Monday, June 1, 2020

A New "Feel" for Sports

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2020 at 8:40 AM

There was once a discussion on Seinfeld in which it was agreed Tuesday is the one day that doesn't have a "feel," a distinctive place in the human psyche as a week unfolds. Having turned the calendar on April and May without baseball, I'd argue an entire season — spring, we call it — has less of a feel than it once did, a pandemic having temporarily erased the daily pulse of our national pastime. (If you can't tell, I miss baseball like I imagine an amputee misses a leg.) That missing "feel" for spring includes no Masters, no Kentucky Derby, no NBA playoffs, no NHL playoffs. Spring in the year 2020 isn't just numb . . . it's blank.
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But baseball will return. Perhaps in a few short weeks. So will other sports. Having endured close to three months without scores or standings to check, I have more questions than answers about the day we again have something to cheer. Here are a few.

• When can we again "join the crowd"? There will surely be a "phase" of spectator sports in which no spectators are allowed, probably the most disorienting component in this return to normalcy. Baseballs will land in empty bleachers, a walk-off home run generating no more noise than the home team itself can deliver. TV microphones will likely pick up teammates' chatter on a basketball court, from screen calls to trash talk. If you haven't watched the NBA on a 10-second delay, get ready.

• Will asterisks fall like rain?
The teams that play in the NBA Finals get a four-month off-season. If professional basketball resumes in July, every team that takes the court will have had close to that same four-month break. To suggest the team that emerges from whatever playoff tournament the league creates is the "2019-20 NBA champion" is an absurdity. Players who would have missed the regularly scheduled playoffs (in May and June) with injuries could well be fit and bouncy for the made-for-TV summer session. And a World Series champion crowned after an 82-game regular season? Yes, friends, there will be asterisks. Fat ones.

• What form will football take? Two enormous enterprises — television and college campuses — desperately need football back this fall. No sport sells commercials like a live football broadcast, and no sport fuels a college athletic department (if not an entire college budget) like the one we watch on fall Saturdays. But let's be honest: There's no sport on the planet less "socially distant" than football. An FBS roster includes 85 scholarship players. If quarantine is still part of the fight against the spread of infection, even two or three football players testing positive — considering the number of teammates they've, literally, contacted — could be catastrophic. Unless asymptomatic football players are to be ignored as potential carriers. Which could have dreadful, life-threatening consequences. Much can happen in the three months before football season arrives. Here's hoping a rapid-testing mechanism and/or a vaccine are summer arrivals.

• Is there any pandemic benefit for a sports fan? Precaution will certainly mean the cancellation of the most fraudulent enterprise in American sports: preseason NFL games. These have long been snake-oil contests, sold to football fans in August for the same prices a November or December game costs, featuring players desperate to wear an NFL uniform, but unlikely to actually make your fantasy team come fall. (Players don't make NFL rosters by performing in preseason games. They do so based on their draft position and contract terms.) The NFL announced plans for a 17-game regular season (one more than has been played since 1978) with a reduction of one preseason game per team. Perhaps the pandemic will force a larger reconsideration of snake-oil "professional" football.

• If we can't go to the games, are the games worth playing? Emphatically, yes. If leagues can come up with smart, science-based protocols for playing games that count, then play ball. Television will be a lifeline for fans, but even the games we don't see — consider the thousands you don't see in a normal, pre-COVID year — will be worth the news and stories they generate. Humanity needs news and stories built for distraction more than we have since World War II. How did LeBron stay in shape during the shutdown? Can a Stanley Cup Final be played when it's 90 degrees outside the arena? If Tim Anderson bats .400 this season, will the headless Ted Williams roll over in his grave?

We need to feel sports again. So much healing remains, and that goes for the entire world. Turns out the games matter most because they don't matter all that much.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Professor Baseball

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 8:33 AM

For 12 years now, Curt Hart has had the best teaching gig in town. He's taught "Baseball in America" at the University of Memphis, a course on the greatest sport known to man, and particularly its significance in American history. He took a seventh-inning stretch during preparation for his summer course (it's free and online) to answer a few questions.

What was the original inspiration for the course and how did you convince the U of M that you're the man to teach it?
The original course began in the spring of 2008. It was at the urging of former dean Dr. Dan Lattimore that I develop a class on baseball, including its myths and history. Dr. Lattimore recognized my experience in radio and association with Major League Baseball to utilize this in the classroom setting. Plus, while in radio I covered Baltimore Orioles baseball for years, and numerous Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, New York. I should note that former Los Angeles Dodger Reggie Williams will be alongside me in this free online course: "Baseball — For the Love of the Game." Reggie and I will be doing five live classes in this as well. (Reggie is a minor league coach with the Cincinnati Reds.)
Curt Hart
  • Curt Hart

When the pandemic hit, we were without baseball from spring training to the regular season. It was University of Memphis president Dr. David Rudd, department dean Dr. Richard Irwin, and associate dean Dr. Joanne Gikas who made the suggestion that since we are without baseball, how about a free online course to help create interest in the game. We will discuss the development of the game from its early stages, the formation of the National and American Leagues, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, integration, steroids, the Baseball Hall of Fame, expansion, gambling, and sign-stealing.

Under normal conditions you get as many as 40 students in the classroom for the course. Do they walk into the room baseball fans, or are these students new to the sport and simply curious?
It’s a wide range of students who enroll for the class. These range from very little knowledge, to some facts about a certain team, all the way to the avid fan. Some fans include those who live and die by a particular team to those who have a great dislike for another club.

Do you teach with a chronological format, starting in "the deadball era," or is the structure more random?
The overall course covers the game transitioning from rounds, base and ball, to Town Ball (the most popular), to baseball and the nine-inning game of today. Debunking the Abner Doubleday myth is discussed early in the course. The formation of both leagues must be included, along with Alexander Cartwright turning a square onto a diamond and marking off 90 feet and assigning nine positions. Historian Henry Chadwick then comes onto the scene, who brings us the box score we use to this day. However, following the Deadball Era, Babe Ruth emerges and changes the game. Naturally, much more follows Ruth’s contribution.

Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, I imagine, are regulars in your lecture lineup. Who else plays a prominent role over the course of a semester?
Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick, both of whom are recognized as co-fathers of the game. Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Branch Rickey, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Bud Selig, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Pete Rose.

