I’m happy for Larry Kenon. By the time you finish this column, you may have your doubts. But I really am happy for Larry Kenon.
This Saturday, when the Memphis Tigers host arch-rival Louisville at FedExForum, Kenon will be given the highest honor an athlete can be given by a team when his uniform number (35) is retired and raised to the rafters. Kenon will join eight other Tiger greats — including two teammates — in the pantheon of Memphis basketball elite.
Should you need a refresher, Kenon starred alongside Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson for the 1972-73 Tiger team — then Memphis State — that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s championship game before bowing to John Wooden, Bill Walton, and mighty UCLA. Kenon averaged 20.1 points and 16.7 rebounds in 30 games for that legendary team, a group as important for the community cohesion it inspired as for its 24 wins on the hardwood. Kenon’s star shone especially bright in the national semifinals when he scored 28 points and pulled down 22 rebounds — his seventh 20-20 game that season — against Providence. He set a Tiger record for total rebounds that season (501) that remains 129 more than any other Memphis player has grabbed. Kenon was a spectacular component of a spectacular team in 1972-73. Some of those who saw him play here insist Kenon — pound for pound — remains the greatest player to ever wear a Tiger uniform.
Trouble is, that was his only season in Memphis. Thirty games. A year later, Kenon was running the floor with Julius Erving and the New York Nets on his way to an ABA championship. He went on to play in three ABA All-Star Games and two NBA All-Star Games as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Kenon is a great former Tiger, by all measures. But worthy of inclusion in the program’s most esteemed fraternity?
I take the retiring of numbers more seriously than I probably should, and I have a fundamental problem with college programs honoring players who spend but one season in uniform. Compounding matters here, the Memphis program has several players who starred for more than one season, in eras that haven’t been honored enough . . . or at all.
To name three:
• Antonio Anderson (#5, 2005-09) — I made a lengthy case for Anderson two years ago, and he remains atop the list of former players who would receive my vote (if I had one) for a retired number. He is the only Tiger to accumulate 1,000 career points along with 500 rebounds and 500 assists. Those are significant numbers, and Anderson is a club of one. He played in more games (150) than any other Tiger. Most importantly, the Tigers won at least 33 games all four years he played. That era needs to be acknowledged.
• Andre Turner (#10, 1982-86) — Impressed with Kenon’s single-season rebound record? Turner’s career assist mark (763) won’t be touched; the second-most in Memphis history is 639 (Chris Garner). The Little General led the Tigers to the Sweet 16 three times and was a late-game hero (twice) in the team’s run to the 1985 Final Four. If the 1973 team has three players in the rafters, it’s about time Lee is joined by a teammate from ’85.
• Chris Douglas-Roberts (#14, 2005-08) — There have been only three Memphis players to earn first-team All-America recognition from the Associated Press: Keith Lee, Penny Hardaway, and CDR. The first two have had their numbers hanging above the crowd at FedExForum for 20 years. And neither of them played in a national championship game. (Kenon was honorable mention in 1973.) Despite playing only three years in Memphis, CDR is 10th on the career-scoring chart and is one of four Tigers to score 700 points in a season.
Honoring one-year players like Kenon with such permanence as a retired number is a slippery slope. The Tigers don’t win the 2002 NIT without Dajuan Wagner. (Scoff if you must, but that NIT remains the only “national championship” the U of M has won in a team sport.) And what about Derrick Rose? The NCAA forced the U of M to take down the banner honoring the 2008 NCAA finalists. What if Rose’s name and number went up there instead? (This would be fun, if only to measure the outrage from NCAA headquarters.)
I really am happy for Larry Kenon. Years ago, I interviewed him about his memories of 1973, and he said something every Tiger fan will appreciate: “Memphis has been a great basketball school, from way before I got there up through today.”
As Kenon’s jersey joins eight others in the FedExForum rafters, here’s hoping the Memphis program reconsiders a few other deserving honorees. Take down a few of those (non-championship) NIT banners, and there’s plenty of room.