Monday, April 14, 2014

Grizzlies, Tigers, and 'Birds ... Oh, My!

Posted by on Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 9:42 AM

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Last Friday night was a first in Memphis, Tennessee, a sportsman’s paradise unlike fans in these parts have experienced before. With proper teleporting equipment, you could have witnessed the first pitch of the Memphis Redbirds’ home schedule at AutoZone Park, checked out an hour of the Memphis Tigers’ first Blue-Gray game under the lights at the Liberty Bowl, then made it to FedExForum in time to see the Grizzlies finish off the hapless Philadelphia 76ers in the home team’s late, desperate quest for an NBA playoff berth.

Baseball, football, basketball, and revelry. It was enough to raise the oft-slumped shoulders of this city’s collective fan base to new levels of bravado.

Let’s review the events, in ascending order of importance, relative to season.

• The last time we saw the Tiger football team, it was shuffling off a New England gridiron in early December, 45-10 losers to mighty Connecticut. (Wait, this was football.) The last time they played in Memphis, the Temple Owls did a Top-20 impression, whipping the Tigers 41-21. So any signs of life for this program — 3-9 in 2013 after a 4-8 record in coach Justin Fuente’s first season — are welcome.

There will be lots of familiar faces back when the Tigers kick off against Austin Peay on August 30th: Paxton Lynch, Brandon Hayes, Martin Ifedi, Sam Craft. If you spent time at the Liberty Bowl last fall, these names are familiar. What remains unknown is if these are the names that return a long-beaten program to respectability.

• I’d miss Opening Night at AutoZone Park for one of my daughter’s weddings (a long time before that), but not much else, not even an NBA playoff race. The 2014 Redbirds took the field with two of minor-league baseball’s top 70 prospects in their outfield: Oscar Taveras (#3) and Stephen Piscotty (#70).

They sent Tyler Lyons to the mound, a lefty who made eight starts last season for the National League champs in St. Louis. But on this night, the hero was a hometown boy: catcher Ed Easley. The pride of Olive Branch High School drilled a two-run homer onto the leftfield bluff to give Memphis a 5-2 lead in the fourth inning on its way to an 8-5 victory. Taveras picked up three hits, displaying his much-talked-about ability to consistently put the thick part of the bat on a baseball.

Here’s hoping the Cardinals’ top farm hand is indeed injury free, in which case there will be much more talk about the baseball at Third and Union.

• Perspective will be difficult to retain if the Grizzlies fall short of their playoff drive this week. (Calm down ... they won’t.) The regular-season grind has been so long for this year’s team, compounded by injuries to key components, new players learning a new system from a new coach, and the new expectations established by last year’s run to the Western Conference finals.

Whether or not the Grizzlies qualify for the NBA’s second season, though, there has never been a better time to wear Beale Street Blue. There’s that “Best Sports Franchise” tag given last year by ESPN the Magazine. Dollar for dollar, no fan base in America gets more wins than this city’s NBA outfit. And consider this: The Grizzlies are one of only four NBA teams that will finish at least 10 games above .500 a fourth consecutive season. The others: Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City.

The Memphis Grizzlies, friends, are among the NBA’s elite. Were it not for the absurdity of geographic conference alignment — the Grizzlies would have home-court advantage in the playoffs’ first round were they in the Eastern Conference — Memphis would have secured a postseason spot weeks ago. Instead we’re left to agonize right to the wire. But what a glorious form of agony.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Five Great Masters

Posted by on Mon, Apr 7, 2014 at 10:04 AM

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No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn. — Hal Borland

I endure winter. Having spent nine of them in New England as a young man, I associate winter with a physical pain that many cannot call familiar. Since I was a boy — practicing baseball indoors as March turned to April — I did the metaphorical equivalent of Rogers Hornsby’s famous line: I stared out the window and waited for spring.

And spring always comes. Two distinct sporting events mark the season’s beginning: baseball’s Opening Day (yes caps, and here’s hoping for Ozzie Smith’s national holiday) and the Masters golf tournament. Does the color green ever look more inviting, more warm, more receptive than it does in the outfield of a major-league stadium on Opening Day? If so, it’s on the fairways of Augusta National, the only golf course in America that has grown men getting misty upon leaving the clubhouse, let alone walking the 18 holes. I love everything about the Masters ... and to date I’ve only watched from my living room. The violin music, the azaleas, the whispers of announcers at Amen Corner. The Masters is as old-fashioned as removing your hat indoors. I’m convinced we welcome the event more emotionally the older we get.

I’m old enough for a few Masters champions to stand out more than others. Here are the top five.

5) Phil Mickelson, 2004 — This was Mickelson’s 12th Masters. Long one of his sport’s brand names, Mickelson had finished among the top 10 at Augusta seven times, including three consecutive third-place finishes from 2001 to 2003. You just had the feeling Lefty’s first major win would come in April; only a matter of which April. Mickelson dropped in a birdie on the 72nd hole to edge another Hall of Famer, Ernie Els.

4) Ben Crenshaw, 1995 — The Masters will tug at your heart, particularly across generations. Four days before the ’95 tournament’s first round, Crenshaw lost his longtime coach and mentor, Harvey Penick. Playing with a heavy heart, the 43-year-old Texan somehow found the swing that earned him his only previous major title (at the 1984 Masters) and beat Davis Love III by a single stroke. If you weren’t choked up as Crenshaw burst into tears on the 18th green, you weren’t paying attention. This was Crenshaw’s last major title.

3) Tiger Woods, 1997 — We knew he was a precocious talent, famous since childhood. But did any golf fan expect to see what a 21-year-old Tiger Woods did to the Masters field in 1997? The final round became essentially a crowning party for the sport’s new king, Woods opening at 15-under ... nine strokes ahead of his competition. (It’s remarkable that Woods was actually three strokes off the lead after the first round.) He finished 18-under, 12 shots ahead of veteran Tom Kite. You want a measure of Tiger’s impact since that first of his 14 major titles? He earned $468,000 for the victory. Last year’s Masters champ took home $1.4 million.

2) Nick Faldo, 1996 — This was a Masters lost more than won. At age 41, Hall of Famer Greg Norman seemed finally destined to capture golf’s greatest prize. (This was the Shark’s 16th appearance at Augusta. He’d finished in the top-five six times.) Norman led by two strokes after the first round, four after two, and six after three. But then Sunday. While another Hall of Famer, Nick Faldo, put up a 67, Norman imploded with a six-over 78. It’s hard to start a round of golf leading by six strokes and finish it down five. My father attended this Masters, the one and only time he walked the grounds he came to admire above all others in the sport.