Your background is in broadcasting. Do the likes of Mel Allen, Vin Scully, and Jack Buck come up in class?
We discuss when baseball first hit the airwaves with KDKA in 1921. Much talk is devoted to how certain owners “bucked” baseball going to radio for fear of losing fans. However, it reality increased the fan base and created much more loyalty. Great voices such as Bob Prince, Harry Caray, Marty Brenneman and more are included.

The "baseball is boring" crowd seems to be growing, especially among younger generations. How do you combat such sacrilege?
Fans who say this aren’t paying attention to the game, especially if they’re in the ballpark. These fans aren’t paying attention to the manager, the first- or third-base coaches, action in the bullpen and the dugout. And, they’re certainly not watching all the sign language being passed from one position to the next.

Who was your favorite team growing up? Favorite player? And have they changed over the years?
Growing up near Louisville, Kentucky, my favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a long trek then to St. Louis. So the family and friends would head up I-70 to Cincinnati to catch the Cardinals in games against the Reds. These were at old Crosley Field and later Riverfront Stadium.

There were a few players that I followed. Two were Stan Musial and Curt Flood with St. Louis. I witnessed some great hitting and fielding through the years with those two. Another was Mickey Mantle; didn’t care much for the Yankees, but I enjoyed listening to his hitting prowess on the radio. On August 13, 1995, as I was driving to the radio station in Pennsylvania to prep for my sports talk show, a news report aired that Mantle had passed away. I pulled off to the side of the road and cried like a baby. It hit me hard that “The Mick” was gone. Just six years earlier I had a one-on-one interview with Mantle.

Share a central lesson of "Baseball in America" that can help us in these uncertain times.
Baseball has been the sport through the decades that binds us. It links us like family and keeps us close. For the true baseball fan, we breathe it, sleep it, and eat it. We hold this player or a team close to us. It’s a special love and devotion to the game that keeps us going. Even if our team loses a close game, we can look to tomorrow and say “We can play another nine innings and get a win.”

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Dancing Days

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2020 at 9:15 AM

The pandemic has turned the lights off when it comes to live sports, but we're not entirely lacking sports drama. Not with The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part series on the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. (Six episodes have aired to date, with two more this Sunday, and the final two on May 17th.) It's fascinating journalism, and really only set in the world of sports. ESPN was able to give the Ken Burns treatment to a basketball franchise because of one transcendent human presence: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Soak up all 10 hours, but you'll be left with zero ambiguity when it comes to the most famous man of an otherwise ho-hum decade. And I find the reflection significant on two levels.
NOREN TROTMAN/NBA
  • Noren Trotman/NBA

First of all, how many athletes would you give 10 hours of your life's attention in documentary format? My short list: Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Wayne Gretzky. I reached out to my Twitter pals and received the following submissions: Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods. This kind of star power, in Jordan terms, is rarefied air. But quite honestly, those of us a certain age have read and heard the stories of Ruth, Robinson, and Ali, told well and told poorly. If John Goodman can play you in a movie, you take a backseat to Michael Jordan.

Rose and Woods are as infamous as they are famous (though both extraordinarily accomplished athletes, to say the least). Jordan, somehow, remains atop Olympus, even with his own shortcomings: that bizarre early-retirement-to-pro-baseball chapter, the gambling, the grudges. Similar to Erving, Jordan personifies cool when he walks in a room … but he won five more titles than did Doctor J. Back when posters were an actual thing, no one leaped from more walls than Michael Jordan. (I happen to own the finest Jordan poster ever printed, which I'm sharing with you here.) ESPN has reminded us that we have an actual living legend, one with juicy opinions on the likes of Isiah Thomas.

The second fascinating element of this mega-series is the temporal component. Jordan's magnificence shone brightest before the Internet. He is the last sports great to do his thing before Twitter and Instagram could micro-analyze every achievement (or transgression) before sunrise the next morning. It took a book being written — printed pages! distribution! — for us to learn details about Jordan's one-punch fight with teammate Steve Kerr during a Bulls practice. I'm not convinced LeBron James can ever achieve Jordan's Olympian perch for the simple fact that his docu-drama has already been told, one tweet, gif, or meme at a time. (We had footage of James getting off a plane after learning of Kobe Bryant's death before many of us learned of Bryant's death.)

I've been in close proximity to my share of celebrities, and exactly three have given me goose bumps: Robert Plant, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Michael Jordan. I didn't see Jordan play in person until he came to Memphis to play the Grizzlies in 2001 … in a Washington Wizards uniform. And that's precisely the magnitude of Jordan: He could have walked onto the floor at the Pyramid in Baryshnikov's tights or Plant's bell-bottoms and he would have raised goose bumps. A legend among us. I'm grateful for the folks at ESPN reminding their younger audience that a standard was set for basketball greatness in the last decade of the twentieth century. I'm not sure it's a standard that can be matched in this century or any century to come.

• The football revolution at the University of Memphis continues. When Antonio Gibson was chosen by the Washington Redskins with the 66th pick in this year's NFL draft, it marked the third straight year a former Tiger's name was called in the first three rounds. (Darrell Henderson was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round last year, and Anthony Miller went to the Chicago Bears in the second round in 2018.) You have to go back more than 30 years to find a similar stretch (1985-87) for the Tiger program. All the more impressive, these are "skill position" players, the kind who make highlights on Sunday wrap-up shows. Win on Saturdays and a region will respect your college program. Help teams win on Sunday and the entire football-watching country will salute.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Final Pitch

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2020 at 8:09 AM

I would give three years off the end of my life for one more season of high school baseball with my teammates from way back when. My daughter Elena — a senior pitcher for the White Station Spartans — would simply like to live the “one more season” of high school softball she knew was coming her way as recently as Valentine’s Day. It appears athletes in her senior class — and this is the nationwide Class of 2020 — played their last game when they didn’t even know it, the fates throwing a pandemic in the way of what should be a bittersweet ride into sunset, teammates arm-in-arm one last time.
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When a virus is killing people all over the world, a softball season is meaningless. And the only team that matters is our species, living to see another lap around the sun. But here’s the catch in that arithmetic: we enjoy our laps around the sun for the softball seasons they bring. Tell everyone except a high school (or college) athlete a team’s season is meaningless right now and you’ll get a nod of the head. Tell the same thing to a senior athlete . . . and duck.

