By Chris Gadd
It was a spring evening nearly three years ago. Johnny Jones' tired and teary-red eyes gave much away as he entered the room, even before he said a word. It was the end of a season, and also the end of Jones' tenure at the University of Memphis.
Though his exhaustion was apparent, Jones, the interim head basketball coach, walked with his head held high following the Tigers' season-ending 80-76 loss to the DePaul Blue Demons. Looking out into the Conference USA Tournament media room, Jones left everything there -- his tears, his feelings, and his head-coaching position.
"We had a winning year, regardless of what our record says," Jones said, minutes after then-Tiger senior Keiron Shine's potential game-tying three-pointer rimmed out. The heartfelt speech Jones delivered, entirely crediting his players and staff for a complete turnaround of that potentially disastrous season, left even the supposedly unbiased media with a sense of loss. Former Flyer editor Dennis Freeland wept openly as Jones left.
As for the group of players who Jones said "never quit," five starters returned to play under current Memphis head coach John Calipari: Earl Barron, Shannon Forman, Marcus Moody, Courtney Trask, and Kelly Wise. Paris London and Shamel Jones also made contributions the following season.
Today, only three of those players still play collegiately -- Barron, Trask, and London. Jones is now head coach of Sunbelt Conference member North Texas University. But he still fondly remembers that first team he called his own.
"I thought they were winners, regardless of what the record or polls showed, and I will think that forever," Jones says. "It was important to me to let people know how proud I was of that team. They played hard and put everything on the line every night."
But the Tigers' record was indeed a losing one: 15 wins and 16 losses. And it was after that final loss that Memphis basketball history and the lives of several players and coaches were forever altered -- though "what-ifs" still abound.
Had the Tigers rallied from an early 24-point deficit to beat the Blue Demons, that win would have guaranteed Jones a .500 record. Another win in the third round, then a victory in the conference championship game, and suddenly the Tigers not only have a winning record, but an automatic NCAA Tournament spot. And coaches who make the Big Dance aren't usually asked to resign. Two days after the DePaul loss, Calipari's hiring made national headlines.
One holdover from the Jones era remains central for the Tigers, figuratively and literally -- senior center Earl Barron. He has fond memories of his first season, when he was an unknown freshman out of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and has talked with Jones once since parting ways -- at the 2001 NIT when Jones was an Alabama assistant coach.
Barron has stayed in closer contact with Trask, who frequently travels to Memphis to visit with one of his best friends, Tiger senior Nathaniel Root. Trask plays for some different Tigers now in his Baton Rouge hometown -- the kind at LSU. Many believed Trask's strong, almost son-like connection with Jones was the reason for his transfer. Barron and Trask say it's not so.
"That was the big thing for him, being back home and close to his mom and around all his friends," Barron says. "He got along with everyone here too, but there he is real familiar with his surroundings."
Adds Trask: "The main reason I transferred to LSU was to be back home and help out my mom. She's a single parent. People think it was a personality conflict between me and Coach Calipari, but it wasn't."
However, it's almost certain that Trask, who played three minutes and scored two points in LSU's Saturday game versus McNeese State, wouldn't have left had Jones remained at Memphis.
"I talk to Coach Jones once every few weeks," Trask says. "We mainly talk about life. We don't talk much about basketball at all. He says he's happy."
Another Tiger from that team has dropped off the Division I map, though he'll never be forgotten in the annals of Memphis high school basketball -- current Arkansas State senior Paris London. He starts for the Indians (2-3) and averages 12 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.
London, who has two kids now, Colby and Caleb, with wife Natema, thinks of his time under Jones -- sandwiched between seasons under Tic Price and Calipari -- as a tough learning experience no young athlete should have to endure.
"How can you prepare an 18-year-old for the coaching situation that I went through," says London, who is now on his fourth coach with ASU's Dickey Nutt.
Jones and London have kept their conversations to a minimum since they compete against each other in the Sun Belt Conference. Still, mutual admiration remains.
"I saw him last year when he came through to play ASU," London says. "He said as long as I keep up the good work then I should be able to get where I want to be." And where London wants to be is still the NBA.
"I want to keep bouncing the ball until it stops," London says. "Getting a degree is important to me, but I want to put off using that degree for a job as long as I can."
He's not alone. All three players express strong interest in reaching the basketball heights. But the fact they're still playing, having overcome such obstacles, attests to Jones' belief that they have already reached it.
By Chris Herrington
The much-needed home win against Phoenix on Sunday notwithstanding, the Memphis Grizzlies are coming off a desultory stretch of basketball. But one notable silver lining from the last week has been the emergence of veterans Wesley Person and Lorenzen Wright.