1) Jack Nicklaus, 1986 — When you’re 17, as I was then, 46-year-old golfers were the men who sold equipment and endorsed products, bowing on Saturdays and Sundays to stronger backs and heavier swings. They were the names Dad reminded you of on weekends, a standard for players in their prime to match. On this weekend, though, the sport’s most famous name stole headlines in the name of the middle-aged (and young at heart) around the globe. The Golden Bear merely lurked on Thursday and Friday, then climbed onto the leader board Saturday, two-under and four strokes behind Norman. Five players grabbed a share of the lead on Sunday and Nicklaus fell three behind the leaders after 12 holes. But then starting at 15 . . . eagle, birdie, birdie, par. One stroke (9-under) better than Norman and Kite and an 18th professional major for the greatest player, young or old, golf has ever seen.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Fearsome Final Foursome

Posted by on Mon, Mar 31, 2014 at 11:37 AM

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A few nuggets and notes to enhance your Final Four experience.

• Just three months after the SEC was finally toppled from college football’s throne, Florida and Kentucky aim to give us college basketball’s first all-SEC championship game. If coaching pedigree has anything to do with it, the Gators and Wildcats seem like locks for the Monday-night tilt. Florida’s Billy Donovan is making his fourth trip to the Final Four and Kentucky’s John Calipari his fifth. (Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan are first-timers.) The last time two members of the same league faced each other for the title was 1988, when Kansas beat Oklahoma in a battle of Big 8 powers.

• If you ask me, Donovan is the gold standard among current coaches. There are four components that a good coach has to master to be called great: recruiting, game management, media relations, and image. If you were to grade Donovan on each of these, how could he be given less than an A for any category? At no time during Florida’s two games at FedExForum last week did you get the sense the Gators weren’t in control. Star guard Scottie Wilbekin — the SEC’s Player of the Year — struggled in the first half of the semifinal game against UCLA, only to hit three key shots to help the Gators separate in the second half. He then scored 23 points and didn’t commit a turnover in 38 minutes of the final to earn the regional’s MVP award. If your memory’s long enough, this sounds a lot like a Providence point guard who led his Friars to the 1987 Final Four: Billy Donovan.

• Calipari has mastered a flawed system in ways none of his contemporaries can claim. As long as the NBA is going to mandate players spend a year in limbo between high school graduation and entering the draft, Calipari is going to recruit the best of those players to be Wildcats. No one should be surprised that NBA-bound players like Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins — all Kentucky freshmen — are marching toward a shining moment. If there’s any surprise, it’s that it took more than three months (and 10 losses) for this season’s one-year wonders to find cohesion on the court. Should Kentucky — the Midwest region’s 8th seed — win the championship, it will match the 1985 Villanova Wildcats as the lowest seed ever to cut down the nets. And it will feel as predictable as sunrise.

• It’s hard to fit a glass slipper on a UConn program that won the national title just three years ago. And Kentucky will play Cinderella the day Calipari plays Hamlet. But together, the 7th-seeded Huskies and Wildcats give the Final Four a pair of sub-6 seeds for only the third time since seeding was introduced in 1979. In 2000, a pair of 8-seeds reached the Final Four (North Carolina and Wisconsin) and in 2011 an 8-seed (Butler) and 11-seed (VCU) played each other in the national semifinals. None of these teams raised the trophy.

• A 30-something coach takes over a storied program just two seasons after his high-profile predecessor took that program to the Final Four. Where have we Memphians heard Kevin Ollie’s story before? The UConn coach’s run to the Final Four will not help Memphis Tiger fans be more patient with Josh Pastner. Needless to say, Pastner has yet to suit up a Shabazz Napier, even with multiple top-10 recruiting classes. With Louisville gone to the ACC, a new standard for excellence has been established in the American Athletic Conference. The Memphis Tigers (and not incidentally, their coach) will get at least two chances to measure themselves every winter.

• I’d like to offer one final salute to the Dayton Flyers, runners-up to Florida in the South regional. (They had me with the “Let’s Go Flyers!” chants Thursday night.) There’s no way FedExForum sees 14,000 fans (for the semis) or 15,000 (for Saturday’s championship) without the traveling party from the Buckeye state. And the Flyer pep band took top honors, quite a challenge with Stanford’s Tree on the loose for two hours Thursday. They even played the University of Memphis fight song. Class act, and welcome guests. Hope we see them again.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The ’Birds are Back

Posted by on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 11:21 AM

It’s been five years since the St. Louis Cardinals last played their Triple-A affiliate in an exhibition game at AutoZone Park (as they will this Friday night). It’s been a fruitful five years for the franchise, both at the big-league and Triple-A levels. With the Cardinals’ purchase of the Redbirds’ baseball operations over the winter, change is in the air at Third and Union. Before we consider what’s to come, though, let’s measure a few developments since the Cardinals last took the field at AZP.

• The Redbirds won the Pacific Coast League championship in 2009, the last season that opened with a Cardinals exhibition game (St. Louis won two that April). Among the stars for that club — the second to win a title since the franchise moved to Memphis in 1998 — were David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Dan Descalso, and Mitchell Boggs. Those five players would each contribute to the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series victory, Freese becoming a folk hero with his epic Game 6 performance at Busch Stadium.

• Memphis returned to the PCL championship series in 2010, only to be swept by Tacoma (all three games, cruelly, at AutoZone Park). The ace for those Redbirds — Lance Lynn won 13 games and led the PCL in strikeouts — can now be found in the Cardinals’ starting rotation, where he’s won 33 games over the last two seasons.

• The Cardinals have reached the postseason four times in the last five seasons, winning that 2011 World Series, falling a game short of a National League pennant in 2012, then losing to the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic last October. Only two current Cardinals were in uniform for St. Louis in 2009 at AutoZone Park (Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina). A former MVP (Albert Pujols) and Cy Young winner (Chris Carpenter) have moved on, a Hall of Fame manager (Tony LaRussa) has retired, yet the baseball bond connecting Memphis and St. Louis has never been stronger.

Among the 25 players on the Cardinals’ World Series roster last fall, only five never wore a Memphis Redbird uniform: Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate, and John Axford. (Three of those players have since departed.) The pipeline from AutoZone Park to Busch Stadium has reached gushing stage, the rewards to the Cardinal franchise being twofold. First, these prospects are winning, both in Triple-A and in the big leagues. Secondly, young talent means affordable talent in modern baseball. Last season, Matt Carpenter became the first player since Pete Rose in 1976 to lead the majors in runs, hits, and doubles (while learning a new position, it should be noted). For his All-Star season, Carpenter was paid $504,000 . . . pocket change for the Cardinal brass. This winter, Carpenter signed a healthy contract extension that will earn him $52 million over the next six years. A lot of money, but still not silly on today’s scale.

