Monday, July 15, 2019

The NBA's Supermen

Posted By on Mon, Jul 15, 2019 at 10:24 AM

Quentin Tarantino likes Superman. A lot. There's a scene in his 2004 film, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, in which Bill (played by David Carradine) explains to Beatrix (Uma Thurman) the singular trait that makes Superman superior to all other costumed heroes. As Bill tells it, Batman wakes up every morning as Bruce Wayne. Spider-Man eats his breakfast as Peter Parker. Only Superman starts his day as the hero he truly is, forced to "costume" himself as a mere mortal, one of us all-too-frail humans, Clark Kent.
Kawhi Leonard in his new Superman outfit.
  • Kawhi Leonard in his new Superman outfit.

It occurred to me earlier this month that Tarantino must love the NBA. That's because the greatest basketball league on the planet has become a collection of supermen, players who shape the costumes, er, uniforms they wear far more than the teams — represented by those uniforms — shape them. Kawhi Leonard may have won the 2019 NBA championship without the Toronto Raptors (and their jersey on his back). There is no way the Raptors win the 2019 NBA championship without Leonard. Kawhi Leonard, in NBA terms, is a superman. And NBA championships are the reserve, almost exclusively, of basketball supermen.

Think about the NFL and its resident dynasty. Aside from Tom Brady (granted, a Thor in shoulder pads), those who don the helmet of the New England Patriots are interchangeable, yet the franchise has won three Super Bowls this decade after winning three the previous. They are Batman, and it doesn't matter who's wearing the utility belt. And baseball? Name three players who played for all three San Francisco Giant championship teams this decade. (Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey are gimmes.) That franchise was a slick-fielding, pitching-strong Spider-Man. Check out Into the Spider-Verse if you think it matters who is wearing the web-shooters.

There was a time when NBA players became stars by making their team — one team, mind you — a dynasty. Think Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers, or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls (twice). Those days predate flip phones, for crying out loud. In today's NBA, the superstars — supermen – decide where (and for whom) they'd like to win a championship. LeBron James couldn't get it done in Cleveland, so he took off for Miami (two titles). Kevin Durant won an MVP in Oklahoma City that he sweetly dedicated to his mother. But Mom couldn't help win a championship, so off to Oakland flew Durant, where he won two titles with Steph Curry and the Warriors. Cast off by San Antonio, despite credentials as a Finals MVP, Leonard won the same hardware in what would prove to be his only season in a Raptors uniform. You see, Kawhi Leonard wakes up as Kawhi Leonard ... every day.

At the end of each season, 15 players earn All-NBA recognition (five first-team, five second-team, and five third-team). No fewer than six of those players in 2019 changed teams earlier this month. Leonard is now an L.A. Clipper, along with former Thunder forward Paul George. Durant has taken his torn Achilles tendon to Brooklyn, where he'll join Kyrie Irving, making the Nets early (very early) favorites to win the Eastern Conference title in 2021. Kemba Walker departed Charlotte to replace Irving in Boston. And talk about Superman: Russell Westbrook — a man who has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons — has joined forces with 2018 MVP James Harden in Houston. We might as well add new Laker Anthony Davis — not All-NBA this year, but three times a first-teamer — to this collection of supermen changing the color of their capes.

Is this Superman effect good for the NBA? That's in the eye of the beholder. An informal poll of my Twitter pals suggested a Grizzlies championship with a one-and-gone superstar (like Leonard in Toronto) is significantly preferable to a team of merely very good teammates leading a lengthy run of playoff appearances without a title. Basketball has become a player's league to the point that the jerseys they wear are merely incidental. Don't be offended if you see Clipper jerseys in FedExForum when L.A.'s "other team" visits next winter. No, those are Kawhi Leonard jerseys

Perhaps Ja Morant will become an NBA superman. Maybe Jaren Jackson Jr. can leap a building in a single bound. When or if they bring a championship to Memphis, the color of their jersey will matter to those of us who call the Grizzlies our team. They alone know what it's like to wake up every day as Ja Morant and Triple-J. Until they bring that parade to Beale Street, though, consider them Clark Kents, blending — however uncomfortably — among the rest of professional basketball's mortal talents.