I have an especially tough daughter in Elena. And she’s had a remarkably successful life as a high school athlete. She helped the Spartan soccer team beat mighty Collierville last fall for the first time in almost a decade and earned All-Metro recognition at season’s end. She helped the Spartan softball team earn a berth in the state sectionals for the first time in the history of the program as a freshman pitcher in 2017. She’s compiled more happy memories on a soccer field and softball diamond than the vast majority of Team Species. But she doesn’t get to say goodbye, not to softball and, more importantly, not to her teammates, not the way athletes are supposed to say goodbye.

I’ve cried in a uniform twice in my life. The first happened when I was called off the floor for my last high school basketball game. Our team was dreadful that season; it needed to end for the sake of the program’s supporters. But it was the end for me in high tops. And it hurt. Happened again after my last baseball game, this time the end of a very good season, in a state championship that we lost. I remember those moments as vividly as most others in my 51 years . . . and the others are almost entirely happy. When you connect your saddest day as a baseball player with, say, the arrival of a baby girl . . . well, the moment matters. For the Class of ’20, that moment has been cruelly, if naturally, extinguished.

Elena knows a pandemic. No one under the age of 107 can say they knew one before COVID-19. (I’m giving that 107-year-old a very strong memory of the 1918 Spanish Flu. She would have been a perceptive 5-year-old.) Elena and her teammates have not been griping or whining about the games they’ve missed. They’ve been itching to suit up, to grab the bats and a bucket of softballs. But they’ve learned that fighting a pandemic is, yes, a team sport. Haven’t we all? And the grieving she does over the loss of her final season will pass in the stages we’ve long associated with the process.

My favorite picture of Elena in a softball uniform captures her during the Spartans’ sectional playoff game at Brighton. It’s from behind home plate, just as she’s delivering a pitch to a Cardinal batter. Her face is contorted in a ferocity I haven’t seen in many others, all of them considerably older than Elena was then (14!). She was focused beyond her years as a pitcher, beyond her time as a human being. And it will be that focus — that channeled ferocity — that will keep her strong in the face of future challenges. Because they’ll come.

Don’t be surprised if it’s a member of the Class of 2020 who someday brightens your day beyond expectations. They’ll live with a perspective on unexpected loss distinct to their generation. And they’ll relish victories — large or small — in ways the rest of Team Species must learn on our own.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Sportswriter's "Holiday"

Posted By on Mon, Apr 13, 2020 at 8:25 AM

We sportswriters toil in journalism's toy department. We're about the last category of professionals you should ache for during a pandemic (just above professional athletes). That said, we have seen our subject matter essentially erased by the novel coronavirus. It's been a month now since there was a meaningful score to check, performance to measure, or matchup to forecast. The sports tree has indeed fallen in the woods where there's no one to hear it. And the sound has been deafening silence.

We carry on, of course. You have methods for making a day distinctive during the pandemic, and I have mine. I'll share a few ways I've brightened my days in sports "solitary."

• Revisit Memphis sports history. Memphis magazine turns 44 this month, so I've been counting down the 44 greatest local athletes since 1976, one celebrated each day on my Twitter account. The list began with Albert Pujols (heard of him?), and has included Don Parsons (hockey in the Mid-South!), with the likes of Bo Jackson (#33), and new Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce (#20) in the mix. You can learn about number 16 in the countdown Monday and follow along the next two weeks if you want to join the debate over numero uno. (There will be a debate. It's one hell of a list.)
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• Pick up my reading game.
I've revisited some classic fiction (The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men) and enjoyed Mick Wall's voluminous biography of Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth). And I've turned to one of the few baseball legends I know nothing about: Oscar Charleston. By every measure a member of the Negro Leagues Rushmore (along with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell), Charleston was called "the greatest player I've seen" by the late Buck O'Neil, a man who saw a lot of great baseball players, both before and after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Aside from the smiling faces of my colleagues, I miss nothing like I miss baseball, and author Jeremy Beer has delivered a treasure to fill the hours between vintage games on the MLB Network.

• Watch my table tennis ranking plummet. I've spent the better part of 21 years as a father watching my daughters on soccer fields and softball diamonds. With both of them home more than they've been since elementary school, I'm now watching them close the gap between their ping-pong skills and my ping-pong experience. It's funny what happens to people accustomed to venting competitive energy as a member of a team — or even by watching a team of choice compete on TV — when the outlet is denied. After one dispiriting rally — for me — my sweet Sofia smiled and said, "Nothing but net, Dad." Yes indeed: ping-pong trash talk.

• Find other toys. Peaky Blinders is extraordinary television. Checks so many boxes on the sports-starved testosterone scale: rivalry, ambition, leadership, major upsets, huge victories, and whiskey . . . lots of Irish whiskey. Tommy Shelby is the Mike Trout of 1920s Birmingham, England.

And Led Zeppelin. Lots of the greatest band mankind has produced. I've come to consider "How Many More Times" the theme song of this long, painful battle (and recovery). It's a long song, changes rhythm multiple times, calms down and heats up. But it takes you to the right place(s). Bursting with energy, with life, with a form of determination. I'm likely listening to it as you finish this column. Find your own lockdown tune, and crank it up, loud enough for the neighbors. And I recommend Zeppelin. Robert Plant can safely close six feet more powerfully than any other man to walk the planet.

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Your 2020(?) Memphis Redbirds

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2020 at 10:22 AM

If the Memphis Redbirds play a 2020 season (granted, a tremendous if these days), it's bound to be successful. Sure to have moments we'll remember a generation from now. And almost certain to culminate with a playoff appearance. Why such optimism in such uncertain times? Well, the history books don't lie. And Memphis baseball loves the start of a new decade. Check this out:

Dylan Carlson - TAKA YANAGIMOTO/ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  • Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
  • Dylan Carlson
• In 1970, the Double-A Memphis Blues (a New York Mets farm team) finished only two games over .500 (69-67) but won the Texas League's Eastern Division.

• In 1980, thanks largely to the pitching of Charlie Lea (9-0, 0.84 ERA), the Double-A Memphis Chicks (Montreal Expos) went 83-61 and won the Southern League's Western Division.

• In 1990, despite going only 73-71 in the regular season, the Chicks (then the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals) burst to life in the playoffs and won the Southern League championship.

• In 2000, sparked by a back-flipping second-baseman named Stubby Clapp and an epic walk-off home run by Albert Pujols, the Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) won the Pacific Coast League championship in AutoZone Park's inaugural season.

• In 2010, Lance Lynn won 13 games and led the PCL with 141 strikeouts, enough to fuel another division title for the Redbirds. (Memphis lost to Tacoma in the league championship series.)