As for 2014, Memphis fans will get a second chance to watch minor-league baseball’s third-ranked prospect, outfielder Oscar Taveras. The 21-year-old Dominican prodigy missed 98 games last season after injuring his right ankle in mid-May. Still searching for confidence with his surgically repaired wheel, Taveras was optioned to the Cardinals’ minor-league training camp in early March. While he seems destined for the St. Louis outfield, for now he’ll likely be one-third of the strongest trio of outfielders AutoZone Park has seen in years (perhaps ever).

Stephen Piscotty is a cannon-armed 23-year-old with what Baseball Prospectus describes as a “high-contact approach with emerging power.” Then there’s 22-year-old Randal Grichuk, acquired last November in the trade that sent Freese to the Los Angeles Angels. Grichuk hit 22 homers at Double-A Arkansas last season and was named the minor leagues’ best rightfielder by the Rawlings Gold Glove committee. You might say the Cardinals’ outfield is in good shape for the near future.

Exhibition baseball is more about the presentation than the outcome, of course. With the St. Louis Cardinals’ presence in Memphis only growing, Friday night should raise the curtain on yet another season of bright hopes in this region of the franchise’s vast following. Makes it easy to invoke the late, great Jack Buck’s three favorite words: “That’s a winner.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Michael Sam Generation

Posted by on Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 9:56 AM

I was driving my 14-year-old daughter to school on Monday, February 10th, just after 6:30 a.m. Over the NPR airwaves came the news that All-America football player Michael Sam — a defensive end at Missouri — had announced that he’s gay. However frigid and dark it was on the Memphis streets, you could count me as fully awake at that point.

I turned to Sofia as we slowed behind the drop-off traffic: “This is big. Actually, it’s huge.” My daughter nodded, but stared straight ahead. Didn’t say a word. It was still dark on Monday morning. She’s 14.

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That brief, one-way conversation speaks volumes about how the world will accept Sam’s brave decision to come out publicly three months before he hopes to be chosen in the NFL draft. For middle-aged folks like me (and older), the announcement is seismic. I grew up in high school locker rooms that would not have welcomed a gay teammate. That’s on me. And my generation.

But we evolve. For the “kids” among us (and by that I mean virtually anyone under the age of 30), Sam’s announcement is much more of the “ho-hum” variety. My daughters are growing up with prominent gay characters on the shows they watch, in the books they read. A gay man on a football field? Of course. Why not?

The hard truth for Michael Sam — and the athletes who follow his lead and make public information that, someday, should not be news — is that his treatment in an NFL locker room will be a reflection more of his talent as a player than his choice of romantic partner. Star players — straight or gay — will be treated like royalty, with the privileges athletic stardom brings in America today. Players who struggle — straight or gay — will receive their share of criticism, not all of it lighthearted, and some of it directed at their sexuality. A locker room is a Petri dish of youth culture. There will always be a pecking order. But I’m not convinced an athlete’s sexual preference will be a tipping point in that order.

• Let’s go back to October 30 of last year, opening night for the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA coaching debut of one Dave Joerger. Crystal ball in hand, I gaze to the All-Star break and tell you the following: Marc Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will miss 24 of 53 games.

Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself, will miss 26 games.

For the first time in four years, Memphis will not send a player to the All-Star Game. (And their top candidate, point guard Mike Conley, will be sidelined at the break.)

The Grizzlies will be an even .500 in the Grindhouse (14-14).

Once you stopped trembling, you’d wonder where exactly the Griz sit in the standings and playoff race. So I tell you: 29-23, one loss behind the current eighth seed in the Western Conference. You exhale. And you say, “I’ll take it.”

The Grizzlies have a battle on their hands to reach the playoffs this year, let alone the Western Conference finals as they did in 2013. But if you ask me, Joerger has made quite a coaching debut, steering an oft-wounded team through four months of shaking heads, rolling eyes, and call-in criticism. I’ve long felt you measure a team’s backbone — regardless of sport — by its road record, and the Grizzlies are 15-9 as guests this season. NBA teams with fewer road losses: one (San Antonio). All a fan can really ask is that a team contend, that it plays games of interest in April. Thanks in part to names that would have shattered that crystal ball — Courtney Lee? Nick Calathes? James Johnson? — the Grizzlies are in a position to still play games of interest in April. Unlikely, sure. And perfectly Memphis.

Monday, February 10, 2014

It's So Sochi

Posted by on Mon, Feb 10, 2014 at 9:12 AM

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A few thoughts on the ongoing Olympic Games in Russia:

• I’m drawn to the Winter Olympics largely by an admiration — latent four years at a time — for human beings doing things extraordinarily difficult. Follow me on this. The Summer Games are built around running, swimming, cycling, wrestling . . . activities most of us do semi-regularly at one stage of life or another. (By wrestling, I include games of King of the Hill in elementary school.) Not that any of us can sprint like Usain Bolt, but we can all imagine what Bolt experiences, a fast-forward version of what we do when the dog gets off his leash. Most of us have made it across a pool, or over a wave at the beach. So that gold medalist in the backstroke? We get her.

But I’ve been on ice skates. I’ve been on skis (both cross-country and downhill). As easy as it may be to mock figure skaters — the costumes, the makeup, the tears — it is next to impossible for an average human being to look graceful spinning on ice skates. And skiing down a mountain at 80 mph, with turns required (and jumps that take you half the distance of a football field)? There is nothing inherent, nothing God-given in the ability to remain upright at the bottom of that mountain. It’s sheer talent wrapped in bravado.

And then there’s snowboarding, specifically the halfpipe, the realm of Shaun White. Even shorn of his famous red locks, the Flying Tomato will execute three (four?) spins twenty feet above the lip of an icy ramp, with a flip thrown in . . . and land safely back in the pipe on his board. I’d be astonished if this were done by a stuntman on the set of an action movie, let alone in competition with dozens of others competing for White’s gold medal. A question: How does an athlete try such a maneuver the first time?

All this said, I remain skeptical about the luge and bobsled. With these Winter Olympic standards, it seems the star of the show is gravity.

• Is it possible that Olympic athletes in the Information Age are actually less memorable than those that stood atop a podium before the Internet could tell us so? The face of the 1976 Winter Games was Dorothy Hamill. In 1980, among individual competitors, it was Eric Heiden. Bill Johnson became a household name in 1984, then Katarina Witt stole the show in 1988. (Freshman year in college, the guys in my dorm had what today we’d call watch parties when the East German beauty took the ice.) But think back just four years, to Vancouver in 2010. Who was the face of those Olympics? Lindsey Vonn maybe? Isn’t she now the face of Tiger Woods’s latest flame? Maybe I’m being nostalgic. But the saturation of coverage we get for two weeks every four years seems to blend Olympic stars into a blurry mosaic of gold, silver, and bronze.

