A Season in the Sun

The best team in University of Memphis history did more than win basketball games.

by James Busbee

ight college basketball teams arrive in Memphis this week to begin play in the NCAA basketball tournament. For a program like Kansas, the top-ranked team in the country, two games at The Pyramid will be little more than first steps in what should be an easy stroll to the Final Four in Indianapolis. The College of Charleston, on the other hand, desperately wants to prove that it belongs on the same stage with perennial powers Kansas, Arizona, and Purdue.

Despite a subpar season that kept them out of this year's tournament, and the current search for a new coach, the University of Memphis has established itself as a college basketball power. The Tiger program proved itself in the same arena where Charleston and a host of other schools seek validation, the NCAA championship. The U of M can trace its longstanding success directly back to its 1973 team, when Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon led Memphis to the pinnacle of basketball.

Memphis has had only four losing seasons in the 24 years since that magic march to St. Louis. National TV appearances are now commonplace. Five former Tigers are playing in the NBA -- three of them first-round picks. But it all started in 1973.

By any objective standard, the 1972-73 Memphis State Tigers were the finest team in school history. They went farther in championship play than any team before or since. They earned the enduring notice of a nation and the respect of a city. Most importantly, the success of the 1972-73 squad transcended basketball, providing hope for a city that was near its historic low point.

That team carried an unusually heavy burden for a basketball team. The dream season tipped off barely four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the scars of that moment were still freshly imprinted in the city's psyche. Blacks and whites were divided in almost every aspect of public and private life. The Mid-South Coliseum, then the Tigers' home court, was perhaps the only truly integrated place in Memphis, both on the court and in the stands.

The Tigers' role in healing racial wounds did not go unrecognized even then. "This team has unified the city like it's never been unified before," Mayor Wyeth Chandler said in 1972. "Black and white, rich and poor, old and young are caught up in its success. Memphis is a better city now, thanks to the Memphis State team."

Memphis State's success was no accident. When new coach Gene Bartow arrived in 1970, he found a team beset with racial tension, long losing streaks, and, reportedly, even a knife fight or two. But Bartow benefited greatly from a recruiting coup executed by his predecessor, Moe Iba. With the help of Leonard Draper, an African-American supporter of the Tiger program, Iba managed to bring in two hometown players from Melrose High School, Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson.

"At that time, Afro-Americans weren't [enrolling] to play at Memphis," says Draper, still Finch's closest friend. "Larry had a lot of other offers, but he wanted to take a stand. A lot of people were unhappy with him for going to Memphis State."

In an era when freshmen were not eligible to play, Finch and Robinson toiled on the MSU freshmen team during Iba's final season in Memphis. The freshmen often drew larger crowds to the Coliseum than Iba's varsity team, which struggled to a 6-20 record, the school's third consecutive losing season. Iba was fired afterward and replaced by Bartow. In three short seasons, Bartow, Finch, and Robinson would help Memphis State shed its "Tiger High" image.

Year one saw major improvements and 18 wins. Year two brought a 21-7 record, a co-championship in the Missouri Valley Conference, and a disappointing playoff loss to Louisville. By 1972, the city anticipated great things. Bill Grogan, Memphis State's energetic sports information director, stoked the preseason fire by rewriting the oldie "Meet Me in St. Louis," site of the 1973 NCAA finals. Uncannily, Grogan predicted the Tigers would not only reach the championship game, they would meet UCLA there. "Larry and Ronnie said they would be in the Final Four before their careers were over, and I held them to that," he says.

The team featured an unlikely cast of players. In addition to Finch (who averaged 24 points per game) and Robinson (13.5 points/11.2 rebounds per game), junior-college transfer Larry Kenon played a starring role, averaging 20.1 points and a school-record 16.7 rebounds in his only season in a Memphis uniform. Kenon was named first-team All-America by Basketball Weekly and Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference. Guard Bill Laurie, though only 5'10", ran the show for the Tigers on the floor. Billy Buford, Wes Westfall, freshman Bill Cook, and others played key roles in backing up the team's stars.

"We were a bunch of fun-loving guys," Buford says, "but when it came to ball-playing time, when we laced up our sneakers, we were serious business."

The season's beginning didn't seem to herald greatness. The Tigers lost three of their first five, including a devastating loss at LSU, and seemed a team adrift. But suddenly the Tigers reeled off a string of 14 straight victories en route to winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship.

Memphis embraced its new heroes much like a small town might adopt a high school team. It was Hoosiers on a grander scale. Thousands of fans awaited the Tigers at the airport and followed the team's every move. "I'd never seen a community come together as a whole the way Memphis did during that stretch," Laurie says.

