I’m a sucker for banners in a basketball arena. Probably started during my college days, when on rare visits to Boston Garden I’d stare up at 16 NBA championship banners. I always felt that was the first ingredient to any home-court advantage the Celtics enjoyed. (Tell that to the Celtic teams of the late Nineties, though.)
If you’re like me, you may have noticed a new banner at FedExForum on December 22nd (the Tigers’ seventh regular-season home game this season). There was no ceremony, no spotlight, no p.a. announcement, but the banner honoring the Tigers’ 2009 Sweet Sixteen team was in place before tip-off against Southeast Missouri State. (Honestly, could the raising of a banner be less ceremonious?)
There was, in fact, a ceremony during this rare Tuesday-afternoon game. And another banner was raised, honoring former Tiger coach Gene Bartow, recently elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame. You can now see Bartow’s banner hanging among the eight retired numbers of Tiger Greats, from Forest Arnold to Penny Hardaway.
But back to that 2009 NCAA tournament banner. This is the 22nd such banner to occupy a spot in the FedExForum rafters, one for every U of M appearance in the Big Dance. There are also 16 NIT banners, which I’ve long argued are excessive. (The equivalent of the Celtics hanging a banner for every division title.) When I’m named athletic director at Memphis, the four NIT banners representing appearances at Madison Square Garden (the event’s “final four”) will remain. So the Tigers have a total of 47 banners — take that, Bill Russell! — celebrating Memphis basketball history. Forty-eight if you count the banner honoring Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, and Chance McGrady for the most wins in NCAA history (still missing the big number: 137).
Among those 48 banners, though, there are two that deserve our attention as the NCAA continues to weigh the university’s appeal of its 2008 Final Four appearance being vacated as punishment for discretions involving Derrick Rose. (Perhaps that blank spot on the “most wins” banner is prophetic.) The banner for the 1985 Final Four team remains nestled between 1984 and 1986 NCAA tournament banners, despite that squad’s appearance being vacated a quarter-century ago. That being the case, we have to assume the 2008 banner will remain in place, regardless of the NCAA’s final ruling.
Some ominous language (for Tiger fans) from the NCAA’s committee on infractions regarding this very topic: “Any public reference to these vacated contests, including the appearance in the 2008 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship shall be removed from athletics department stationery, banners displayed in public areas and any other forum in which they may appear.”
This would lend itself to a nice cartoon, if only I could draw. Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, astride a rafter, high atop the floor of FEF, 2008 (or 1985) banner in hand, as he screams “Make me!!”
Bottom line: memories can’t be so easily “vacated.” Highlight films of the 1985 Final Four will always show Villanova upsetting Keith Lee’s Tigers before they took on Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas. The same films from 2008 will show Chris Douglas-Roberts posterizing UCLA’s Kevin Love in the Tigers’ semifinal blowout. The cheers — and tears — Memphians created in April 2008 can’t be sucked back in. What happened, as the cliche tells us, happened.
You get the feeling those two “vacated” banners will remain on display as long as the Tigers are wearing blue and gray. Merely two among 48, perhaps all the NIT banners have a purpose after all. The 1985 and 2008 editions are getting harder and harder to locate.