• Speaking of the Internet, NBC’s primetime coverage from Sochi will lose much of its punch with the results of events long known by much of the viewing audience. (Sochi is ten hours ahead of Memphis.) So here’s a brainstorm for the tech wizards out there: A device that Internet browsers can use to mask any mention of Olympic results until a user chooses to find them.

• I love the Olympic hockey tournament. Save for soccer’s World Cup, this is among a very few international events where a team from the United States is a decided underdog. Even packed with NHL players, the American team in Sochi is not as good as the Russians, Swedes, or defending champion Canadians. There will never again be a Miracle on Ice. The 1980 U.S. team represented a victory more of lifestyle and culture than sport. But the U.S. will someday win another gold medal in hockey. I’ll be watching — and pumping my fist like an unruly patriot — when we do. (The U.S. team plays at 6:30 am this Thursday, then at the same time on Saturday and Sunday.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

IV Angles for Super Bowl XLVIII

Posted by on Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 11:21 AM

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Don’t you love the two weeks the NFL gives us between the conference championships and the Super Bowl? (For those of you who count Sunday’s Pro Bowl as a football game worth watching, bless you and that permanent indentation on your couch.) It’s gracious of the league bosses to allow the AFC and NFC champions to heal their wounds, to rest up for the biggest game of their lives.

Stop laughing. I know. Forget battle wounds that need healing. These two weeks are all about the two M's: Money and Media. Sell, sell, sell all and anything that can be sold with a Super Bowl logo, a Super Bowl sponsorship, even alternatives to the Super Bowl (the Puppy Bowl?). As for the media (as I stare in the mirror), find and report every angle imaginable, from the rags-to-riches reserve linebacker to the culinary exploits of the starting left guard. (All guards can cook. Look it up.) Here are the angles for Super Bowl XLVIII I’ll be pondering another few days:

• Peyton, Peyton, Peyton. The draw of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning — who will pick up his record fifth MVP award Saturday night — is undeniable. And on so many levels. Already bound for the Hall of Fame, Manning endured a divorce from his Indianapolis Colts after missing the 2011 season following neck surgery. Could one player — even a Canton-bound quarterback — make a difference for a franchise that hadn’t been to the Super Bowl since John Elway rode off into the sunset with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 1999 season?

At age 37, three years older than Hall of Famer Troy Aikman was when he retired, Manning set records for passing yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55) that look silly even in today’s pass-happy NFL. His Broncos set a new record for scoring with 606 points (37.9 per game). One man made the difference. Now, having played in one Super Bowl against his father’s longtime team (the New Orleans Saints), he’ll play another in the stadium where his brother spends Sundays with the New York Giants. If this event seems to be sponsored by the Manning family — a son of Archie will play for the fifth time in eight years — the connection fits. Pro football has been good for the Mannings. And the Mannings have been good for the NFL.

• It’s fun when a former Memphis Tiger plays in football’s biggest game. Stephen Gostkowski has played in two for New England. Reggie Howard picked off a Tom Brady pass for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII after the 2003 season. This Sunday, we’ll see Clint McDonald — a reserve defensive tackle for Seattle — take the field at MetLife Stadium. McDonald earned first-team All-CUSA honors with the Tigers in 2008, the last season Memphis played in a bowl game. I can’t recall an athlete using the word “sir” more than McDonald did in an interview before his senior season at the U of M. He’s a gentle giant (5.5 sacks this season) worth rooting for.

• It’s a shame Richard Sherman’s WWE-inspired rant after his Seahawks’ victory in the NFC Championship has become a primary talking point. The third-year cornerback from Stanford may in fact be, just as he huffed into Erin Andrews' face, the best corner in the game. (Sherman has been first-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons.) How Sherman helps thwart the Broncos’ passing game — will he match up with Demaryius Thomas? Eric Decker? — will go a long way in deciding if Seattle’s in the game after halftime. It’s a juicy angle, particularly when you consider the alma mater of Broncos executive VP John Elway.

• Much has been made about the potential for ugly weather, the game being played in New York City. During winter. Outdoors. I happen to like the venue. Football’s premier championship should be decided in nature’s elements. I find the Super Bowl to be rather plastic when played in domes. This is a place (NYC) and an event that had to dance at some point. Remember the two M's. My pick: Denver 23, Seattle 13

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The NBA's MLK Game: A Day for Tolerance

Posted by on Sun, Jan 19, 2014 at 2:00 PM

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I’m blessed to have good friends in every time zone across the United States. On occasion, one of these friends will make an overdue pilgrimage to see what Memphis has to offer besides a big river and Jungle Room. And I’m always sure to take them to the National Civil Rights Museum. The catch, of course, is that the NCRM teaches lessons that transcend a single city, region, or even country. It’s a powerful experience, one that too often leaves my guests in tears as we pass Room 306 of the former Lorraine Motel. They’re all sad for what they know happened on that balcony. And some, it should be said, are mad. At Memphis.

Memphis, Tennessee, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will forever be linked by the horror of April 4, 1968. When James Earl Ray fired the bullet that killed the personification of America's civil rights movement, a wound was opened in Memphis larger than the one that ended the life of an American hero. A city long strained by racial tension suddenly became, with one man's murder, a crucible, one that represented a violent divide within a country built on the idea — no, the dream — that "all men are created equal." Dr. King died in a pool of his own blood. And that blood was spilled in Memphis.

Deep breath now. And pause long enough to consider this connection. Dr. King called Atlanta home. And James Earl Ray was a common drifter, an openly racist hooligan arrested for crimes in California, Missouri, and his native Illinois before he managed to track down his famous target at the Lorraine Motel. Ray was less a Memphian than the thousands of Graceland pilgrims who spend a week in the Bluff City reflecting on the life of another icon who died here. Martin Luther King and Memphis will always be connected. But to blame Memphis for King's murder — to somehow hold the city or region responsible — is to stretch the connection beyond its breaking point.

Monday at FedExForum, the Memphis connection to Dr. King will be celebrated once again by the city's NBA franchise, as the Grizzlies host the New Orleans Pelicans in a nationally televised late-afternoon game. As part of the celebration, two basketball giants — Bernard King and JoJo White — will be saluted with the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award. This is the sporting event I've come to take the most pride in as a Memphian. Basketball played at its highest level, but with thoughts and memories of those who have sacrificed to help the world become a more tolerant place to live. A world where the color of a person's skin is incidental to the value he or she brings a community, let alone a basketball team.

