Senior Day gets me every time. Whether it’s been one basketball season or four, I develop relationships with the Memphis Tigers as they make their way through college. It’s largely one-way, as a writer should never be as interesting to his subject as vice versa. But it’s a relationship nonetheless. And as the players walk to center-court with their families — for what could be the biggest round of applause of their lives — I tend to think the same thing: “I’ll miss this guy.”
So in advance of this Saturday’s Senior Day — honoring six(!) Memphis players before the Tigers face SMU — I’ll share precisely what I’ll miss the most about each member of this team’s senior class.
• I’ll miss the family tie that is Trey Draper. No ordinary walk-on, Draper is the son of Wanda and Leonard Draper. And Leonard Draper was among the late, great Larry Finch’s dearest friends. The undersized graduate of Mitchell High School connects this team to the program’s preeminent figure in a way few Memphis teams can. Draper happened to score the Tigers’ 100th point in two wins this season (over LeMoyne-Owen and Rutgers). He earned the cheers that followed.
• I’ll miss David Pellom just being there. (Let me explain.) The graduate transfer from George Washington has had no double-doubles or game-winning shots. He’s no all-conference candidate. And there will be loyal Tiger fans who have trouble coming up with his name five years from now. But Pellom has been there — on the offensive end and defensive — countless times this season when it seemed the Tigers needed a booster. A putback after an offensive rebound. Drawing an offensive foul. A rebound in a crowd of opponents. Pellom has battled knee discomfort all season, limiting the impact he might have made. But let’s not discount the impact he has made . . . and could yet make in the postseason.
• I’ll miss Michael Dixon’s bravado. After the Tigers’ win over Nicholls State last November, Dixon sat down next to me after the game, pointed to Geron Johnson a few feet away, and asked, “Who’s the better interview?” I laughed at the question (and refused to answer, knowing a full season lay ahead). Dixon was having fun, even after the final buzzer, but the question revealed a slice of Dixon’s competitive nature. He came to Memphis after being dismissed by Missouri (amid sexual assault allegations) before the 2012-13 season. And he has seized the chance to make a positive difference coming off the bench for a relentlessly positive coach. Rare is the guard who, without starting, scores at least 10 points in 10 consecutive games. Whether launching a three-point attempt or venturing into the lane against larger men, Dixon has personified a daring element that makes this Tiger team among the most resilient in recent history. Ask the Louisville Cardinals.
• I’ll miss Geron Johnson’s intensity. And I’ll miss his genial nature in the media room. Johnson arrived on the Memphis campus in 2012 with a rather ugly track record, having been dismissed from two junior college programs (after being charged with attempted burglary in high school). But since the day he first met with Memphis media, Johnson has stuck to a simple, yet profound mantra: That was then; we can only control the future. He’s been a critical component in the Tiger rotation for two seasons now, and without incident off the floor. Arguably the best natural athlete here since Derrick Rose, Johnson was electric in the Tigers’ loss at UConn last month. Were it not for Shabazz Napier’s late-game heroics, Johnson’s coast-to-coast drives would have carried highlights of that contest. And he’s been a model, really, for how to handle the media spotlight in a city where basketball players are celebrities before they make their first shot. Every win, according to Johnson, is a big win. Nothing should be taken for granted in basketball. Put a game in the win column, and move on to the next. You know what they call that kind of attitude, right? Professional.
• I’ll miss Chris Crawford’s eyes. The pride of Sheffield, if you ask me, is the best passer the Tiger program has seen since Penny Hardaway. When kids begin playing basketball, the first skill they’re taught is dribbling with their head up. But it’s one thing to look up as you dribble, quite another to see the entire floor as the likes of Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, and yes, Chris Crawford can. Crawford has some significant career numbers. He’s the only Tiger with 200 steals and 200 three-pointers. He’s ninth in school history with 454 assists. And the numbers Crawford put up in the 2013 Conference USA tournament — 77 points, 19 treys in three games — are already a part of Tiger lore. But that vision, those eyes. Rare indeed. Crawford and Joe Jackson are aiming to become just the sixth and seventh Tigers to play in four NCAA tournaments.
• I’ll miss Joe Jackson . . . being Joe Jackson. His was a challenge similar to that of Larry Finch, Elliot Perry, and Penny Hardaway: a local high school star who chose to be a Tiger in front of family and friends (the latter numbering in the thousands and growing with every basket Jackson made). But with the hometown adulation came acute pain when criticism was slung. Again, that family-and-friends factor. (A stranger can call me what he chooses, but when a “friend” says I can’t lead my team . . . .) Consider this a teaser, as Jackson will be the subject of our cover story in the March 13th print edition. I’ll finish with a quote from a longtime Memphis basketball observer, his identity to be revealed in that cover story.
“Joe and Elliot Perry had their choices of schools to attend, but didn’t even think of going anywhere else. Other coaches might get a player or two over time but Memphis, for the most part, owns Memphis. And that’s because of the legacy Elliot, Joe, and others have nurtured.”