued the spirit, “the Tigers fell on hard times. So R.C. brought his glamour boy back.” Sure enough, down on the baseline — now chatting with Calipari — was Tiger athletic director R.C. Johnson. Cal’s hair might be gray now, but Johnson hadn’t aged a day. How did he do that?
“The Grizzlies weren’t about to let Calipari back in their building, so the Tiger program signed a deal to play here. Not all that pretty having two logos on their shorts, but it helps pay the bills.”
“But spirit,” wondered Pastner, “how did I do in Carolina?”
“Take a look at the big screen.”
Pastner looked up at the giant video board above the court. He was behind a microphone, live from Chapel Hill. The hair around his temples was entirely gray, the color of Calipari’s.
“Regretfully, I’m here to announce my resignation as North Carolina men’s basketball coach. The good times here were great ... three Final Fours. But the bad times — not being able to win a national title — became too much. ‘Coach Smith would have finished the job.’ Or ‘Coach Williams never lost with a title on the line.’ You know, I still wear loose-fitting clothing, after all these years. I don’t like negativity. So it’s time for me to take the next positive step forward.”
Pastner was not only sweating now, but he had what looked like tears in his eyes.
“You okay, Coach?” asked the spirit.
“You just called me Coach, Adonis. Am I still going to be able to coach you, to coach the Tigers?”
“Future’s up to you, man.” Despite his black robe, the spirit began to glow, brighter and brighter, until Pastner was blinded into darkness. And finally, sleep.
The Tiger basketball coach awoke to daylight. No dribbling ball this time, just the sound of his wife and children downstairs, shaking presents next to the Christmas tree. Pastner picked up his copy of the Flyer from his bedside stand. It was indeed still 2010. Five days till Lipscomb! Or 432,000 seconds.
“God bless us,” whispered Pastner to himself. “Everyone.”
It would be difficult to find a happier fortnight in recent Memphis sports history: Over 13 days (November 20th to December 2nd), the Grizzlies beat the Miami Heat and the reigning NBA-champion L.A. Lakers at FedExForum, the Tiger basketball team won three games to climb to a ranking of 14th in the country, and FedEx reunited with the local PGA tournament to solidify the longest-running pro sports franchise in the city. Oh, and the Tiger football season ended.
If you count local sports among your mood variables, things should indeed be cheery and bright this holiday season. Our NBA team may not have all-world talent taking turns with the basketball, but would you really prefer to be a Miami basketball fan these days? Win, and you're merely holding court. Lose, and the whole world has an opinion about why. The Grizzlies, it would seem, are building a competitive team -- still among the youngest in the league, mind you -- the old-fashioned way. Teammates are learning how to complement each others' strengths, a star (O.J. Mayo) has moved to a supporting role without a trade demand, and new talent (Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez) is working its way into the rotation seamlessly. An effort worth cheering.
As for the return of FedEx as the title sponsor for our 52-year-old golf tournament, you have to wonder how the two parties ever split. It's as natural a fit as peanut butter and bananas, dry rub and popcorn. A distinctly Memphis fit that works in ways no FedEx Cup -- the PGA Tour's attempt to create a year-end champion -- ever will. Golf fans paying attention after the PGA Championship in August need to be introduced to football. But golf fans in Memphis have devoted their support (be it through ticket sales, sponsorship, or volunteering) to the St. Jude Classic as if their reputations as Southerners depended on it. FedEx recognized that long ago, and has once again embraced the idea of attaching its brand to all the love. I can't imagine the city of Memphis without FedEx. And I can't imagine Memphis sports without its PGA event. This is a marriage meant to be.
* I'm fascinated by Michael Vick and LeBron James. Not so much by their exploits as athletes, as I've gotten used to each of them doing things no one else on the planet does. But they are rarities, in that each has played the role of societal villain. And we now find ourselves debating whether to root for one is healthy, or if booing is the predictable ride on a bandwagon of negativity.
Vick killed dogs, on purpose. That's cruel, evil. He served time in prison for his behavior, as he should have. And now, in quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick is playing better than he ever did as an Atlanta Falcon, and stands a reasonable chance of playing in Super Bowl XLV next February. From scheduled exercise to the Lombardi Trophy in less than two years? I'm no Eagle fan, but I'm drawn to the complexity of cheering this star.
Then there's LeBron. The NBA's two-time MVP did precisely what capitalism teaches us to do, if we're able to find career success: pursue comfort and happiness. But in doing so, he publicly departed the only region he'd called home for the first quarter century of his life. In most fields, a local hero departing for greater glory, riches, and fame would be applauded, and would continue to be celebrated as a "native son" back home. (New Orleans Saints fans don't boo Eli or Peyton Manning every time they face the home team.) But in the case of "King James," the divorce has soiled whatever joy a seven-year marriage once brought. Not since Anakin Skywalker -- a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- has a hero been draped with a villain's cape so suddenly. Like Vick, James reminds us that sports heroes are built beyond their statistics, salaries, or even championships. It's all too human, and it's why we keep watching.