To finish last week’s thoughts, here are the five most memorable sporting events I witnessed in 2006.
Dallas 115, Memphis 103 (November 17) I was skeptical when the Grizzlies selected Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick with the 19th pick in the 2005 draft. Having witnessed four years of Stromile Swift, I had developed a healthy appreciation for the difference between a great athlete and a great basketball player. But on this night, with Pau Gasol rehabbing his broken foot, Warrick became the best Memphis player in the NBA. The sophomore forward scored 26 points and grabbed 8 rebounds over 42 minutes, all the while guarding Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki and keeping the Grizzlies very much in the game through three quarters. (Warrick fouling out had much to do with the Mavericks’ late run to win the game.) When Warrick makes his first All-Star Game 2009? this is the game I’ll remember.
Memphis 4, Tacoma 1 (May 25) There weren’t many wins at AutoZone Park last summer, but there was a star. Five days after beating Kansas City in a spot start for the St. Louis Cardinals, Anthony Reyes returned to the mound for the Redbirds and simply overpowered the Tacoma Rainiers. The big righty, hat pulled down to his eyebrows, pitched eight shutout innings, giving up only three hits and striking out eight. John Nelson, Brian Esposito, and Brian Daubach homered to give Reyes all the support he needed. (Bonus excitement:] I saw, for the first time in my baseball life, a runner called out for tagging too early on a fly ball. The 2006 Redbirds took outs any way they could get ‘em.)
Memphis 57, UAB 46 (March 11) It had been 19 years since the University of Memphis had won a conference tournament. So however ugly at times the victory over the Blazers may have been, this was a rightful coronation for the best Tiger team in two decades. UAB had ended a 15-game winning streak for Memphis just nine days earlier in Birmingham, so this was a rare “revenge game” for the 2005-06 Tigers. And the game was never really in doubt, Memphis racing to a 10-point lead by halftime. Freshman Shawne Williams led the U of M with 18 points and was named the C-USA tournament MVP after what would prove to be his last game as a Tiger at FedExForum. My favorite image from the victory? Darius Washington cutting down the net under the same hoop where he collapsed in tears almost exactly one year earlier.
Sam’s Town 250 (October 28) The most underrated local sporting event and it laps the field is NASCAR’s annual Busch Series event at Memphis Motorsports Park. Featuring three of the ten drivers competing in the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne this year’s field was the most star-studded in the eight-year history of the event. On top of that, former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya made his NASCAR debut (and finished 11th in the field of 43). After a track-record 15 caution flags, Harvick already the Busch Series champion for 2006 passed Carl Edwards on the penultimate lap to become the first two-time Memphis champion.
St. Louis 9, Kansas City 7 (July 2) For the first time, three generations of Murtaughs were in St. Louis to cheer the Cardinals. With my mom visiting from Vermont, we packed up my wife and daughters for the four-hour drive north, our destination the new Busch Stadium in its inaugural season. On a sweltering Sunday afternoon and from the rightfield bleachers, no less we watched the eventual world champions beat Kansas City, 9-7. The Cards’ starting pitcher this day Jason Marquis would ironically not even make the team’s postseason roster. As for the club’s marquee talent, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds each homered for the first live St. Louis win in front of 3-year-old Elena Murtaugh. Many years from now, Elena will be able to tell the story of a rarity: seeing the Cardinals at “new” Busch BEFORE they won their 10th world championship.