Basketball Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was in Memphis recently to promote Diabetes Restaurant Month, a program that is challenging restaurants in 18 cities to create diabetes-friendly menu items that are also healthy for the heart. (Monroe was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1998.) He took time to answer a few questions on his new endeavor and the NBA, past and present.
Tell us about your family’s experience with diabetes. You’ve obviously lived a physically active life and were not diagnosed until age 54.
My father actually died from complications of diabetes. I did live a physically active lifestyle, but in my pro-basketball days I also spent a lot of time eating meals on the road, so I know how hard it is to maintain a healthy diet when eating out. It’s even harder when you have type 2 diabetes. Since then I learned how to take small steps toward a healthier lifestyle — including eating right and exercising — and I want to help show people with type 2 diabetes that they can enjoy delicious meals at their favorite restaurants and stay healthy by making smart choices.
Were there symptoms you were suffering before your own diagnosis?
Before I was diagnosed, I was thirsty all the time, hungry even after eating, and experienced frequent urination, so I knew something wasn’t right. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes vary from person to person but can include unexplained weight loss, fatigue, blurred vision, headaches, and tingling or numbness in hands or feet.
What were the most significant adjustments (or sacrifices) you had to make upon being diagnosed?
Since teaming up with Merck, I’ve focused on my own eating habits, which has helped to lower my blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. And I’ve even lost weight. This is important because my doctor told me that people with diabetes have twice the risk of developing heart disease than people who do not have diabetes.
I began by making small changes in my food choices and exercise habits to get healthy. It can be as simple as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and checking food labels for high amounts of sodium and saturated fat. Most importantly, make sure you talk with your doctor about changing your diet and starting an exercise program, and about treatment options that are right for you.
Share some of the benefits you’ve realized from adjusting your lifestyle. Did you discover new food favorites? New ways to exercise?
I have started to enjoy a better way of life with my eating habits and now have more energy to do the things that I enjoy. MerckDiabetes.com is a great resource with tips on physical activity and healthy restaurant choices, my favorite diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy recipes, and information on the basics of diabetes management: blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol control, which can help reduce risk for heart disease.
Is there a psychological component to living with diabetes? It’s a condition that would seem to consume some with worry.
At first I was worried about my diagnosis with diabetes, but once I talked with my doctor, I found that I could live with diabetes and still enjoy life by taking small steps toward a healthier lifestyle.
You know something about starring as a point guard for the New York Knicks. What’s your take on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon?
Jeremy Lin has proven to be a pretty good ball player. Maybe not what we thought at the beginning, but he is active, smart, and is learning game-by-game. He’ll turn out to be a pretty good point guard for the Knicks.
You joined a good Knicks team in 1971, then led them to a championship two years later. What do you recall about your early days as a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden? As an opponent of the Knicks [during Monroe’s days with the Baltimore Bullets], I remember that the fans were always cheering! As a member of the Knicks, it was even more heartfelt. New York has a way of endearing their athletes, and I felt special there.
Who are the players you enjoy watching most today?
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul.
Are there any players who remind you of Earl the Pearl in his prime?
No, because when I came to the league, we showed people things that they hadn’t seen before. Now today, we’ve seen most everything that players are going to do.
Do you get the chance to watch the Memphis Grizzlies at all? If so, what do you think of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and friends?
Last year, the Grizzlies were a good, young, up-and-coming team. Now that they had a setback with Zach Randolph out and the frontcourt depleted, it seems to have hurt the team over the long haul this season.
Memphis Flyer: It’s been a big off-season for the world champions. How do you feel about the departure of Albert Pujols for Los Angeles?
Pontius: From a business standpoint, it’s not good to tie up that much of your revenue stream in one player. Life’s too fragile; things happen. I’m thrilled that it worked out the way it did. It’s good for Memphis. The Cardinals can use their resources to build depth in the organization, which is good for the Triple-A club particularly. Someone told me the biggest winner in this is Stan Musial. His legacy is preserved.