Five straight decades of Memphis baseball with a playoff season to get things started. And there's every reason to believe a 2020 Redbirds club would be armed with the tools to make it six in a row.

Outfielder Dylan Carlson earned Texas League Player of the Year honors last season with Double-A Springfield, where he posted an .882 OPS and slugged 21 home runs before a late-season promotion to Memphis. He's the Cardinals' highest-ranked hitting prospect (10th on the Baseball America chart) since the late Oscar Taveras, the last Cardinal farmhand to win POY in the Texas League (in 2012). Based on his stellar play in spring training, the 21-year-old Carlson may end up in the Cardinals' outfield. Should he appear at AutoZone Park, he will be the Redbirds' ringleader.

Even minus Carlson, though, Redbirds manager Ben Johnson should have some thunderous lumber at his disposal. Third-baseman Elehuris Montero (like Carlson, 21 years old) endured an injury-riddled 2019 season, but drove in 82 runs and hit .315 with Class-A Palm Beach and Peoria two years ago. If he mans the hot corner for Memphis, he'll have to hold off another Baseball America favorite, Nolan Gorman. Playing as a teenager in Class-A last year, Gorman posted a .765 OPS and hit 15 homers. He'd all but certainly start the season no higher than Springfield, but Gorman could find some at-bats in a playoff push come August. Catcher Andrew Knizner hit .276 with 12 homers in 66 games for Memphis last season and should be a middle-of-the-order presence for the Redbirds unless he's called up for reserve duty in St. Louis. (The ageless Yadier Molina will be the Cardinals' Opening Day catcher for the 16th season in a row.)

It's the pitching mound where the 2020 Redbirds could separate themselves from the rest of the PCL. Lefty Genesis Cabrera (23) was dominant at times last season, once striking out nine straight batters in a game at AutoZone Park. Zack Thompson (22) — a 2019 first-round draft pick, another southpaw — will be in the mix for a rotation spot, as will yet another lefty, Matthew Liberatore (20), Baseball America's 42nd-ranked prospect who came to St. Louis in the deal that sent Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay in January. Jake Woodford (23) started in last season's Triple-A All-Star Game and again hopes for a top-of-the-rotation role with the Redbirds.

Needless to say, this is roster speculation in its purest form. Here's hoping Memphis does get professional baseball in 2020. Whenever the new decade does arrive at AutoZone Park, it will feel special in ways we never fully appreciated before.

The Memphis Redbirds' opening game — originally scheduled for April 9th — has been postponed indefinitely during the coronavirus shutdown.

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Friday, March 20, 2020

Our Pivot Point

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2020 at 9:42 AM

World-changing events are rare, to say the least. But when we experience them — when we live them — the world-changing nature of the event is overwhelming. I count four of these events over my 51 years, "game changers" that took place before the current pandemic that has, indeed, altered our world. I've found myself measuring what's to come by, in part, reflecting on how mankind reacted to the other pivot points of my lifetime.
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I barely arrived in time for the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 20, 1969). But I grew up in a world — on a planet — that was merely part of something larger, and reachable by mankind. My parents shared children's books about astronauts. The text books I read included Neil Armstrong among history's most famous Americans. When the first Space Shuttle took flight (in 1981), the news entered my young mind, but didn't force me to pause from that afternoon's baseball practice. Humans fly in outer space. It's what we do. When the Challenger exploded (in 1986), it sure as hell made me pause. Because the "custom" of space flight is never easy, never entirely safe, no matter how normal it might feel.

Watergate changed everything between American government and the media, and thus it changed the way the world interpreted the U.S. mission, the grand experiment of democracy (in the form of a republic). I learned about U.S. presidents with Richard Nixon's resignation as the floor for standards. Eight presidents had died in office (four of them assassinated), but only Nixon's forced departure exposed our country's highest office to be one in which misbehavior would be held accountable. The Oval Office is no throne and a president's decisions — to say nothing of his or her actions — must adhere to the larger mission of this country . . . or things fracture. Witness the current presidency.

I was a junior in college when the Berlin Wall crumbled, the literal destruction starting in the fall of 1989. I've always credited West Germany as much as Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev for the fall of communism. The allure of choices, freedom, even luxury are too strong in the human psyche for a communist state to survive. Russia and China today are fascist states using a communist playbook. Communism is as dead as Norma Bates.

The fourth pivot point in my lifetime was the concerted terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States — the idea, as much as the geographic region — became a target, and one susceptible to large-scale violence. No trenches to dig, no conventional bombs necessary. Those determined to kill in the name of a higher calling (however defined) live among us. Air travel will never feel as comfortable as it did on September 10, 2001. And "making the world safe against terrorism" has become somewhat of an oxymoron.

Which brings us to 2020, a year that may be remembered for other happenings, but will be known for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the pandemic that brought the concept of human extinction way too close to our front doorstep. Surely we'll find a way to prevail as a species, but how significantly will our "herd" be thinned? How will "normal" be defined if we return to a version, any version? The most human act of compassion — a hug — may now be considered . . . dangerous? It's too much to consider, at least now with social distancing part of our world's cure.

We are living a pivot point, the fifth of my lifetime. We'll remember it, however many days we have left. Be smart, be safe. Be both patient and determined. Most importantly, empathize. When the world changes, we all change together.

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Friday, March 13, 2020

The Games Will Return

Posted By on Fri, Mar 13, 2020 at 9:58 AM

My freshman year in high school, a meningitis scare consumed my little hometown of Northfield, Vermont. Two students had contracted bacterial meningitis — scarier, deadlier than the viral strain — and the entire student body gathered in the gym one morning for vaccination shots. No chances would be taken.
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This happened in late winter and it cost our basketball team a chance to play in the state tournament, one they'd qualified for over a 20-game regular season. This didn't impact me directly, as I was a jayvee player at the time. But when the ban — of our team, and only our team — was announced, we freshmen saw seniors cry. That's not something in the playbook for high school sports. For those seniors — Northfield High School, Class of '84 — basketball was over. And not with a season-ending loss, but the casualty of a health crisis.

My empathy gene has been in overdrive, of course, as mankind reacts and attempts to manage the pandemic we'll remember as coronavirus, COVID-19. And it's been especially triggered by what amounts to a cancellation of sporting life in America. We are social creatures, we humans. We thrive on community, on being part of something shared. No endeavor delivers this better than sports, whether you are making a tee time with three of your best pals, cheering your daughter on a softball field, or screaming at your television as your March Madness bracket catches fire with another unforeseen upset. Millions upon millions of moments — the NCAA tournament has always shortchanged itself with "One Shining Moment" — have been lost to this health crisis, the number growing with every day of dark arenas and empty stadiums.