Consider members of the home team who will take the floor against New Orleans, their primary objective keeping playoff hopes alive in a city still wanting to believe. You’ll see two guards from Indianapolis (Mike Conley and Courtney Lee) and a center from Barcelona (Marc Gasol). You’ll see another native of the Hoosier State (Zach Randolph) share the floor with a sharpshooter from South Dakota (Mike Miller). Off the bench will come players from Minnesota (Jon Leuer) and Washington D.C. (Ed Davis). Black and white will mean very little. It will be a day for the country to get more familiar with Beale Street Blue.

The Civil Rights Game — an exhibition between major-league baseball teams first played in 2007 at AutoZone Park — moved on after two years in Memphis, taken over by Major League Baseball. But the annual MLK Day game at FedExForum is here to stay. Look at the list of Sports Legacy Award winners over the last decade and it reads like a wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Willis Reed, and George Gervin to name six. Throw in Jim Brown and Willie Mays and you could put together a Mount Rushmore of American sports legends, all attached to the civil rights movement. And now all attached to Memphis.

Dr. King spoke of a mountaintop during the last speech of his life, at Mason Temple, on April 3, 1968. It’s hard to measure when or if any of us have reached the level of human tolerance King envisioned. Beyond question, though, it’s worth the climb.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Memphis Tiger Basketball Lives! (and more stuff)

Posted by on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 10:39 AM

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Guts. Backbone. Heart. In winning at Louisville and Temple within a span of 48 hours last week, the Memphis Tigers displayed all the anatomical metaphors we’ve come to identify teams willing and able to overcome adversity. The community mood here in Memphis following the Tigers’ ugly home loss to Cincinnati on January 4th suggested this team might not be capable of winning games in an even-numbered calendar year.

Then Louisville happened, a comeback over the game’s last four minutes few Tiger fans will forget this calendar year and beyond. And Temple happened, a 10-point victory that was much more nail-biter than blowout for the first 30 minutes of the game. Now the Tigers will enjoy the luxury of a four-game homestand to build upon two wins that have changed the tone of the 2013-14 season.

Looking at the four-game gauntlet the Tigers faced to open the new year — Cincinnati, Louisville, Temple, and Connecticut — I felt a split (two wins) would secure a spot in the Top 20 and allow the team to battle for a top-five seed in the NCAA tournament. Now, Josh Pastner’s squad has an opportunity to take three of four in this arduous segment of the schedule. A win over UConn at FedExForum Thursday night could take this team closer to the Top 10 than anyone would have believed possible after the Cincinnati game. With the team having been away almost two weeks, you have to believe the arena at Third and Beale will be ready to burst.

• It was troubling to see former Tiger great DeAngelo Williams get only five carries in the Carolina Panthers’ loss to San Francisco Sunday in the NFL playoffs. It was particularly disheartening to see the Panthers’ run the ball three times inside the 49ers’ five-yard-line midway through the first half, with none of the carries by the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. Curious management of a roster by Panther coach Ron Rivera.

On the other hand, New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski — a classmate of Williams at the University of Memphis — will play in his fifth AFC Championship this Sunday when the Pats travel to Denver. Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring each of the last two years (158 points this season). With 1,023 career points, he is 135 points shy of Adam Vinatieri’s franchise record and just nine points from entering the NFL’s top 50 for career scoring. Incidentally, Gostkowski holds the U of M scoring record with 369 points over his four years as a Tiger. Number two on that chart? DeAngelo Williams with 362.

• Sunday is my favorite football day of the season, college or pro: a double-header of NFL conference championships to decide this year’s Super Bowl combatants. Football fans need to enjoy every minute of the latest tilt between Denver’s Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady. The two legends — each among the five greatest players ever to take a snap — have met twice before with a Super Bowl berth on the line, Brady and the Patriots winning after the 2003 season, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts following the 2006 campaign. This is a modern Ali-Frazier in shoulder pads and helmets. The best professional football can offer. My pick: Broncos 34, Patriots 24.

As for the NFC, I have family in Seattle, creating rooting interest by default. But the Seahawks are going to have to score some points to beat the 49ers, a team flexing with offensive weapons to support quarterback Colin Kaepernick: running back Frank Gore, wideout Anquan Boldin, and tight end Vernon Davis. Seattle enjoys a home-field advantage unlike many in the NFL. My pick: Seahawks 23, 49ers 20.

• The 60 Minutes report on Alex Rodriguez (and his alleged doping) that aired Sunday night was nothing short of chilling. Tony Bosch — founder of the now-infamous Biogenesis clinic — claims he prescribed Rodriguez a cocktail of performance-enhancers. Arod’s attorney, of course, denies it all. But now we learn of allegations that “an associate of Alex Rodriguez” threatened Bosch’s life

Over the course of the lengthy “steroid era” in baseball, the one word we haven’t heard used — until Sunday night — is murder. But think about this story. Sandwich a person willing to break the law (Bosch) between two parties as financially powerful as Major League Baseball and Alex Rodriguez, and you have the potential for a Sunday-night movie script. MLB has gone so far as to pay for Bosch’s security. This is so ugly, so broken, so open a wound for the national pastime. It’s hard to envision Rodriguez ever entering a major-league batter’s box again. But mark this down: he will.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

DeAngelo Still Belongs to Memphis

Posted by on Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 12:40 PM

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Whichever team you’re cheering in the NFL playoffs this weekend, if you call Memphis home, the Carolina Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams will surely have your rooting interest. Having just completed his eighth pro season, Williams is making the second postseason appearance of his career (and first since the 2008 season). In honor of the number he wore for the University of Memphis — one of six retired by the program — here are 20 factoids on the player many consider the greatest Tiger of them all.

1) Williams rushed for 6,026 yards over his career at the U of M, fourth in NCAA history among FBS players. The three players ahead of him on the chart — Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, and Tony Dorsett — all won the Heisman Trophy.

2) Williams finished his college career with NCAA records for 100-yard rushing games (34) and all-purpose yardage (7,573).

3) Williams owns seven of the top ten rushing games in Memphis history, including the record of 263. He ran for 200 yards nine times.

4) Williams, Ron Dayne, and LaDainian Tomlinson are the only three FBS players with two seasons of more than 1,900 yards rushing.

5) Williams is the Carolina Panthers’ career rushing leader with 6,627 yards. The franchise has only existed since 1995 you say? Well, the Kansas City Chiefs have been playing football for 54 years and their all-time leader is Priest Holmes with 6,070 yards.

6) In 2008, Williams became the third running back in NFL history to rush for 1,500 yards (1,515) with 15 touchdowns (he led the league with 18 rushing and 20 total) and an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The first two were Hall of Famers Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson.