There was a recent report in the daily paper that suggested AutoZone Park might be sold to the city of Memphis. How close is this to happening?
The article in the paper was premature. While there have certainly been discussions about the outcome of the Redbirds and AutoZone Park, there’s far from any kind of business transaction that’s been agreed to. We’ve kept the city informed for six or seven years about the financial distress that, in the early days, was in front of us. There’s always been a desire — both from the foundation’s standpoint and the city’s — to make sure we concluded the final chapter of the Redbirds’ financial story that gave it new, positive, long-term life for the city. That’s what we’ve been working on for a few years. We’re closer to a conclusion, a recapitalization, a sale, or something that repositions the Redbirds for a prosperous future in Memphis. But it’s premature to speculate on which of those options will come about, and when.
What are the virtues the city might bring as a buyer (or manager) of the ballpark?
The city’s only potential role would be to own the ballpark and lease it to the tenant, which would be the Triple-A ball club that survives. At this stage, that could be done in a very credit-worthy transaction, one that doesn’t put the city at great risk financially. That’s all that’s ever been explored.
It doesn’t have to happen that way. A potential buyer could desire to own the team and the ballpark. The benefit to the city is having more control over the future of the ballpark. If that can be accomplished without taking on undue risk, it might be worth thinking about.
I’m a former city official, and have a little insight into how the city works. The last thing you want is an aging ballpark with an owner who doesn’t care for it.
It sounds like there are two types of a potential sale to be considered: one that packages the ballpark and baseball franchise together, another whereby they’d be sold separately.
There are two primary assets of the Redbirds Foundation. They could be sold separately or together, and it really depends on the buyer. Would a franchise owner want to own the ballpark too, or be a tenant in the ballpark? We’re deep in the throes of understanding the options, but we’re not [at a point of sale] yet.
Is there a dollar figure that’s been discussed?
No. But I have a sense of what it would take to satisfy our creditors [Fundamental Advisors in New York].
Have offers been made?
There have been a lot of people who have expressed interest, most of whom are waiting for us to be ready to consummate a transaction. There are multiple parties involved, because we owe our creditors more money than we could possibly yield from the sale of our assets. It’s not just the foundation deciding to sell. The lenders need to accept a discounted payoff. Everybody is friendly and talking with each other. I’m highly optimistic of a positive conclusion for the Redbirds.
A house that has been on the market for more than a few months will often have its price reduced to finally attract a buyer. Has there been price fluctuation with AutoZone Park?
We had an up year last year. It was a conscious effort to rebuild the franchise value, through improved operations and improvements in the ballpark. We did that and we were successful. One of the reasons we’ve taken our time and operated under this arrangement with our lenders is so we’d have the opportunity to improve the ballpark’s value before we put it on the market.
The Global Spectrum management team is entering its third full season. What’s their status for the future?
We’ve had a great relationship with them, both with the people they’ve brought on board locally and with the senior management in Philadelphia.
Is it safe to say Global Spectrum will be back in 2013?
I’d expect they would, unless we sell to an owner that has its own management company.
What do you expect for 2012? Attendance last year (493,528) was seven percent higher than the season before.
We expect another up year, in ticket sales and attendance. And also with sponsorships and advertising. We expect to do well with group events. We have a new scoreboard being installed that will be a game-changer. It will change the fan experience. It’s the largest and nicest scoreboard in minor-league baseball, close to a $2 million expense.
One of the top prospects in baseball — Shelby Miller — is expected to pitch for the Redbirds this season. Will he boost attendance on nights he takes the mound?
It’s always more fun to win and have prospects you can follow to the majors. Most importantly, it’s about having a good experience at the ballpark. We’d like to win on all accounts.