Thousands of college seniors will not play their final baseball game, won't have a Senior Day for one last picture with their proud parents and siblings. My own daughter — a high school senior — wonders if she'll throw another pitch for her softball team. These are moments — slices of time, really — that cannot be replicated later, "down the road" as we like to say. I remember my senior year of both high school and college in much the way I remember my wedding day and the births of my children. Singular. Profound. Both beginning and end as one.

Professional sports will return. They are businesses with a sound revenue model. The NBA Finals will be played again. Leagues, both professional and amateur, have made the right decision in shutting things down until humanity regains the advantage over COVID-19. We've been reminded — by the broadest collective fear of my lifetime — that the human race is not impervious to a natural enemy, particularly a kind that can't be seen, heard, or felt. When will this global scare subside? When can players return to the games they play? That is the scariest component of it all, because no one knows.

I've been asked — on talk radio and by my children — how best to handle the current horror story we're living. The best tip I humbly offer: stay away from anger. Amid all the negative emotions we suffer, anger is the least productive. Manage sorrow the best you can. Empathize for those who have lost moments they'd long anticipated (like all those senior athletes). But don't let anger tighten your breath or cloud your gathering of information that will help us find normal again.

The games will return. And we'll appreciate them more than we did before COVID-19 entered the room. Because we'll recognize they're not a given. Sports are a luxury, maybe the most valuable luxury we know. What I'd give for the "heartbreak" of seeing my daughter's softball team lose a big game. It's just a game? Sure. It also happens to be life as we know it. Or at least life as we remember it. 

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Monday, March 2, 2020

Larry Finch Lives

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2020 at 10:23 AM

Larry Finch played his last game for the Memphis State Tigers 22 days after my fourth birthday. But if you looked at the current issue of Memphis magazine — and you can get over the Lester Quinones amount of leg players showed in 1973 — you'd swear the Tiger legend is alive, well, and ready for one more NCAA tournament run.
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Among the joys of being a sportswriter is the rare feeling that I am in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. (No, this is not the Alcorn State game at FedExForum on a Tuesday night in November.) Most recently, when the University of Memphis football team won its conference championship and clinched a berth in the Cotton Bowl, the Liberty Bowl felt like earthbound heaven, at least for that moment, that night of fireworks and confetti, December 7, 2019. So many Memphians, so happy, and together, as one. This was Memphis Tiger football. The Cotton f'n Bowl!

This brand of euphoria doesn't always require fireworks or confetti. It crept up and hugged me rather tightly over the course of several recent weeks in my day job as managing editor for Memphis magazine (the Flyer's sister monthly). It began with a business meeting at Spark Printing last December, in which a colleague and I were introduced to a machine called the Jetvarnish 3DS. The size of a computer from 1975 (smallish for the kind of press a magazine typically requires), this printer can apply foil and varnish — separately — to previously printed material. Like the cover of a magazine.

A few weeks earlier, I'd received a press release from the Pink Palace notifying the world that a special exhibit on Memphis Tiger basketball would open in March, one curated to celebrate the culture and impact of this city's first true home team. It didn't take long, upon meeting the good folks at Spark, for the staff at Memphis to realize, yes, a spark of inspiration. How might we help celebrate Tiger basketball culture with the new — literally shiny — technology available with that magic printer?

The question then became who might help celebrate Tiger basketball culture, and the answer was as swift as a Derrick Rose crossover, as resounding as a Keith Lee two-handed dunk. If we could find the right picture of Larry Finch in his prime, we had the chance to honor and salute the greatest Tiger of them all while bringing him to life in ways no print media ever had before.

You can now see — and importantly, feel — the result. And it took a village. The University of Memphis athletic department had the iconic image, back when media photos were the norm, before pregame videos became a team's identifier. Printing the cover required more than Spark alone could provide. Toof Commercial Printing and LSC Communications took the floor in our multi-stage process, one that required well over 24 hours to complete.

Snags? Heck yeah, there were snags. Thankfully, all relatively minor. (I chose to ignore my dentist on a recent visit when he asked if I'd been grinding my teeth more than usual.) Printing to the standards of Memphis magazine is still as much art as science. Applying ink to paper — to say nothing of applying foil or varnish — can be precise, but it's not a given, ever. Professionals, though, make this magic happen. They collaborate toward a reward that allows you to feel the fingers of Larry Finch's left hand, to see the name "Memphis" shine as brightly as Finch himself did the night he scored 48 points in a single game.

I've missed Larry Finch since he died in 2011. The city of Memphis has missed his presence. An anonymous American once said of Franklin Roosevelt, upon the president's death in 1945, "I didn't know FDR, but he knew me." Finch occupies that place in my heart, and in the hearts of countless other Memphians. I'm grateful to have played a role in bringing him to life on the cover of our March magazine. Stories — those we tell, and those told about us — are the closest any of us will come to immortality. By that measure, Larry Finch is indeed alive and well, among us even. Let him shine.

Memphis magazine can be found at Novel (387 Perkins Extd.). To subscribe, call 575-9470 or visit memphismagazine.com.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Mr. Commissioner

Posted By on Mon, Feb 24, 2020 at 9:19 AM

If Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has his way, playoff teams will soon be able to select their opponent (among wild-card teams) as they compete for "the piece of metal" awarded to the club victorious in the World Series. Oh, and that Astros scandal? Look the other way. Ignore those guys behind the curtain, slamming trash cans.

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's wishes are granted, teams in his sport — designed to injure, even to cause brain damage — will soon play more games, both in the regular season and playoffs. But hey, kickoffs may be eliminated. So all you football parents out there, worry not.

These men don't have the best interests of their games in mind. They are serving their bosses — MLB and NFL owners — and taking steps, in their minds, toward more profitable business. And don't confuse profitable with popular. The idea of a team that finishes last in its NFL division playing in the Super Bowl is not popular. Anywhere.

