If you’ve been a regular at FedExForum this winter, you know some of the biggest cheers heard at Tiger games are those for buckets scored by Memphis senior Pierre Henderson-Niles. A converted layup. A made free throw. The crowd ROARS in appreciation.
The sad truth, though, is that the converted baskets were applauded because there were considered rarities by those familiar with watching Henderson-Niles play.
The big center was dismissed from the team Monday night with merely eight regular-season games remaining in his college career. Coach Josh Pastner released a formal statement that didn’t specify any rules violation or legal issues. Which leads one to assume this was a matter of friction over Henderson-Niles’ declining role on the team. "Moving forward, we will do all we can for Pierre as he finishes up the academic work toward completing his degree,” Pastner said in the statement. “We wish Pierre nothing but the best."
Ironically, no Tiger player benefited more from John Calipari’s departure than did Henderson-Niles. Had Calipari remained in Memphis — and brought DeMarcus Cousins with him — Henderson-Niles would have been planted on the bench, likely a third-string center who would average no more than the 12 minutes of playing time he did as a junior.
But when Calipari took his 2009 recruiting class with him to Kentucky, a slot opened up that led to the Ridgeway alum starting 16 of the Tigers’ first 23 games. Having lost nearly 70 pounds last summer — after having Calipari in his ear about weight for three years — Henderson-Niles ran the floor better, and with more stamina, than he had since childhood. (He confessed to me in November that the hardest part wasn’t losing the weight, but keeping it off.)
Despite the extra playing time, Henderson-Niles never established himself as an offensive presence, something sorely needed in the frontcourt for this year’s team. He averaged 5.2 points while shooting just under 50 percent from the floor and reached double figures in only four games.
Two weeks ago, I asked Henderson-Niles if a splint he’d been forced to wear on an injured finger affected his ball-handling. “I’ve always been able to handle the ball,” he replied, “so this is no big deal.” I actually paused, thinking he may have been joking, for soft hands are not among Henderson-Niles’ attributes. “Next question,” his look said.
Perhaps some stubborn determination — combined with an inability to recognize shortcomings — led to a division that Pastner could no longer tolerate from Henderson-Niles in his locker room. Again, it’s ironic, for stubborn determination was a requirement for Henderson-Niles to shed the extra pounds he did before his senior season.
One of the biggest highlights on the Memphis sports calendar is Senior Day at FedExForum. This year’s seniors — now down to Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack, apparently — will be honored when the Tigers host Tulsa on March 6th. It’s a ceremony that not only bids farewell to the rare basketball player these days who reaches his senior season, but also welcomes him to the Tiger Family for perpetuity. And the fact is, a Tiger player doesn’t need to be bursting with talent to be a part of that exclusive family. Here’s hoping Pierre Henderson-Niles and the Tiger program find a way to reconcile long enough for a player with more than 100 games under his belt to receive one last big cheer.