7) Perhaps the most remarkable stat from Williams’s 2008 season is the fact that in 273 carries, he never fumbled. Over the course of his career, he’s carried the ball 1,370 times and fumbled 11 times. (Simpson carried the ball 2,404 times and fumbled 62 times.)

8) In 2012, Williams joined Brown as the only running backs in NFL history to average five yards per carry over their first 1,000 attempts.

9) Williams is one of only three running backs in NFL history to average five yards per carry for three straight seasons with a minimum of 140 carries. The others are Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Marshall Faulk.

10) In 2009, Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first pair of NFL teammates to each rush for 1,100 yards in the same season. That season Williams was named to his only Pro Bowl.

11) In 2011, Williams was part of the first trio of teammates to each rush for 700 yards. He gained 836 while Stewart had 761 and quarterback Cam Newton had 706.

12) In his only playoff game — on January 10, 2009 — Williams rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries in a 33-13 loss to the Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals.

13) The Panthers chose Williams with the 27th pick in the 2006 NFL draft. Among the players chosen ahead of him, 13 have also made the Pro Bowl. (Heisman winner Reggie Bush, it should be noted, has not.)

14) Williams shares a birthday (April 25) with Al Pacino and Gladys Presley.

15) The University of Memphis football locker room is named in honor of Williams, who made a considerable donation to have the facility renovated.

16) Along with former Tigers Marcus Bell, Reggie Howard, and Dontari Poe, Williams cohosts the Phenomenal Four football camp at the U of M every summer. The one-day event is free to any high-school football player.

17) Williams buys a suite at the Liberty Bowl every season for Tiger football games.

18) Williams owns the Panthers’ single-game records for rushing yards (210 against New Orleans in the 2012 season finale) and rushing touchdowns (he scored four in two different games during the 2008 season).

19) Williams is one of three Memphis Tigers to be named Conference USA’s Athlete of the Year. He earned the honor for the 2005-06 academic year. The other Tigers are basketball player Chris Douglas-Roberts (2007-08) and baseball player Chad Zurcher (2010-11).

20) There are four running backs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who wore number 34, as Williams does for the Panthers: Joe Perry, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, and Thurman Thomas.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Frank's Top Five Memphis Sporting Events of 2013

Posted by on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 4:00 AM

The five most memorable sporting events I attended this year.

5) Grizzlies 86, Utah 70 (April 17) — I like significant numbers. Zach Randolph starred in the Grizzlies’ regular-season finale, scoring 25 points and pulling down 19 rebounds. But those numbers, to Z-Bo’s broad-shouldered credit, weren’t that astounding. (This was his 45th double-double of the season.) Mike Conley added 14 points and five assists, coordinating the home team’s second-half surge that turned a two-point game into a blowout. The significant number was 56. No team in the franchise’s 18-year history (including the first six in Vancouver) had won as many games in a regular season. This game was merely prelude to the Grizzlies’ climb to the Western Conference finals, but it established a new standard for 82-game excellence, all the while eliminating the Jazz from the playoff hunt.

4) Tigers 31, Arkansas State 7 (September 21) — You had the feeling a corner had been turned when the Memphis football team earned its first victory of 2013 in blowout fashion at the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers took the ball 77 yards to pay dirt on their first possession and never looked back, piling up 505 yards of offense (329 on the ground), the only game all season, it turned out, the U of M surpassed even 400 yards. Brandon Hayes rushed for 118 yards, but freshman Marquis Warford stole the show with 173 rushing yards on just 11 carries. A star is born! (Warford even appeared with Tiger coach Justin Fuente at the postgame press conference.) The Memphis defense contributed a program-record seven sacks. This is what Memphis football can be. If only for one day. Seven losses later, Warford was dismissed from the team and local football fans are no more encouraged than they were when Tommy West was fired near the end of the 2009 season.

3) FESJC, third round (June 7) — Who the hell is Harris English? Golf is truly Everyman’s Game. I followed the University of Georgia alum (the tournament’s first-round co-leader) for six holes on Friday. His “gallery” would not have been able to play a pickup game of five-on-five basketball (without recruiting English’s caddy and a drink vendor). But one birdie after another, English took control of this tournament, headlined by Phil Mickelson. (Mickelson’s gallery had me dodging elbows and golf fans with larger feet than mine.) English broke par in all four rounds to edge Mickelson and Scott Stallings by two strokes for his first PGA Tour victory. The tournament directors had no trouble spelling English’s name on his check for $1.026 million.

2) Redbirds 6, Iowa 0 (June 23): — Michael Wacha will be the pitcher most remembered from the summer of 2013 at AutoZone Park, but on this Sunday night, Carlos Martinez was as dominant as any Triple-A hurler can be. (Like Wacha, Martinez would throw his final pitch of the season for the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.) The 21-year-old “Baby Pedro” allowed but three hits over 7 2/3 innings against the I-Cubs, striking out eight without allowing a walk or run scored. Most impressive of all: Martinez was hitting the mid-nineties with his fastball in the eighth inning. He and Wacha were two of six rookie pitchers on the Cardinals’ World Series roster.

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1) Grizzlies 103, Thunder 97 (May 13) — Leading the reigning Western Conference champs two games to one, the Grizzlies hosted a pivotal contest in the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series. Even with the injured Russell Westbrook in street clothes, the Thunder resounded after tip-off, taking a 29-18 lead in the first quarter with Reggie Jackson manning the point guard position. Memphis was still down eight at halftime, but steadily closed the gap over the last 24 minutes of regulation to force overtime. Marc Gasol — a few days earlier named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year — hit the biggest shot of overtime to give the Grizzlies a 3-1 series lead and all but book their ticket to the Western finals. Gasol (23 points, 11 rebounds) Zach Randolph (23, 12) and Mike Conley (24 points, 5 assists, 4 steals) played like the headliners they’ve become.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Frank Murtaugh’s Top 10 Favorite Memphis Sports Moments (Part I)

Posted by on Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 9:13 AM

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This week (and next): my countdown of the ten most memorable sporting events I attended this year.

10) Oklahoma City 8, Redbirds 1 (July 20) — This night at AutoZone Park was all about buzz. Having hinted at his retirement in March, former St. Louis Cardinal ace Chris Carpenter was again on the comeback trail, hoping to contribute to one more pennant race. His rehab start for Memphis followed an adequate outing with the Double-A Springfield Cardinals. The 38-year-old Carpenter’s balky shoulder wouldn’t let him get through the fourth inning. (He gave up nine hits, four runs, and two walks in three-and-a-third.) Turns out it was the last professional start of Carp’s career, one that included two World Series championships and a Cy Young Award with St. Louis. “It wasn’t what I was looking for, I’ll tell you that much,” said Carpenter after the game. “My stuff wasn’t that sharp. I couldn’t get them off the ball, or make them swing and miss. Physically, I felt fine.” Carpenter is now exploring the possibilities of a front-office position with the club.