There are ways to improve both sports. (Football is not going away, so I'll refrain from "Eliminate the NFL" as one measure.) Here are three steps that could be taken for each enterprise, with the interests of fans in mind. Imagine that.
Rob Manfred
  • Rob Manfred

MLB

• Every Tuesday in July and August will be Family Night at MLB stadiums. There will be no ticket sold for more than $10 and no concession item will exceed $5. The idea of forking over $30 per ticket for a family of four to sit in the outfield's upper deck during "the dog days" of baseball's season is abhorrent. I'm merely proposing four or five of these discount nights per team. If it means the next superstar must sign a contract for only $200 million, so be it.
• The time has come for the designated hitter in the National League. My eyes well to consider this, even more so to write it, but modern attention spans don't allow for the creative batting order that features a pitcher. And I'll take this a radical next step: The DH should be allowed to bat in the ninth inning, regardless of whether his spot is due up. That's right: a "pinch-hitter" in a team's starting lineup. You like hitting, ye casual fan, we'll create more hitting.
• If you haven't read about National Baseball Day, welcome first-time reader. A midweek holiday to coincide with Game 1 of the World Series, with the first pitch at 3 p.m. Eastern. Imagine the entire country with the chance to share in the experience of a baseball game. And if the sport's not for you, enjoy your day off. It's the national pastime.

NFL
• Only two preseason "games" with tickets no higher than $10, and kids free. As things stand now, the NFL sells a fraudulent product every August, uniformed tryouts in which a small percentage of players who will actually compete for the Lombardi Trophy take the field. (But get this: Those in uniform still get injured!) Goodell's plan actually reduces the preseason schedule from four games to three . . . but only by adding a 17th regular-season game. (If we're gonna have players tear a knee in late-summer, by god, it's gonna be a starter!)
• Here's a radical change (be seated): Reduce the number of players a team can field from 11 to 10. The average weight of an offensive lineman today is over 310 pounds, 100 pounds larger than a blocker when the NFL began play a century ago. Human beings have outgrown the dimensions of the game. Reduce the number of players on the field and you'll see a shift in priority toward speed, with less emphasis on size. This won't eliminate catastrophic injury in the sport, but mark it down for a reduction.
• Reduce the number of divisions from eight to four (making a division title meaningful again). And eight teams make the playoffs (not twelve). Upsets don't happen in the NFL postseason. The vast majority of Super Bowl teams receive a bye in the first round for having posted one of the two best conference records. In our new system, all playoff teams will enjoy a bye week, to heal and recover. Seven playoff games instead of eleven will — get this — reduce injuries for players already damaged after four months of playing while still producing a legitimate champion. For the NFL also has a "piece of metal" to award.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Memphis and The NCAA Tourney: Destination Dance?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 10, 2020 at 9:32 AM

"Right now, it's tough. But it's not impossible." — Penny Hardaway

Go ahead and cry a river for Penny Hardaway and his Memphis Tigers. A Top-10 team the first week in January, the Tigers now find themselves in the home stretch of the 2019-20 season without James Wiseman, without D.J. Jeffries, and without a spot even in the Top 25. They sport a still-solid record (17-6), but are considered a "bubble team," at best, among prognosticators drawing up brackets for the 68-team NCAA tournament. With four of their next six games on the road (starting Thursday in Cincinnati), the Tigers must run a gauntlet of villains to reach the promised land for the first time since 2014. How do they do it? Here are four factors to watch.

• Find a floor general. Quickly: Who is the Tigers' point guard? The ambiguity in your answer, I'm convinced, is related to this team ranking dead last among American Athletic Conference teams in turnover margin and next-to-last in assist-to-turnover ratio. The irony is that the team has four players seemingly capable of seizing the ball when a game grows frenzied: Alex Lomax, Damion Baugh, Boogie Ellis, and Tyler Harris. So why so many sloppy turnovers, so many of the unforced variety that make Hardaway cringe like he's discovered a dog dropping on his welcome mat? (Malcolm Dandridge, let's agree, should not be handling the ball near midcourt, let alone passing it.) The four potential generals are still learning their games still. (Yes, a college sophomore — like Lomax and Harris — is still a young player.) For this team to reach the Big Dance with any chance of advancing, it must know who will handle the ball in crunch time. Point-guard committees don't cut down nets.
Precious Achiuwa - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Precious Achiuwa

• Make Precious moments.
Lots of them. The damaging loss to USF last Saturday may not have happened had Precious Achiuwa not been sitting on the bench for 12 minutes of the first half, saddled with two fouls. Achiuwa is one of the top two or three freshmen in the country and a finalist for the Julius Erving Award (given to the nation's top small forward). He's been a double-double machine this season (12 of them so far) despite not being a volume shooter. (Achiuwa has taken no more than 10 shots in five of the Tigers' last six games.) Particularly with Jeffries sidelined, the Tiger offense needs to find Achiuwa, if not run through him as the season winds down. He can score in traffic, from mid-range, and even connect from three-point country. Memphis may still be in search of a true point guard, but the team's star has been here all along. And he needs to learn to play with foul trouble. Don't let this season end without maximizing Achiuwa's impact.

• Be angry at tip-off. The Tigers don't start fast. They really haven't in two seasons under Hardaway. A lead at the first media timeout (four minutes into a game) is as rare as a Louisville t-shirt at FedExForum. Particularly on the road, this has to change. Temple coach Aaron McKie said last week that his first priority in game-planning for Memphis was to take the crowd out of the game. The Owls indeed scored the game's first six points and led (8-7) at the first media timeout. They just aren't built to last with a team as talented as the current Tigers. Hardaway must instill in his team the importance of not climbing Comeback Mountain before halftime. Perhaps this means slowing the pace of play immediately after tip-off. Perhaps it means getting to the foul line. Crowds at Cincinnati, Connecticut, SMU, and Tulane are ready to chew this "overrated" team up if they start slowly.

• Set a Cougar trap. TheTigers' best chance to regain support for an NCAA tournament berth would be to sweep Houston. Memphis will host the Cougars on February 22nd (one of two home games in the upcoming six-game stretch) then play in Texas in the regular-season finale on March 8th. Houston is the only AAC team currently ranked and just destroyed a team (Wichita State) that has been ranked (and handled Memphis). The Tigers must establish themselves among the top two or three teams in their league. Winning these two cat fights would accomplish that.

