TWO GAMES, TWO STORIES
I took my press credential to The Pyramid last Wednesday for the Memphis-Louisville basketball game, eyes peeled for the story,the angle, the surprise that might shed some light on the balance of the 2003-04 season.
I took my 4-year-old daughter to The Pyramid last Saturday for the Memphis-Saint Louis basketball game, eyes peeled for the popcorn vendor, a large cup of lemonade, and the clearest path to reach Pouncer for a pregame hug.
Theres still no sporting event in Memphis like a Tiger-Cardinal clash on the hardwood. These contests have been emotional, heart-pumping, scream-till-you-lose-your-voice grudge matches for decades, now, and the relative strengths of the teams on the floor really havent mattered. Throw a pair of coaching titans like John Calipari and Rick Pitino into the mix and you have college basketball the way we like it, worthy of prime time, national TV.
Theres still no Saturday afternoon like one spent with your daughter. Distractions come and go, questions fly like autumn leaves, priorities are turned inside out (Whats the score, Daddy? I have to go potty), and youre reminded how unimportant a games outcome really is. The concept of a Tiger-Billiken river rivalry is a nice one, particularly considering the mass exodus soon to hit Conference USA. But for little Sofia last weekend, it was simple terms, please: Are they the bad guys?
Just like so many Tigers before him, Rodney Carney became a star against Louisville. The most gifted Memphis leaper since Michael Wilson wore blue and gray, Carney drained five three-pointers, scored 19 points, and grabbed six rebounds to lead the upset. On top of his numbers, Carney blocked a Cardinal shot with under two minutes left to force a clock violation and preserve a four-point U of M lead.
Whenever I attend a Tiger game, I enter the arena with my mind full of questions and observations about the game at hand. As the Billikens and Tigers warmed up Saturday, so did Sofia. I wish The Pyramid had a slide on top! What do you like more: cold or snow? Do birds feel rain? If they make scores, do they get air balloons? Somehow zone or man-to-man no longer seemed significant.
This is the way it should be, said Calipari after beating Louisville for a third straight season. We need to enjoy this, to live in the moment. The Memphis-Louisville rivalry, simply put, transcends conference affiliation. When the Cardinals leave C-USA for the Big East in 2005, its incumbent on the powers that be at both schools to schedule one another . . . every year. They owe it to each other, to the sport, to history, and most of all, to the fans. Rooting the Tigers on against the likes of Belmont and Samford is a little easier when you can circle a Louisville date in red. After the final buzzer Wednesday, when the student section swarmed the Pyramid floor, my colleague, Chris Gadd, said, Youd think the Tigers just beat Duke. Better, Chris. They just beat Louisville.
Regardless of their decision regarding which building to call home next season, the U of M administration would do well to add a few matinees to the schedule. (Only three of the Tigers 15 home games this season are played before sunset.) During the Tigers second-half push to victory Saturday afternoon -- behind 22 points from Antonio Burks -- the crowd came alive, and in ways you dont often see during prime time. Little girls danced in the aisles during timeouts. A few little ones were raised to their fathers shoulders. Pom-poms were passed from one family member to another. And the popcorn! Youve never seen so much popcorn. For those of us who take Tiger basketball too seriously, the Saint Louis game was worth watching. Everybody cheered at the final buzzer as Memphis won its seventh straight C-USA affair. But the kids, you see, they were cheering all along.