Monday, May 7, 2018

J.B., Penny, and Redbirds Alumni

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 10:12 AM

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I’m glad the Memphis Grizzlies named J.B. Bickerstaff — officially — their head coach last week. Compassion isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor in hiring a person to lead a professional sports franchise, but Bickerstaff has earned this chance, particularly having coached 63 games last season with the requirement, in roundball terms, that he dribble with one hand only. Exactly zero of those games included Mike Conley at point guard (to say nothing of departed icons Tony Allen or Zach Randolph). The 39-year-old son of a longtime NBA coach (Bernie), Bickerstaff has paid his dues with more than 10 years as an assistant and was unable to earn the Houston Rockets’ trust over the course of 71 games (and a playoff appearance) in 2015-16. The least the man deserves is an 82-game season, a healthy roster (Conley and Chandler Parsons are crossing all fingers and toes), and the mission to win every game he can. Throw in a top-five pick in this June’s draft, and Bickerstaff may look back at his first winter calling the shots at FedExForum as one of those disguised blessings that shapes a career.

• It’s hard to imagine a wider disparity between what I’ll call the “buzz rating” of the Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach and that of the new Memphis Tigers’ coach. On a scale to 100, I’d put Bickerstaff’s number somewhere in the 40s. He’s recognizable among regular followers of the Grizzlies (and there are indeed many of them in this town). But Bickerstaff could walk into Huey’s and find a table without much ado.

Penny Hardaway eating at Huey’s? He’d never get the toothpick out of his burger. The Tiger icon is the most talked-about, photographed, and cheered human being in Memphis right now. And his college record is 0-0. This isn’t so much about one coach being better than another. It’s not even about relative popularity. (Though the last Memphian as popular as Penny Hardaway died at Graceland 41 years ago.) The disparity speaks to the difference an NBA coach can make in a league dominated by its superstar players and the difference a college coach can make on a landscape dominated by superstar coaches. Next winter will be fun as both these “rookies” establish credentials for the near and long-term future of their beloved teams.

• Last Friday in Seattle, Albert Pujols became the 32nd player in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. In the age of WAR and OPS, any achievement involving “counting stats” is somewhat diminished, but we should appreciate Pujols’s climb up the national pastime’s Olympus. He’s only the fourth player to count more than 600 home runs among his 3,000 hits (following Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Alex Rodriguez). Pujols may have played only 14 games as a Memphis Redbird (in 2000), but he has a permanent place — and red seat — in Bluff City baseball history for the walk-off home run he hit at AutoZone Park on Sept. 15, 2000, to give Memphis its first Pacific Coast League championship.

There’s already discussion about whether Pujols’s Hall of Fame plaque will feature a St. Louis Cardinals hat or that of his current team, the Los Angeles Angels. When Pujols wins a pair of World Series and three MVP awards with the Angels, this will be worthy of debate. There is one player in the history of the sport who can claim ten consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. All ten of those seasons (2001-10) happened with Albert Pujols wearing a Cardinals uniform.

• It was a big weekend for another man who enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as a Memphis Redbird. Vince Coleman led the National League in stolen bases six straight seasons (1985-90) as a St. Louis Cardinal, then attempted a comeback in 1998, signing a minor-league contract with the Cards. He was the first Memphis Redbird to step into a batter’s box (on April 9, 1998). Coleman left the Redbirds after 20 games — and eight stolen bases — when it became clear a big-league promotion wasn’t imminent. Last Friday, Coleman was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted along with a star from the 1940s (Harry Brecheen) and another from the 1990s (Ray Lankford) on August 18th.

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