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Monday, February 3, 2020

Kobe Mattered

Posted By on Mon, Feb 3, 2020 at 10:57 AM

Like much of the world, I was shaken by Kobe Bryant's death on January 26th. I was on the road to Atlanta to help my daughter catch a flight for a semester abroad when I learned the basketball legend — can legends be so young? — perished in that helicopter crash with eight others, including his own 13-year-old daughter. In the days since, I've found some lessons Kobe left us. I'll share eight of them (in respect to one of his Los Angeles Laker uniform numbers) as I continue to process the tragedy.
NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
  • NBAE/Getty Images

• Ego can be good.
Bryant was outspoken about his desire to have a better NBA career than Michael Jordan's when he was 18 years old. (Jordan still had two championships to win with the Chicago Bulls.) In a sport flooded with ego, Bryant's was outsized, but it became his fuel. He gave himself a nickname (Black Mamba) and it may be the best in basketball history, this side of Doctor J. And by the time his NBA career was complete, Bryant's combination of supreme talent and competitive fire was of a kind that can be compared with only one other player: Jordan.

• Your number is you (not the other way around). I initially found it absurd that the Lakers retired two jersey numbers in honor of Bryant. Then I looked closer. The points Bryant scored wearing numbers 8 and 24 would rank fifth and sixth, respectively, on the Lakers' career scoring chart. (Behind jerseys worn by Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, and Magic Johnson.) Bryant decided to make a mid-career statement with his number change and added two championships to the three he'd won wearing the first number. Two numbers, one heart.

• It's the recovery that counts. Whatever happened in that Colorado lodge in the summer of 2003, it wasn't good for the Bryant brand. Rape charges were eventually dropped, and a civil suit settled. The superstar lost a lot of fans that summer, and it's up to an individual to decide if sexual assault can be forgiven. The fact that Bryant's wife, Vanessa, stuck with him, that they had three more children, that Bryant was clearly active in his four daughters' lives . . . these are indications of a man's growth. The ugliest of mistakes can be overcome.

• Daughters make a man. Kobe Bryant was a different man the day he died from the man who first became a father — to a baby girl — in 2003. I have two daughters myself, and I know this transformation. Bryant discovered a form of beauty, grace, and most importantly, strength, he didn't know before his daughters arrived. May the hashtag #girldad live on.

• Stay curious. Already fluent in Italian and Spanish, Bryant learned just enough Slovenian to properly trash talk young Dallas star Luka Doncic from a front-row seat at a recent Lakers-Mavericks game. That competitive fire again. Doncic speaks English. Conventional barbs would have sufficed. But Bryant wanted to be distinctive. He wanted to be heard. He wanted to be understood.

• Respect goes both ways. Bryant's Lakers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the last game Kobe played at FedExForum (on February 24, 2016). With the outcome decided and less than five minutes to play, Bryant entered the game . . . strictly to salute a fan base that didn't even exist when his career began in 1996. The man who holds the single-game scoring record in that arena (60 points in 2007) made thousands of friends for life that night.

• Don't be satisfied. Bryant won an Oscar, for crying out loud. He was the first African American to take home the prize for Animated Short Film (Dear Basketball in 2018). Kobe Inc. may well impact the world after the passing of its founder and namesake. Perhaps the saddest part of Bryant's death is the fact that it came not at the end of a life stage, but at the very beginning of one.

• Today matters. This is the most obvious and important lesson, of course. Gianna Bryant should be making plans for high school, helping her younger sisters find their own distinctive paths. Spend every day with someone you love. If you can't be in the same room with them, connect. You won't even need to say, "I love you." They'll know. And that's enough.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ja's World

Posted By on Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 9:59 AM

You could win an NBA championship without a superstar in uniform, but it's not the recommended approach. Over the last 40 years — since the dawn of the Magic/Bird Era — exactly one team has raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy without a certifiable, Grade-A superstar on the roster. (Definition: a player who has earned first-team All-NBA honors at least twice.) Ironically, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat a team in the NBA Finals — the L.A. Lakers — that featured four such players in its starting lineup.
Ja Morant - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Ja Morant

The Memphis Grizzlies will not win the NBA championship this year. But 43 games into the Ja Morant Era, an NBA title seems less of a stretch than it has since the 2013 Western Conference finals (a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs). The 20-year-old Morant is well on his way to Rookie of the Year recognition, but his ceiling for stardom goes beyond the numbers he's posted to date (17.9 points and 7.0 assists per game). There's an eye test for basketball superstardom. Whether it's Morant schooling a former MVP (James Harden), dunking with the nearest defender crotch-level, or draining three-pointers with a Curry-esque stroke, the 20-year-old guard has Memphis in playoff contention at least a year ahead of schedule.

Morant averaged 19.3 points over the Grizzlies' recent seven-game winning streak. But then on Martin Luther King Day he seemed to disappear in a loss to New Orleans. The stat sheet says he had 16 points and nine assists, a fine night for mortal NBA guards. But the Griz were down 19 by halftime. That's the catch (for now) with Morant: superstars don't disappear against the Pelicans on national TV.

It's outlandish to discuss Morant among first-team All-NBA candidates, right? With Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and another wunderkind — Dallas's Luka Doncic — in the mix, such an honor will come hard-earned. But in 2021? Perhaps 2022? In the 25 years since the Grizzlies debuted in Vancouver, only one player has earned first-team honors, and Marc Gasol did so only once (2015). A half-season is but a blip in the NBA career of a superstar, but Ja Morant appears to be fitting himself for a cape.

• A suggestion for the NBA's schedule-makers: Why not find a way for the Atlanta Hawks to visit Memphis for the Martin Luther King Day game in the near future? It would seem to add extra meaning to an already powerful event on the NBA calendar. The Grizzlies have hosted New Orleans the last two years and four of the last seven. Bring some variety to the game. Inviting the team that represents Dr. King's hometown would be a poignant start.

• Look for Isaac Bruce to finally be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the modern-era class is announced on February 1st. The former Memphis Tiger is a finalist for the fourth time (no more than five modern-era finalists are inducted each year). A member of the inaugural class of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, Bruce ranks fifth in NFL history with 15,208 receiving yards. The four men ahead of him are either already in the Hall of Fame (Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss) or still active (Larry Fitzgerald).

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Our Titans!(?)

Posted By on Tue, Jan 14, 2020 at 12:54 PM

Here we go, Titans, here we go! Right? Well … not so fast.

An NFL team representing Tennessee — the state in which Memphis has long lived — is one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. So naturally, those of us in the Bluff City will find a Derrick Henry jersey or at least some shade of blue when the Titans face the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday for the AFC championship. Or will we? The Titans call Nashville home, of course, however they choose to present "Tennessee" on team merchandise. Nashville and Memphis share a home in much the same way Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier once (actually three times) shared a boxing ring. So might red be the color of choice this Sunday, support leaning toward a team — the Kansas City Chiefs — a half-century removed from its last Super Bowl appearance?
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Herewith, a case for Memphians to root against the Titans this weekend … and a case for full support of "Tennessee's team."

