HERE'S TO YOU, MR. ROBINSON
Among the most endearing qualities of our heroes is that they never age, at least not in our hearts. Especially when the hero is an athlete, he or she is always in peak form when we recall and share the stories of heroism.
When congestive heart failure claimed the life of Ronnie Robinson last Saturday morning, the cause of death couldnt have been more ironic. For it was Robinson -- along with his lifelong friend, Larry Finch -- who represented the heart of the 1972-73 Memphis State Tiger basketball team. That squad, we well know in these parts, reached the championship game of the NCAA tournament, only to lose against the juggernaut from UCLA. Simply put, theres no way that team -- a band of athletic heroes unlike any other this city will ever see -- gains the immortality it did without the all-too-mortal Ronnie Robinson.
One of only four players in Tiger history to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, Robinson was Sundance to Finchs Butch. Having cultivated their partnership on the hardwood of Melrose High, Finch and Robinson (always spoken in that sequence) became a battering ram of sorts, knocking down barriers -- social, racial, economic -- as they brought a region together. Indiana had Milan High . . . Memphis had Finch and Robinson. Their jerseys are two of eight that have been retired by the University of Memphis.
So with Robinsons death at age 53 were reminded that, yes, our heroes are mortal. And this not even two years after a severe stroke confined Finch to a wheelchair. Two men lifted to the highest of heights, their names an automatic smile switch throughout the Mid-South. The same two men later struck so mercilessly, and so young. Since when did the fates become so two-faced?
Last year Ronnie Robinson took time to briefly visit with me for a story in MEMPHIS
magazine celebrating the 30th anniversary of his fabled team. He spoke as if 1973 were yesterday, and the kick in his voice as he remembered that teams one shining moment is what Ill remember most about our chat. Ill give him the last word here, as he remembers a time and place the way we all should. Well miss you, Ronnie.
I think everybody in America saw that [championship] game. Thats the furthest Memphis State has ever been. It was a good game, an exciting game. It was like going up against Muhammad Ali. All that basketball history . . . back then, thats all you really heard about: UCLA. Once that ball gets tipped, though, you forget about all that.
I always reflect back to the night before the game. You know, it was such a tense moment, unbelievable that youre getting ready to participate in the [final game]. Butterflies everywhere. That team was special . . . we all kind of gelled toward the end of the season. We wanted to win it all, and we came pretty close.
I hate to see some of the things that have happened to Larry recently. But you know, Larrys a fighter . . . hell fight back. Spirit-wise, hes doing pretty good. I think hell be all right.
Butterflies still fly when I walk into The Pyramid and see [my jersey number, 33] hanging from the rafters. I still feel like Im getting ready to play a game.