The composition of a basketball team is easy to measure. Who’s on the roster? How big are the players? How experienced? Who’s injured?
The style of a team may evolve over the course of a season, but it’s also measurable to some degree. Does the team play intense defense? Does it like to push the pace offensively? Do players move well without the ball?
But what about a basketball team’s personality? In no other sport do the players present themselves so visibly to their audience. No helmets or hats. No facemasks. Only five players competing at any given time. Despite wearing shorts that would hide a Great Dane, basketball players are relatively naked when doing what they do best. And their personalities are exposed in ways that would shame a baseball player and get a football player penalized for excessive something or other.
So what have we learned about the personality of the 2011-12 Memphis Tigers? It would be easy to lean on the old cliché: A team assumes the personality of its coach. Are the Tiger players a reflection of Josh Pastner? Relentlessly positive, ebullient in the face of criticism, deferential in crediting others. (Pastner has yet to face a team that was not “well-coached.”) For these Tigers, is the glass indeed always three-quarters full?
One of the advantages of occupying a courtside seat on press row is reading the players’ facial expressions and hearing a verbal exchange now and then (player-to-player or player-to-coach). Every game is a 40-minute dance of personalities, a waltz of reactions and spontaneous outbursts — positive and negative — that give the sport of basketball much of the color that brings us back every winter. Having read various Tiger expressions for more than two months now, defining this team’s personality is no easier than it would have been the night the players were introduced at Memphis Madness.
Last Saturday at FedExForum, junior forward Ferrakohn Hall was quite visibly upset at his diminished playing time as he sat on the Tiger bench for extended stretches. (Hall played only 11 minutes, his third straight game with fewer than 20 on the floor.) When asked about Hall’s body language after the game, Pastner pulled no punches: “He wasn’t getting the job done, wasn’t producing. We don’t have time to enable or baby.”
Entering the season, sophomore Joe Jackson was expected to be part of a starring trio (along with Will Barton and Adonis Thomas). Jackson now finds himself in a reserve role (behind starting point guard Antonio Barton) and fighting negative energy with every headshake, grimace, or return to the bench. “It happens in the NBA, it happens in high school, it happens in college,” said Pastner after Saturday’s win over SMU. “If you’re a high-level guy, it kills you [to be on the bench]. To be great, you have to have some toughness and some ego. The great ones have that. You have to have a burning desire and want to play every minute.”
Jackson was limited to 14 minutes against the Mustangs and missed four of his five shots. (He found time to make a brilliant pass to Stan Simpson that led to a dunk midway through the first half.) After the game, he had cleared out of the locker room well before the media was allowed in. The glass ain’t half-full for Joe Jackson these days.
Will Barton plays with emotion bursting from his ears (most of it positive this season as his play has taken a form much closer to the hype that followed him to Memphis). Antonio Barton has a smile that almost looks timid. It’s one he can’t suppress when making that peephole with his hand after draining a three-pointer or hitting his brother for an alley-oop jam. Then there’s Wesley Witherspoon. Petulant maybe? This is a player who will sail a shot three feet over the rim, then moments later hit a trey and blow a kiss to the crowd . . . on the road. There are times I’m not sure Witherspoon even knows the glass is there.
“We’re student-athletes,” acknowledged Tarik Black after the SMU win. “We’re students first, but we’re also athletes. This is what we do. It’s our passion, it’s in our hearts.”
Maybe Black hit on the one word that might summarize this Tiger team, and the one word Memphis fans always hope is part of their team’s personality, win or lose: passion. Pump your fists when things go well. Grind your teeth, maybe bow your heads when things break against you. Either way, play the game with passion. After all, we can see it on your faces.