If I see nothing else from the University of Memphis basketball team when they take on Ole Miss Saturday night, I want to see a fist pumped. Or a chest beaten. Or the floor slapped. Say what you will about the disappointing record, the Marcus Moody fiasco, or the blown second-half leads. What seems to be missing most from this squad of Tigers is an element that, over the decades, has been the lifeblood of Tiger hoops: emotion.
As the Tigers struggle (1) to learn a new system under a renowned coach and (2) to climb an early-season mountain of a schedule, it appears the players are so intent on doing whats right -- or learning whats right -- that theyre forgetting why they play the game in the first place. If there is any one distinguishing trait that separates college basketball from other American spectator sports, its the emotional connection between player and fan. Combine the proximity of fans to the court (even in The Pyramid), the lack of headgear (which can hide a players expression), and a bombastic pep band. The result is an atmosphere that can literally make arenas tremble. But it has to start on the court, with the players.
Remember the screams of Lorenzen Wright after one of his rafter-shaking dunks? What about the gleam of Billy Smiths smile after dropping yet another trey? Socks Perry played with his heart dangling out of his jersey. And it doesnt require a star to inject this critical emotion into a teams chemistry. Remember Justin Wimmer?
The irony with the 2000-01 Memphis Tigers is that they have a head coach who is about as emotive as they come. John Calipari can be as histrionic as a Palm Beach County granny, though, and it wont transfer to the crowd as it would through a player.
The Tennessee game Tuesday night was telling in many ways. The Tigers played a superior team absolutely even after a dreadful start that saw them fall behind 10-0. When they pulled within three in the second half, what was it that kicked the Vols back into gear? Ron Slays crowd-pleasing shimmying may be a little over the top, but you could hear the roar, couldnt you? And it wasnt even close to a sellout in Knoxville. If displaced football fans can get excited by some basketball emotion, imagine what might happen if rabid Tiger fans sense the same kind of energy?
Personality, of course, plays a large role in finding this emotional leader. Kelly Wise, Courtney Trask, Paris London . . . the Tiger roster is filled with the strong, silent type. And thats okay. Again, this doesnt have to come from a star. Where might we find it? What about Marcus Moody? If Moody stands any chance of reclaiming his rightful position among this teams leaders, wouldnt some fire and brimstone from the senior sharpshooter be a good starting point?
My guess is that some crowd- and team-inspiring energy from the outcast Moody might just capture the eye of the man this entire team seems so desperate to please. And now wouldnt that be worth shouting for?