Monday, December 13, 2010

A Memphis Tiger Carol

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 9:49 AM

It was a cold, quiet Christmas Eve when Josh Pastner — nightcap pulled tightly over his curls — settled down for a short winter’s nap, a rare break from the 86,400 seconds he considered so precious every day. It had been barely 24 hours since his Tigers’ epic battle with the Georgetown Hoyas, and Pastner’s thoughts had finally calmed enough to allow a bit of slumber. Unbeknownst to the Tiger coach, though, this would not be a restful night.

At precisely 1 a.m., Pastner awoke to the sound of a dribbled basketball. Standing at the foot of his bed was a glowing apparition, indeed dribbling a basketball. The face was familiar to Pastner, as well as the number — 21 — on his long, blue robe.

“Larry? Larry Finch?”

“Shhhhh,” replied the smiling spirit. “Tonight — for you — I am the Ghost of Tigers’ Past. Take my hand.”

Pastner clasped hands with the spirit and instantly found himself in the upper deck of the Mid-South Coliseum, the seats otherwise empty, but the basketball court below throbbing with activity. On the floor were 10 Tiger basketball legends, the squeak of sneakers and pounding of the basketball filling the air along with laughter (pierced now and then by a vibrant scream from Lorenzen Wright after another rim-bending dunk).

“What is this?” asked Pastner, rubbing his eyes, wondering if his last bottled water of the night had been somehow enhanced. “That’s Elliot Perry! And Keith Lee. Wait ... isn’t that Andre Turner?”

"Sure is,” said the Ghost of Tigers’ Past. “And check out my man, Ronnie Robinson. He’s making Bedford look silly!” There was Win Wilfong, taking a pass on the wing from Penny Hardaway, draining a jumper over Antonio Anderson. On the sideline, Gene Bartow clapped his hands in the dignified manner in which he did everything. Coaching the gray team was Dana Kirk. Even Kirk smiled when Wilfong winked at him as he ran back down the court.

“This is incredible,” said Pastner, shaking his head. “An all-time All-Star Game for Memphis Tiger basketball. I’ve got goose bumps, Larry ... I mean, Mr. Spirit. Why aren’t you down there on the floor?”

“Because I’m teaching you tonight, Coach. I’ve had my day in the spotlight, and I will again. But tonight, it’s a lesson for Josh Pastner.”

The action on the floor gradually blurred to darkness, and Pastner again fell asleep, a smile across his face. But at the first strike of two o’clock, he was startled — again — by a dribbling form at the foot of his bed. This time, the robe featured a number 1.

“Joe! What in heck are you doing up at this hour?!”

“Coach, take it easy. I’m not Joe Jackson tonight. And you’re not my coach. I’m the Ghost of Tigers’ Present. Take my hand.”

Pastner grabbed the hand of what he thought was his point guard and found himself floating above the city of Memphis, first downtown, near FedExForum, then through Midtown, East Memphis, and over Germantown, Collierville, the outer reaches of what had become known as Tiger Nation.

“You gotta see this, Coach ... I mean, Josh,” said the spirit, lowering into a subdivision, easily 20 miles from the arena where Pastner did his work on game nights. They peered through a window into a living room aglow with the lights of the Christmas tree. Hanging from the mantel were four stockings, each adorned with that familiar Tiger-leaping-from-the-M logo. Under the tree was a brand-new basketball, branded with that same logo. Next to a bookshelf — filled with programs, media guides, and VHS cassettes labeled with the dates of big Tiger wins — was a framed picture. Smiling in the shot were a couple, their two kids (a boy and a girl), Pouncer the mascot, and Josh Pastner (with the biggest smile of all).

“Wow.” It’s all Pastner could get out.

“See, Josh,” said the spirit. “In this town, you’re bigger than Santa Claus. Logos on the stockings? You gotta be kiddin’ me!”

The pair flew back up into the darkness, into sleep for the young coach. Well, not quite.

At 3 a.m., Pastner was again stirred, this time by the loudest dribbling yet. The robe — black now — featured no number. But the face of this tallest spirit looked familiar. [image]


“Hush! I’ll be Adonis Thomas this time next year, and filling the bucket for you. But tonight, check me out. I’m the Ghost of Tigers’ Future. Take my hand.”

Pastner grabbed the giant paw, blinked once, and found himself in a neon jungle once known as The Pyramid. He was on the concourse, high above a basketball court that had somehow been squeezed between a giant fish tank — was that an alligator floating on the surface? — and a playground decorated with stuffed deer, ducks, and geese. Signs hung everywhere — all neon — flashing the names of businesses that had more to do with outdoor life than basketball or a university. Why was he here?

“Why are we here?,” asked Pastner. “And who is that down on the court?”

“Those are the Memphis Tigers,” answered the spirit. “Take a look at the coach.”

Pastner looked at the man in the blue sweat suit, a whistle dangling from his neck. And he stopped in his tracks.

“It can’t be. There’s no way.” The black hair was now entirely silver, except for a single black streak that ran from his forehead across his temple, and down to his neckline. It was hair that would make Cruella de Vil squirm, and it belonged to John Calipari.

For the first time all night, Pastner began to sweat. “What’s Coach Cal doing here? Where am I? What happened to his hair?!”

“Calm down, Josh.” The spirit wasn’t smiling anymore. “You’ve been in Chapel Hill these 10 years, coaching the Tar Heels. Cal, he came back last year ... when no one else would take him.”

The spirit went on to describe Calipari’s return to Memphis. He had won back-to-back national titles at Kentucky, only to have both stripped by the NCAA when it was discovered that six of his players had not so much as attended elementary school. Instead, they had enrolled in something called the Calipari Basketball Academy for 12 years, literally raised to play hoops for Coach Cal.

“After you left,” continued the spirit, “the Tigers fell on hard times. So R.C. brought his glamour boy back.” Sure enough, down on the baseline — now chatting with Calipari — was Tiger athletic director R.C. Johnson. Cal’s hair might be gray now, but Johnson hadn’t aged a day. How did he do that?

“The Grizzlies weren’t about to let Calipari back in their building, so the Tiger program signed a deal to play here. Not all that pretty having two logos on their shorts, but it helps pay the bills.”

“But spirit,” wondered Pastner, “how did I do in Carolina?”

“Take a look at the big screen.”

Pastner looked up at the giant video board above the court. He was behind a microphone, live from Chapel Hill. The hair around his temples was entirely gray, the color of Calipari’s.

“Regretfully, I’m here to announce my resignation as North Carolina men’s basketball coach. The good times here were great ... three Final Fours. But the bad times — not being able to win a national title — became too much. ‘Coach Smith would have finished the job.’ Or ‘Coach Williams never lost with a title on the line.’ You know, I still wear loose-fitting clothing, after all these years. I don’t like negativity. So it’s time for me to take the next positive step forward.”

Pastner was not only sweating now, but he had what looked like tears in his eyes.

“You okay, Coach?” asked the spirit.

“You just called me Coach, Adonis. Am I still going to be able to coach you, to coach the Tigers?”

“Future’s up to you, man.” Despite his black robe, the spirit began to glow, brighter and brighter, until Pastner was blinded into darkness. And finally, sleep.

The Tiger basketball coach awoke to daylight. No dribbling ball this time, just the sound of his wife and children downstairs, shaking presents next to the Christmas tree. Pastner picked up his copy of the Flyer from his bedside stand. It was indeed still 2010. Five days till Lipscomb! Or 432,000 seconds.

“God bless us,” whispered Pastner to himself. “Everyone.”

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