9) Grizzlies 103, Rockets 94 (March 29) — This game made my list before the first shot was taken. You see, the Grahamwood Elementary choir (featuring one Elena Murtaugh) sang the national anthem. They say a father can hear his daughter’s voice among hundreds of others when she sings. This is not true. But a father knows when to take pride in beauty (both visual and sonic). The home team was in control throughout, Zach Randolph leading the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Mike Conley added 15 points and 10 assists while Tony Allen outscored Houston star James Harden, 16-7. The celebrity on this night, though, was a 10-year-old girl.

8) Tigers 5, UConn 1 (October 27) — As the father of two soccer-playing daughters, I’ve come to know Mike Rose Soccer Complex as a destination for various levels of the planet’s most popular sport. The U of M women’s soccer team has given my family its share of thrills, many of them off the feet of Christabel Oduro, who played her last home game on this chilly afternoon. Oduro scored a second-half goal to tie the Tiger record for career goals (43 by Kylie Hayes), one she’d own herself (with 47) by season’s end. Oduro is in a category of greatness I’ve seen in only two other U of M athletes: Penny Hardaway and DeAngelo Williams.

7) Tigers 93, UCF 71 (February 13) — Two losses in November dropped Memphis out of the Top 25, until this night. Back in the realm of the nationally ranked (number 22), the U of M played its best game of the season, hammering a good UCF team, especially after halftime when they outscored the Knights, 51-35. Joe Jackson scored 21 points and had a season-high 10 assists. Geron Johnson flirted with the program’s fourth triple-double: 19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists. And to this day, I think I saw D.J. Stephens make a right turn in midair on his way to yet another thunderous dunk. The win was number 15 in what became an 18-game winning streak, the Tigers completing an undefeated season in their Conference USA swan song.

6) Oklahoma City 14, Redbirds 10 (April 7) — Some sporting events take on significance only after a few weeks (or months) of reflection. This Sunday matinee at AutoZone Park was significant, personally, as my mom was visiting from Vermont and one my daughters joined us for a three-generation trip to the ballpark. David Freese — a hero for the 2009 Pacific Coast League champs and 2011 World Series champions — started at third base for the Redbirds as part of a brief rehab assignment. On the mound for Memphis was 22-year-old Michael Wacha, a highly touted righty making his Triple-A debut. Wacha pitched ... adequately. Four innings, two earned runs, four walks, no strikeouts. As the final score suggests, it was no day for pitchers. But a little over six months later Wacha would be named MVP of the National League Championship Series and win a World Series game at Fenway Park. As for Freese. ...

Check back next Monday for the top five.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Agenda Item: AutoZone Park

Posted by on Mon, Dec 16, 2013 at 11:13 AM

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An open letter to the Memphis City Council:

Talking baseball in December can be challenging. No standings to check. No game schedules to plan around. No line for a cold drink or barbecue nachos at AutoZone Park. The Hot Stove League isn’t what it once was, blockbuster trades having been supplanted by free agents leaving one team for another to be paid salaries that would make Gordon Gekko blush.

But baseball season is coming. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training less than two months after Christmas. Temperatures will rise, grass will get greener, and prospects will don new uniforms on their journey to fulfillment of an American boy’s dream. And we’ll see many of those prospects at AutoZone Park, players like Michael Wacha (last April a Memphis Redbird, last October the National League Championship Series MVP), Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, and Oscar Taveras. The faces of Memphis baseball will be back, on their way to becoming faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, the second-most powerful brand in all of Major League Baseball if you combine regional popularity with longevity and championships.

Baseball will be back, indeed, unless you muck it up.

Built at a cost of more than $70 million, AutoZone Park was drenched in red ink from Opening Day of its inaugural season almost 14 years ago. No business model before or since could erase this kind of debt by selling tickets to Triple-A baseball games. The debt is not going away (at least not conventionally, with an infusion of cash). It didn’t for the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, and it will not for the current bondholder, Fundamental Advisors. Until the current arrangement is washed clean — much of that debt swallowed by one party or another — AutoZone Park will never be a profitable venture. To evaluate mayor AC Wharton’s proposal for the City of Memphis to purchase the ballpark under such criteria — How can the city make money? — is a swing and a miss at a pitch two feet outside the strike zone.

When you reconvene Tuesday, and when you finally vote on the matter on January 7th (per the mayor’s wishes), instead of trembling over the numerous worst-case scenarios — an obligation of city councils, to be sure — consider the best-case scenarios already on the table. Hands are extended, ready to shake.

• The St. Louis Cardinals want their top minor-league affiliate to play at Third and Union. They want to pay the City of Memphis for a team to play at AutoZone Park. Take this for granted at your peril. You think ticket sales and sponsorships have dragged since the Grizzlies’ arrival in 2001 and the economic collapse of 2008? Gaze into your crystal balls and imagine sales and sponsorship for the Triple-A (Double-A?) affiliate of the San Diego Padres or Minnesota Twins playing in downtown Memphis.

• The Cardinals want to be part of Memphis baseball for a long time. And yes, a 17-year commitment is a long time in the world of professional baseball. Why are the Cardinals so attached to AutoZone Park? Spacious clubhouses may have something to do with it, but the Cardinals are attached to the ballpark because Memphis is Cardinal Country. It’s a marriage formed over the airwaves of KMOX radio throughout the 20th century, boys and girls in Central Gardens listening to Stan Musial hit five home runs in a double-header at some distant ballpark. Even the best of marriages require work and attention to detail. These cross-generational details are in your hands.

• Baseball must be played at AutoZone Park. This is no conference center or multipurpose arena. It’s a baseball stadium. The choices — however the costs are broken down and revenues shared — are but two scenarios: the business of baseball proceeds in Memphis, or it shuts down. And without baseball, that tract of land at Third and Union some of you deem unworthy of $20 million will be worth a tiny fraction of that figure. I’m guessing the cost of demolishing the stadium — to try something else on the property — would cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. And what could rise from the destruction of such a civic asset?

Those are the words I’ll leave you with: civic asset. AutoZone Park — with the St. Louis Cardinals nesting there — is a civic asset that makes Memphis a better city than we would be without it.

Make sure baseball comes back to Memphis. And happy holidays.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Alabama/Auburn — "The Return" is an Indelible Sports Moment

Posted by on Mon, Dec 2, 2013 at 9:57 AM

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Where Were You When ... ?

