Saddest Friday night I can remember.
I attended the wake for Larry Finch early this evening, a gathering held in the building on the University of Memphis campus named in the Tiger legend's honor. Walls adorned with larger-than-life photos of Tiger greats during their NBA days — from Larry Kenon to Derrick Rose — stood in contrast to the open casket at center court, a blue casket that will serve as the final resting place for the greatest Tiger of them all. It looked small, that casket, considering the legend it held.
The night reminded me of another emotionally charged goodbye, one far less permanent. On March 1, 1997, my wife and I went to The Pyramid for the last game Larry Finch would coach in Memphis. The infamous terms of his departure — finalized, as the story goes, on the arena's concourse — had been publicized for days. The Tigers entered the game — Senior Day for Cedric Henderson and Chris Garner — with a mediocre record of 15-13. They were hosting one of their arch-rivals, Cincinnati, a team ranked 9th in the country and featuring the menacing Danny Fortson, a first-team All-America.
The Bearcats never stood a chance. Memphis led start to finish and won the game, 75-63. Finch received a thunderous standing ovation before the game, and another — with some tears in the mix — after the final buzzer. That game was 14 years ago, but the passage of time seems much longer tonight.
I spoke briefly with Leonard Draper on my way out. Told Finch's longtime friend how the coach somehow made Memphis seem friendlier when I moved here from New England in 1991. Penny Hardaway greeted friends wearing a blue t-shirt with a photo of Finch that said "My Mentor."
As my wife and I left the Finch Center, we heard the squeak of sneakers and the dribbling of basketballs in the adjacent student recreation center. And it sounded about right, the way Coach Finch would have liked it. Made me smile.