The Grizzlies are among the youngest teams in the league: Person, an eight-year-vet at 31, and Wright, a six-year-vet at 27, are the most experienced players and both had provided erratic production off the bench through the first month of the season. But a combination of improved play and injuries to starters Shane Battier and Drew Gooden have pushed Person and Wright into the starting lineup, and both have made the most of the opportunity.
Person was brought aboard in the offseason to be a designated sniper, but he didn't live up to his reputation early on. Under new coach Hubie Brown's more disciplined rotations, Person has found his rhythm and a consistent role (prior to Battier's injury) as first player off the bench, playing starter's minutes at scoring guard over nominal starter Gordan Giricek. Person is currently third in the league in three-point shooting at .475 but has shot a scalding .560 from downtown in December.
Wright's recent emergence has been even more dramatic. Early on, he lost his starting center job to Stromile Swift, then to Pau Gasol when Brown decided to start rookie Drew Gooden at Gasol's natural power forward position. Wright hadn't given the team much reason to keep him in the lineup. In November, he averaged 7.4 points and only 4.1 rebounds per game in 20 minutes a night. But something clicked on the road trip, and Wright has reeled off a four-game stretch that's seen his numbers shoot up to 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
Wright said after Sunday's win that he'd been hampered by tendinitis in his knees early this season and was finally starting to feel healthy again. He's now reminding Grizzlies fans of the player who started last season with double-doubles in seven of the first eight games before injury curtailed his production.
There is a glass-half-empty view of Wright's game. On a team with three rookies who never met a shot they didn't like, one could make the case that Wright has been part of the problem on the offensive end: He may be the team's most ineffective and unwilling passer and, since the beginning of Brown's "regular season," Wright's taken more shots relative to his time on the floor than anyone else on the team.
Over the four-game stretch that's marked Wright's emergence, he led the team in shot attempts with 54 (to Gasol's 39), which can't be what Brown wants: This team may have a better chance of winning with Wright on the floor but not with Wright as the primary option on offense. One gets the feeling that Wright's a great role player who hasn't fully accepted that status. And while his earlier penchant for getting his shot blocked seems to have abated as he's regained some of his explosiveness, his limited offense skills were apparent even in the win over Phoenix, when a turnover, blocked shot, and airball helped Phoenix race out to a 10-2 lead. But if Wright was partly to blame for the horrid start, he was also key in getting the team back on track. Wright has rebounded more effectively than anyone on the team, and his toughness and aggression have made a tangible difference in the team's play. After seeing Gooden torched for 14 points and 15 rebounds a few games earlier by the Suns' man-child rookie (and one-time University of Memphis signee) Amare Stoudamire, Wright made it a point to take him out of his game. Wright's physical play and who knows what else resulted in a confrontation between the two in the second quarter. Wright admitted in the locker room afterward that he tried to get Stoudamire's mind on things other than the game. It worked: The rookie had a horrible game and played only 10 minutes in the second half.
And, as adept as Wright was in psyching out the other team, he was equally effective psyching up his own. He stayed in Gasol's ear throughout the fourth quarter, policing his play like a stern older brother and shooting icy glares whenever Gasol's intensity seemed to lag. Gasol scored 10 points and nabbed 7 rebounds in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Brown remarked afterward how well Gasol and Wright played together, how Wright's physical play and knowledge of the offense afforded Gasol more room to operate. Brown didn't seem ready to go back to the Gasol/Gooden pairing anytime soon. And no wonder -- the pairing of Pau Gasol and Drew Gooden at the power spots hasn't been working. It forces Gasol out of position and Gooden's perhaps overly aggressive play on the offensive end has limited Gasol's touches. On the defensive end, the pairing of Gasol and Gooden leaves the team too small, too soft, and too inexperienced. Starting Wright at center gives the starting unit much better balance, chemistry, and toughness.
But it also creates questions. The tension between winning now and developing talent for the future is common for young teams in the NBA. The battle for playing time between veterans and younger (and perhaps more talented) players is a dominant story right now for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, for instance. Given the improved play of Wright and Person, this could become a controversy for the Grizzlies as well. But there's a difference between Person and Wright: Person's contract is up after next season, and he's seemingly not part of Jerry West's three-year plan for playoff contention. Wright is four years younger than Person; he's got a long-term contract that makes him hard to deal; his local connections make him a fan favorite; and, at his best, he provides solid production and toughness at the position (center) where such attributes are scarce. Wright can be part of this team's core for the playoff run. Assuming Gasol is a given, managing minutes among Wright, Battier, and Gooden could be tricky. Perhaps the abandoned Drew Gooden experiment at small forward will get another look sooner rather than later.