Titans down!
If you're old enough to remember the 1997 Tennessee Oilers, you're as likely to wear a Patrick Mahomes jersey this weekend and pull for the Chiefs as you are to don Titans gear. Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams departed Texas for Tennessee after the 1996 season when taxpayers wouldn't fund a new stadium for the franchise he founded in 1960, longtime tenants of the Astrodome. Trouble was, it would take a couple of years for Nashville to build that swanky new coliseum. So Adams convinced Memphis mayor Willie Herenton (among others) to let his team play two seasons in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis would pay for dinner but let someone else take its date home.

Those ’97 Oilers went 8-8 and featured a pair of rising stars in quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George. But Memphis saw through the artificial wooing of Adams and didn't even take a seat for that dinner. Tennessee drew the smallest crowds in the NFL that season, selling an average of 28,028 tickets for its eight home games. (The next-lowest total was the Atlanta Falcons: 46,928.) The most popular sports brand in America got a collective "who gives a s*^t" from Memphis. If "Tennessee's team" wasn't ours playing at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, you think they're our team today? This is Cowboys country, Saints country. Hell, this is Falcons and Steelers country before Titans territory. The most famous player in Titans franchise history is Earl Campbell, and he never carried a football in the state of Tennessee.

Titan up!
An informal survey of Memphians among my Twitter community yielded a lot of support for the Titans ("they're not the Nashville Titans"), with skeptics interrupting (often with a mention of Adams, who died in 2013). There's something to be said for regional support of a pro franchise. Six states claim the New England Patriots as their own, and those are merely the geographically connected. (Wouldn't matter if they were the "Boston Patriots." Maine loves the Red Sox. Vermont adores the Bruins.) The fact is, the Titans are the closest NFL team to Memphis (and this would be the case were we on the west side of the Mississippi River and called Arkansas home). Someone can wake up in Midtown on a Sunday morning, be seated for a noon kickoff in Nissan Stadium, and be home in time for 60 Minutes. (Yes, this person would need radar protection, but it could be done.)

The Titans have never won the Super Bowl. They are one of eight franchises that have played since the dawn of the Super Bowl era (1966) without winning a championship. These are underdogs, and what's more Memphis than that? The team's logo features the three stars representing each region of the Volunteer State, and symbolism matters, especially in sports. Finally, we need a team to pull for on Super Sunday. The nachos taste better, the commercials are funnier, and the halftime show goes by quicker. I'll leave the final word to one of my Twitter pals, a man who understands the NFL landscape in 2020 better than most. Says Chuck Rogers (@ourpoppy), "Any team that beats the Patriots is worthy of my support."

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Thursday, January 2, 2020

Frank's Faves (Part II)

Posted By on Thu, Jan 2, 2020 at 10:21 AM

The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2019.

5) Tigers 47, Tulane 17 (October 19) — Some stars are born, some are raised, and some actually explode into the limelight. Kenneth Gainwell — merely a redshirt freshman — imposed himself on a helpless Green Wave defense in this battle of AAC West rivals (both 5-1 entering the contest). Gainwell became the first FBS player in 22 years to rush for 100 yards (104) and catch passes for 200 (203) in the same game. (He’s the first Tiger to top 100 in both categories.) It was the fifth straight game for the aptly named Gainwell with 100 yards rushing. With a nod to Gainwell (and zero turnovers), Tiger coach Mike Norvell acknowledged his team’s offensive performance as being close to perfect for one night.
Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

4) Redbirds 14, Iowa 2 (August 18) — Just like J.D. Drew (in 1998) and Oscar Taveras (in 2013), Dylan Carlson arrived in Memphis as a can’t-miss slugger, bound soon for the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield. I caught my first glimpse of the then 20-year-old prospect in a Sunday matinee at AutoZone Park. And he lived up to the hype, homering in the first inning and adding a triple in a blowout win over the first-place Iowa Cubs. Another prize outfielder in the Cardinal system — Harrison Bader — homered twice, suggesting a return to the groove that landed Bader the everyday centerfield job in St. Louis in 2018. The Redbirds completed a four-game sweep of the Cubs.

3) Tigers 102, Tulane 76 (February 20) — It’s hard to score 40 points (a point per minute) in a college basketball game. In almost a century of Tiger basketball entering the 2018-19 season, only seven players had achieved the feat, and none twice. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin pulled it off twice in the month of February. Less than three weeks after scoring 41 (in a single half) at USF, Martin dropped 43 on an overmatched Green Wave team at FedExForum. A player who averaged but 2.7 points as a freshman scored the most points by a Tiger since Larry Finch established the program record with 48 on January 20, 1973. (Martin’s 43 are the fourth-most in Tiger history.) Oh, and the pride of Mitchell High School also became just the 10th Tiger to dish out 400 career assists.

2) Tigers 54, SMU 48 (November 2) — ESPN’s College GameDay made Memphis the center of the college football universe for the first time, but that was merely a breakfast-and-beer party on Beale Street. The game that followed was, simply put, the biggest victory in Tiger football history. In front of a sellout crowd (59,506) at the Liberty Bowl and a prime-time national audience via ABC, the 24th-ranked Tigers upset the 15th-ranked SMU Mustangs to seize first place in the AAC’s West Division. Senior wideout Antonio Gibson scored touchdowns on a 50-yard pass reception, a 97-yard kickoff return (to open the second half), and a 78-yard run on his way to setting a new Memphis record with 386 all-purpose yards. This was as good as it’s ever been for Tiger football, and the entire country knew it.

1) AAC Championship: Tigers 29, Cincinnati 24 (December 7) — This was the third "biggest football game in Memphis history" in five weeks at the Liberty Bowl. And in what proved to be Mike Norvell's final game in an extraordinary four-year stretch as Memphis coach, the Tigers won in scintillating fashion. They fell behind four times. And they came back to take the lead four times, ultimately on a six-yard screen pass from Brady White to the game's MVP, Antonio Gibson. The 2019 Tigers were a team that wouldn't be denied. For their efforts, this lone victory checked off three "never before" boxes in the Tiger record book: 12 wins, a championship-game victory, and a berth in the prestigious Cotton Bowl.
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