Fact is, the first NCAA tournament game the Tigers win under Pastner will be — far and away — the biggest victory of his young coaching career. To date, Memphis is 6-12 under Pastner against teams from the traditional power conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and Big East). As all of Tiger Nation tingles with joy over the move to the venerable Big East in 2013, Pastner’s program needs to establish that it can, in fact, beat teams not named Rice, East Carolina, or Tulane.
This Friday in Columbus, Ohio, the Tigers will face Saint Louis in the second round of the Big Dance. (The four games played Tuesday, narrowing the field from 68 to 64, are considered the first round.) Memphis enters the tournament as the West region’s eighth seed. With expectations of at least a sixth or seventh seed — Pastner campaigned for a five after winning the Conference USA tournament — the Tigers will carry a considerable chip on their collective shoulders. What will it take for the U of M to capture its first NCAA tournament win since 2009? Are two wins — and a return to the Sweet 16 — within the realm of possibility? Here are four key factors that will need to go the Tigers’ way.
• Will Barton . . . national star.
Barton has been the player this season that Tiger fans hoped they’d see upon his arrival with the 2010 recruiting class that now shapes the Memphis team. Playing with the body of an NBA shooting guard (a light one), Barton somehow led the U of M in rebounding (8.1 per game in the regular season) and has accumulated 11 double-doubles (points/rebounds), the most since the much larger Chris Massie had 16 in 2002-03. His glowing numbers aside, the older of the Tigers’ two Barton brothers has made this his team. He’s an emotive presence for a team with too many stern faces (including that of his coach). Will Barton is having fun playing basketball this season. The more fun he has, the more likely his team is to advance.
• Feed the (hungry) big man.
• Do what you do best . . . only better.
The Tigers finished the regular season ranked 5th in the country in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and 17th in field-goal percentage defense (38.8 percent). On the surface there are no better standards for measuring a basketball team’s overall strength: putting the ball in the basket offensively and preventing opponents from doing the same. The rankings were achieved, though, largely against C-USA competition. (Playing in the Big Ten — top to bottom the best conference in the country this season — Michigan State limited its opponents to 37.6 percent.) Can the Tigers maintain their shooting touch on the brightest stage, against the toughest defenses? Regardless of how the Tigers shoot the ball, their defense shouldn’t slump. With the return of Adonis Thomas from injury and the re-emergence of Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis can put the clamps on most opponents, both inside and on the perimeter. Nothing wrong with winning ugly in the NCAA tournament.
• Surprise support.
It may come from Witherspoon, the departing senior. Or maybe it will be Antonio Barton. It could be Ferrakohn Hall on the defensive end. D.J. Stephens may be the guy. (Stephens leads the nation in applause-per-minute-played.) Supporting actors seize the spotlight during March Madness every bit as often as Hollywood’s favorite scene-stealers. Remember Roburt Sallie’s 35 points against Cal State Northridge in 2009? How about Mingo Johnson pouring in 32 in the near-upset of defending champion Arkansas in 1995? For these Tigers to reach the tournament’s second weekend, someone besides Will Barton, Black, or Joe Jackson (now a two-time C-USA tournament MVP) will have to shock a Memphis opponent with an unexpected performance.
Over 23 games played since Christmas, the Memphis Tigers have lost only three, by a total of six points. Since Pastner ripped the names off their jerseys after a loss to UTEP, they’ve reeled off seven straight wins by an average of more than 22 points. Are there really 28 teams in the country better, as the eight seed suggests? “When we play our game, we feel like we can beat anybody,” says Will Barton. “When we play defense, rebound, and do the little things, it’s pretty hard to beat us.”
Adds Pastner, “We got better from our first year to the second year, from our second year to the third year, and from the beginning of this season to now. It’s a credit to the young men in the locker room and the assistant coaches. That’s our job, and the players’ responsibility. It comes down to the defensive end; that’s the whole thing. It’s about team basketball. It’s about energy. Not about any individual.”
