I played in a "final four" on my 16th birthday. Okay, it was the Vermont Division III state semifinals at the Barre Auditorium, but for a sophomore bench-warmer accustomed to playing in front of 200 people on a packed night, this was One Shining Moment indeed.
As the top seed in the tournament, my Northfield Marauders were 19-2, only to be knocked off by a team from Williamstown that we'd beaten twice during the regular season. Twenty-six days later, I watched with considerable empathy as another goliath -- the 31-3 Memphis State Tigers -- fell to another David, Villanova beating Keith Lee, Andre Turner, and friends at the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky.
Whatever aches longtime Tiger fans may associate with that loss 23 years ago, catharsis -- and hope for redemption -- has arrived. In beating Texas (in Houston!) Sunday afternoon, the Memphis Tigers are on their way to San Antonio -- a two-step of the first order -- and the 2008 Final Four. Now 37-1, the Tigers will face UCLA (with demons of 1973 and 2006 screeching away) for a chance to face North Carolina or Kansas with a national championship at stake.
The Longhorns had to know this was a Memphis day when Antonio Anderson banked a three-pointer in to give the Tigers a 46-34 lead five minutes into the second half. Texas had reduced a 17-point lead to merely five, only to be answered by more weapons in white jerseys than they could cover. The stars came out for the U of M, All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts scoring 25 points (and making 14 of 17 free throws, folks), freshman sensation Derrick Rose dishing out nine assists to go with 21 points, and senior center Joey Dorsey adding another double-double (11 points and rebounds) to his career stat box. And into an exclusive "history box" goes this team.
Tiger basketball has hardly been dormant over the last 23 years. Following the scandal-ridden dismissal of coach Dana Kirk in 1986, Elliot Perry scored 2,209 points (second only to Lee in the program's history) during his starring days at the Mid-South Coliseum. But Socks never so much as reached a Sweet 16. Penny Hardaway took the city's breath away for two seasons, but reached his pinnacle at the 1992 Elite Eight. Larry Finch coached the Tigers to 220 wins over his 11 seasons on the bench, but never added a third Final Four to those he experienced as a player and assistant coach.
Remember the Tic Price "era"? That was part of the last 23 years in Tiger history. The Tigers have won more games this season than Price did in two years (30). When John Calipari swept into town (2000) followed by high-school phenom Dajuan Wagner (2001), Tiger Nation was certain deliverance was near. But it would be three trips to the NIT(!) semifinals in New York -- including a championship in Wagner's only season as a Tiger -- before Calipari's program gained full traction.
The nadir of this current era, of course, were the tearstained missed free throws by Darius Washington at the end of the 2005 Conference USA championship game, misses that cost the Tigers a trip to the Big Dance. But since that season's merciful end (at the NIT), the Memphis program has gone 103-9. Before this season, only Kentucky had ever experienced three straight basketball seasons with 30 wins. No team has ever won more games than the 37 these Tigers can now claim. And how poetic that having lost but one game -- to a team many know as UT -- the Tigers reach the Final Four by dismissing another UT, and in its home state, no less.
Joey Dorsey was a 15-month-old toddler in March 1985. (Close your eyes and picture that.) The rest of the 2007-08 Tigers had yet to be born. John Calipari had just finished his third season as an assistant coach on Larry Brown's staff at Kansas. But destiny awaited, however long it may have seemed during those Price days. (Where have you gone, Jermaine Ousley?)
Who knows what will unfold next weekend in San Antonio, whether the Tigers will need scissors (for cutting nets) or handkerchiefs (for drying tears). Regardless, Memphis Tiger basketball has returned to the brightest spotlight the game of college basketball has to offer. And with the team will be an entire city and multiple generations of fans who still measure their winter months -- and early spring! -- by the fortunes of their blue-and-gray-clad sharpshooters.
As for me, nearly a quarter-century after my own "final four," I find myself still relegated to a bench of sorts. But what a view.
Derrick Rose scored 22 of his 23 points in the second half to lead the Tigers' scoring, along with Chris Douglas-Roberts, who also had 23. Jeremy Wise led Southern Miss ...
And, on the other hand, if Calipari were to win the national championship two-and-a-half weeks from now, would he be the write-in winner in the next Memphis mayoral election?...