The greatest Tiger of them all has left us. Larry Finch, the star of the 1973 NCAA tournament runners-up and for 11 years the head coach of his alma mater, died at the age of 60 at St. Francis Hospital. The last decade of Finch's life was a battle. He suffered a series of strokes, beginning in 2001, and was wheelchair-bound by the time the 1973 team was honored at the Pyramid for the 30th anniversary of their run to the Final Four, where they fell to mighty UCLA.
Below is a column I wrote for Memphis magazine in March 2008. Hope it catches the right eye in the days ahead, when memories of Larry Finch will keep us strong as we endure his passing.
Our Larry Legend
March Madness it's called. The NCAA basketball tournament. With apologies to the Super Bowl, the three-week nationwide office-pool party that culminates with the Final Four (alas, in early April) is the most American of sporting events. What can be more Democratic than allowing an Ivy League school — or George Mason! — to compete for the same trophy that North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky have made their own?
With the Memphis Tigers among the top-ranked teams in the country, this may be the month we look back upon in reflecting on the greatest of so many great teams the U of M has suited up. But whether or not coach John Calipari's charges cut down the nets in San Antonio on April 7th, it's time to honor — again — the greatest Tiger there will ever be: Larry Finch.
For the few uninitiated Memphians — or perhaps those too young — here's a brief refresher. After starring at Melrose High School, Finch rose to fame at what was then Memphis State University. Playing for coach Gene Bartow and alongside Orange Mound chum Ronnie Robinson, Finch led the Tigers to the 1973 Final Four, where the mighty UCLA Bruins and Bill Walton ended a dream season in the national championship game. Finch hung up his sneakers as the most prolific scorer (1,869 points) in school history (his mark has since been surpassed by three players). Thirteen years later, Finch was named head coach of the Tigers and, over 11 years, won more games (220) than any other coach in the program's history. For a city that didn't see major league sports until the NBA's Grizzlies arrived in 2001, Larry Finch was the kind of sports star who attached his very face to the fortunes — win or lose — of his city. Think DiMaggio in New York. Unitas in Baltimore.
The Finch story isn't all roses, though. In 2002, he suffered a massive stroke, one that has left him confined to a wheelchair, weakened in both body and spirit for almost six years now. When his 1973 team gathered at The Pyramid for a 30th anniversary celebration, Finch shed tears — arm raised triumphantly, though — from his wheelchair at center court. It was one of the saddest "happy" images I've ever witnessed.
The next ceremony I'd like to see Finch attend is the unveiling of a statue, one that would anchor the plaza outside FedExForum, where the Tigers have enjoyed their most recent rush to greatness. The team already practices in the Larry O. Finch Center on the university campus, and that's a more than fitting tribute, but rather preaching to the converted, as Finch's presence is felt in almost any building with a Tiger logo. The next step in celebrating the life and achievements of an athlete who made Memphians of all ages, colors, and creeds cheer their lungs out is to cast him in bronze, in his prime, the famous number-21 pulling up for a jump shot that shone almost as brightly as the shooter's smile.
Who knows what the cost and logistics of commissioning such a piece would be? But I'm willing to bet the fund-raising maestros who keep Calipari in town might find some change in the couch to give FedExForum — and the city of Memphis — a crown jewel for what amounts to the center of the Mid-South basketball universe. And let's do it now. Life is all too short.
Among my most treasured photos is a shot of myself with Coach Finch on Halloween night in 1992. The Tiger basketball team hosted fans for a teamwide autograph session at the Elma Roane Field House. Penny Hardaway was the most popular attraction, about to begin his junior (and final) season as a Tiger. The players each had a seat at long tables that surrounded the basketball court, fans standing in line with posters for each of their favorites to sign, maybe even personalize.
Larry Finch didn't sit at a table. He wandered through the adoring crowd, shaking hands, sharing stories, listening to how very much Tiger fans loved him, and how this was the year the Memphis State Tigers would go all the way. I didn't have a poster or pen in hand, but I had my camera. And Coach Finch was kind enough to pose with me: a 23-year-old aspiring journalist (and former basketball player, mind you) alongside a veritable civic institution. Merely a snapshot in time, but Larry Finch made me feel right at home.
I want to be the first to pose next to his statue.