The trick in basketball, of course, is how beautiful team play looks when each individual fulfills his role. Stars shine. Defenders stop. Reserves bring support when (or if) needed. The 2011-12 Tigers have found their chemistry, as it were. To survive the biggest tournament in college sports, it’s now merely a matter of application.
Over the last two weeks of the regular season — since Memphis coach Josh Pastner ripped the names off his players’ jerseys in the name of solidarity — the Tigers have played better than they have in any such stretch under the third-year coach. The U of M blew out three of the other four teams with realistic hopes of winning this week’s tournament: Marshall (by 20 on the road), UCF (by 29 at home), and Tulsa (by 12 on the road). Only Southern Miss — victors over Memphis on February 1st — escaped the Tigers’ recent tear. Barring an upset on either side of the bracket, the Golden Eagles and Tigers will face each other in Saturday morning’s championship game.
How to explain the Tigers’ peaking at the right time? To begin with, the team’s star is playing a starring role. Will Barton led C-USA in scoring (the first Tiger to do so), became the first Tiger to score 30 points in more than two years against Tulsa last Saturday, and became just the ninth Memphis player to reach 1,000 career points in his first two seasons. Furthermore, two players with mercurial college careers — senior Wesley Witherspoon and sophomore Joe Jackson — are contributing at both ends of the floor. Add the inside presence of Tarik Black and the possible return of two injured rotation players (Antonio Barton and Adonis Thomas), and it’s hard to envision a Tiger loss on their home floor.
Here are eight more tournament angles to chew on:
• If you like crunching numbers, this tournament is the Tigers’ to lose. Memphis led C-USA in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and field-goal-percentage defense (38.8). The other team that may be considered for an NCAA tournament berth even if it falls shy of the championship — Southern Miss — finished the season 12th (last) and 10th respectively, in those two categories.
The Tigers are tops in the league in blocked shots (5.7 per game) and tied for first in steals (8.0). One category where Southern Miss is superior: offensive rebounds. The Golden Eagles average 13.8 while the Tigers pull down just 9.6.
• This is the eighth time Memphis has hosted the C-USA tournament. The Tigers hosted the 1996 and 2000 tourneys at The Pyramid (splitting a total of four games and never reaching the finals). Memphis then hosted the tournament five years in a row (from 2005 to 2009) and reached the finals all five times. After losing to Louisville in 2005 (still the greatest basketball game I’ve seen live), the Tigers won the trophy the next four years. Overall, Memphis is 15-1 at FedExForum in C-USA tournament play.
• The Tigers are 5-1 in C-USA championship games. The only team they’ve faced for the title twice is Tulsa (2008 and 2009). Their other wins have come over UAB (2006), Houston (2007), and UTEP (in El Paso last year).
• Over their four-year championship run (2006-09), the Tigers won all 12 of their games by at least 10 points and five of them by more than 20.
• Among the five Tigers to earn C-USA tournament MVP honors, three of them were freshmen: Shawne Williams (2006), Tyreke Evans (2009), and Joe Jackson (2011). Chris Douglas-Roberts took the prize as a sophomore in 2007 and Antonio Anderson was honored as a junior in 2008.
• Among C-USA’s current 12 teams, only three have never faced Memphis in the tournament: UCF, Rice, and SMU. The Tigers’ most frequent foe has been Houston. Memphis is 3-2 against the Cougars and beat them for the 2007 championship.
• The Tigers’ three top scoring performances in the C-USA tournament all came in years Memphis did not win the title. Cedric Henderson scored 26 in a win over DePaul in the Tigers’ very first C-USA tourney game (in 1996) then Lorenzen Wright scored 27 in a loss to Marquette the next day. John Grice holds the Tiger mark with 29 points in a loss to Louisville in 2003. In last year’s run to the championship, Joe Jackson topped the Tigers in the scoring column with 24 points in their semifinal win over East Carolina.
• The Tigers are aiming for their 10th conference-tournament championship. In addition to their five C-USA titles, the Tigers won the Metro tournament in 1982, ’84, ’85, and ’87.