"The team was excited, and the city of Memphis was elated," Draper says. "It was something to behold."

Long before the NCAA invited 64 teams to the championship tournament, Memphis State had to first win its conference regular-season title before it could join the 23 other teams in the Big Dance. After that, the Tigers beat South Carolina and Kansas State in the Midwest Regional at Houston to reach the Final Four in St. Louis, where they were joined by Providence, Indiana, and mighty UCLA.

At the time it seemed unbelievable. Memphis State had turned a corner, had reached the next level. "Most everyone spent the weekend pinching themselves," wrote Press-Scimitar executive sports editor George Lapides following the regional championship. "Has something this good really happened? Are not such things reserved for the UCLAs and the Marquettes, the elite, the powerhouses, the big names? Perhaps so, but Memphis State is one of them now."

UCLA reached St. Louis riding a historic 73-game winning streak, dominating college basketball in unprecedented fashion, capturing six straight NCAA championships. In the semifinals, Memphis State knocked off Providence, ending the Friars' 17-game winning streak. UCLA rolled over Indiana.

In 1973, the NCAA tournament had not yet become the show it is today. Tickets were only $10. Television rights cost NBC $1.16 million -- not much more than a Final Four 30-second commercial costs now. Rules were different too. Three-pointers and a shot-clock were still more than a decade away. Dunking was strictly prohibited.

But one could argue that the 1973 championship game marked the beginning of the modern era of college hoops. At the very least, it was a milestone. The game between UCLA and Memphis State was the first NCAA championship televised in prime time, bringing it a record national viewing audience. Nearly 20,000 fans crowded into the St. Louis Arena, then the second-largest crowd ever to see a game.

The Tigers' task was monumental. The Bruins were led by Bill Walton, arguably the finest center in the history of college basketball. They had stars at all five positions, and were coached by the legendary John Wooden.

But the game started well for the Tigers, and by halftime the score was tied at 39. Despite running into foul trouble, Kenon scored 20 points. Finch was en route to a 29-point game, and might have been named MVP of the tournament if only Bill Walton hadn't intervened.

Walton was simply magnificent that night, and the Tigers had the misfortune of being on the losing end of one of the greatest single-game performances in history. Walton went 21-for-22 from the field, scored 44 points, and pulled down 13 rebounds. The Tigers held on as long as they could, but with 10 minutes left in the game the Bruins pulled away for good, winning 87-66.

But Walton, now an NBC commentator and recently named one of the NBA's Top 50 players, shares the limelight. "A lot of credit came my way because it was the first Monday-night game, and visibility was unprecedented," Walton told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993. "Personally, I'd had better games. My man [Kenon] was scoring too. I was in foul trouble most of the night."

"We had 'em, doggone it!" Buford laughs. "It still pisses me off when I think about it now." The Tigers didn't win the game, but they won a nationwide respect that endures to this day.

The players also have memories that they'll share with their grandchildren. "The moment I was introduced was very special," Laurie says. "We were in front of a national television audience, and I was playing in my home state, and I had a real sense of pride."

For Buford it was a dream come true. "When I was in eighth grade, I was watching the [championship] game, and I said I was going to be there someday," he recalls. "I remember looking around that night and thinking of my dream when I was a kid."

The '73 Tigers have spread far since their momentous season. When Larry Finch cleans out his office at the end of the month, a few administrators will be the only remaining ties to the team that took the Tiger program to the next level. Bartow went on to coach at UCLA and then UAB, before retiring from coaching last year. His son, Murray, who was 11 years old when his dad made that historic trip to St. Louis, is now the UAB coach.

Robinson lives in Memphis and serves as athletic director for Fayette-Ware High School in Somerville. Kenon went on to play for the San Antonio Spurs, and now runs a car dealership in that Texas city. Buford is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Laurie has achieved no small measure of prominence since leaving Memphis for Columbia, Missouri. He married his high-school sweetheart, Nancy Walton, one of the heirs to the Wal-Mart estate. Laurie's wealth has been estimated at $525 million, and although he keeps a low profile in Columbia, he recently gave $10 million toward the construction of a new sports arena for the University of Missouri.

"After that season, the University of Memphis became known as a basketball school," Draper says. "When you go across the country now, people think of Memphis as a great basketball team. It's something people can relate to."

College basketball is big business today, and the University of Memphis' present travails are, at least in part, reflective of the economic aspect of the game. But for one season, at least, Memphis State had a championship-caliber team that embodied the best of college basketball. Memphis may never see its like again.

"There've been some good teams in Memphis," Buford says. "But until they win it, our team was the best."

The Way We Were

As the '73 Tiger basketball team headed for its destiny in St. Louis:

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