The greatest sports moments are a collision of the unlikely (performance) and the enormous (stage). Kirk Gibson’s one-legged home run isn’t immortal if it doesn’t win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Christian Laettner’s catch/dribble/shoot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament isn’t legendary if it doesn’t advance Duke to the Final Four with a chance to defend a national title.

People not yet born in the great state of Alabama will be talking 100 years from now about Auburn’s Chris Davis and his 109-yard return of a missed field goal(!) to beat Alabama. The conversation will inspire Tiger fans and enrage Tide fans as long as Bo Jackson and Bear Bryant matter in the Yellowhammer State. It was epic. It was dramatic. It was explosive. It changed the way one of college football’s greatest rivalries will forever be remembered.

Unlikely? Name the last return of a missed field goal you remember. (I had to read of Devin Hester’s return for the Chicago Bears a few years back to remember it.) The play doesn’t take place without an official review to add a fraction of a second to the game clock, among the most subjective decisions in a sport loaded with subjective judgments. The play doesn’t take place without the hubris of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Even casual fans recognize the Tide kicker — his name doesn’t matter, one year to the next — as the team’s lone Achilles heel. When you’re reeling off three national championships in four years, how often is a kicker needed for a significant field goal? And 57 yards? C’mon, Nick. Put the ball in quarterback A.J. McCarron’s hands at the 25 (as overtime would have), and see if Auburn can answer.

And the stage? The Iron Bowl is more important to Alabamans than any postseason bowl game not played for a national championship. Marriages divide for a day (at least) when these schools meet on the gridiron. And for the first time since the SEC began holding a championship game in 1992, the Iron Bowl decided the western division’s representative.

Davis’s jaunt erased Alabama’s chances at an undefeated season and a third straight national championship. It vaulted an Auburn team given up for dead last fall into the conversation for this year’s BCS title game. (They’ll first have to handle Missouri for the SEC championship next Saturday.) It was a play that locked memories into “where-were-you-when” mode for generations to come.

The closest Memphis football fans have come to this kind of euphoria is Kevin Cobb’s “elbow-down” kickoff return for 95 yards against Tennessee in 1996. But that Play of the Year (according to ESPN) merely set up a later game-winning touchdown.

Sunday night in Orlando, the Memphis basketball team experienced one of the required elements (unlikelihood) in its upset of 5th-ranked Oklahoma State, a team that looked unbeatable less than two weeks earlier. But a basketball game at Disney World, in early December? Not the stage for legendary reflection.

I was at Huey’s in east Memphis when Chris Davis carved his name into college football history. Sharing a post-Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, I experienced the Iron Bowl’s climactic play without sound, the din of other families, other friends prevailing over any commentary from Vern Lundquist and Gary Danielson. (This proved disorienting when that precious second was added to the game clock and I saw a kick being returned in what I initially thought was overtime.) But then there were the cheers. And gasps. A few screams as Davis entered the end zone. The shocked looks at my table mirrored that of Saban as he began the long stroll to shake Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s hand. It was a Sports Moment. Everyone in that restaurant felt like we were there, on the Plains. And we’ll remember the Moment as though we were.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Memphis Sports Thanksgiving

Posted by on Mon, Nov 25, 2013 at 9:20 AM

A Sporting Thanksgiving

It’s a week to give thanks, so herewith my annual list of sport-related blessings.

• I’m thankful for Tom Hornsey on fourth down. Yeah, I’m a big fan of the punter. The one record in the Memphis Tiger book that will never be broken? Career punting yards. Through last Saturday’s game, Hornsey is up to 12,337.

• I’m thankful for George Lapides. The face (and certainly voice) of Memphis sports media.

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  • WKNO photo
  • George Lapides

• I’m thankful for having witnessed four Michael Wacha starts at AutoZone Park. (Including a three-generation treat — with my mom and one of my daughters — for his debut on April 7th.) From Triple-A rookie to NLCS MVP in six months.

• I’m thankful for Penny Hardaway. If he’s not careful, his post-NBA philanthropy is going to make Memphians forget his playing days. (And the man was All-NBA. Twice.)

• I’m thankful for the 2013 NBA Western Conference finals. Never has a Memphis team felt more nationally relevant. (As for things I can do without, let’s start with teams that wear black.)

• I’m thankful for Memphis-Louisville on the hardwood twice this winter. And hopeful that Tom Bowen, Josh Pastner, and their Cardinal counterparts recognize the significance.

• I’m thankful for stories like that of D.J. Stephens. They make a sportswriter’s job easy.

• I’m thankful for David Freese memories. Remember, he was a postseason hero in Memphis two years before his Game 6 heroics during the 2011 World Series. He homered to win two different games, 1-0, on the Redbirds’ way to the 2009 Pacific Coast League title.

• I’m thankful for the tried-and-true University of Memphis football fans. You know who you are if you happen to read this list. (There are fewer than 20,000 of you.) The wait will be worth it.

• I’m thankful for Marc Gasol at the high post. And counting the days (if impatiently) till we see him there again.

• I’m thankful for Wolo and Bash.

• I’m thankful for SEC football. My goodness. You think the Pope takes Sunday seriously? He hasn’t seen Tuscaloosa (or Baton Rouge, or Gainesville, or Auburn, or even Knoxville in tough times) on fall Saturdays.

• I’m thankful for two daughters who have come to love soccer and softball. Team sports shape us in ways no classroom or job ever will.

• Along those lines, I’m thankful for a week last June with a three-sport teammate of mine. Wives (one each) and daughters (two each). Never saw it coming. Bliss.

• I’m thankful for the 11th hole at TPC Southwind. Every course should have an “island” green. I remain awestruck when the pros land a ball on that dry patch.

• I’m thankful for the Musial Sign and Pujols Seat at AutoZone Park.

• I’m thankful for Jacob Karam. Memphis will take pride in Karam years from now, and his football career will be incidental.

• I’m thankful for Josh Pastner’s positive energy. The man has a serious challenge on his hands, one that will impact his career path. He’s got to find a way to beat a strong opponent. I know there are cynics who’d prefer a grouchy coach who goes to the Final Four. Not me. I’ll take the coach with a positive outlook who goes to the Final Four. And I think Memphis can have both.

• I’m thankful for weekday matinees at AutoZone Park. Best drag on business under the sun.

• I’m thankful for the chance I had last spring to coach my 10-year-old daughter’s softball team. Undefeated seasons are special at any level. I’ll never forget the 2013 Ladybugs.

• I’m thankful for the Flyer’s loyal readership. We don’t make it a quarter century (in February 2014) without you.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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