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Monday, July 8, 2019

The Memphis Redbirds: Shooting Stars

Posted By on Mon, Jul 8, 2019 at 9:02 AM

Jake Woodford is rising. The 22-year-old Memphis Redbirds pitcher will pull off a rare trifecta when he takes the mound for the Pacific Coast League in Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso. It will be Woodford's third All-Star Game in four seasons, across all three primary levels of minor-league baseball. Woodford first earned All-Star recognition with the Class-A Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League) in 2016. He represented Double-A Springfield in last year's Texas League All-Star Game.
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Jake Woodford

Woodford is the second Memphis pitcher in as many years to start for the PCL in the Triple-A extravaganza, following Dakota Hudson (who went on to be named the 2018 PCL Pitcher of the Year). Considering Hudson can now be found in the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation, it's not a leap of imagination to see Woodford soon starting a game or two at Busch Stadium.

• The Redbirds have had no fewer than six pitchers start the Triple-A All-Star Game, but the honor seems to bring mixed blessings. Dan Haren started the 2004 game and went on to a fine big-league career, earning 153 wins for eight teams over 13 seasons. As for Larry Luebbers (1999), Bud Smith (2001), and Chris Gissell (2005) . . . not so much. Smith tossed a no-hitter for the Cardinals a few short weeks after his Triple-A All-Star appearance, but threw his last major-league pitch in 2002, still shy of his 23rd birthday.

• If the minor leagues are about developing big-league stars, the Memphis Redbirds have met the mission, and then some. With Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong — a Redbird for 48 games in 2017 — playing in this year's All-Star Game, a former Memphis player has appeared in every Midsummer Classic since 2003. The most All-Star appearances by a former Redbird? Albert Pujols has been honored ten times and Yadier Molina nine. J.D. Drew — a Redbird in 1998 and ’99 — earned MVP honors at the 2008 event (as a member of the Boston Red Sox).

• I'm asked periodically about my "all-time Redbirds team." Now with more than two decades in the books, such an all-star team actually carries some weight. Here's my starting nine (based solely on players' performances with Memphis):

FIRST BASE: John Gall (2003-06)
SECOND BASE: Stubby Clapp (1999-2002)
THIRD BASE: Patrick Wisdom (2016-18)
SHORTSTOP: Wilfredo Tovar (2017-18)
LEFTFIELD: Allen Craig (2009-10)
CENTERFIELD: Adron Chambers (2010-13)
RIGHTFIELD: Nick Stavinoha (2007-11)
CATCHER: Bryan Anderson (2008-12)
PITCHER: P.J. Walters (2008-11)

• Some All-Star aid appears on the way for both the struggling Redbirds and Cardinals. Outfielder Dylan Carlson represented Double-A Springfield last month in the Texas League All-Star Game. And Carlson was one of two St. Louis prospects to play in last weekend's All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland. The other was third-baseman Nolan Gorman, barely 19 years old and already a top-50 minor-league prospect. Currently slugging for Class-A Palm Beach, Gorman is unlikely to make his Memphis debut this season, but could well be measuring the distance of the outfield wall at AutoZone Park this time next season.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Forza Calcio!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 9:22 AM

I was in a European soccer riot when I was eight years old.

Okay, this warrants an explanation. My family spent a memorable academic year (1976-77) in Torino, Italy, as my dad pursued his Ph.D. in economics. (He was studying people and policies in the country under Cavour, Italy's first prime minister.) I was in 2nd grade at the time and fell in love with the city's renowned soccer club, Juventus. I Bianconeri ("the Black and Whites") were to Italian calcio what the New York Yankees are to American baseball. No Italian club has won more Serie A championships (35), and no Italian club sports as distinctive colors as the vertical stripes — yes, black and white — on Juve's home kits. Before I came to cheer the likes of Lou Brock and Ted Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals, I had posters of Roberto Bettega and Dino Zoff on my bedroom wall.

In the spring of ’77, Juventus beat Spain's Athletic Bilbao to win the UEFA Cup for the first time. Now known as the UEFA Europa League, this is a competition between qualifying clubs across Europe. It's not the Champions League and nowhere near the World Cup, but four decades ago, let me tell you, it was a big deal, a title that made Bettega, Zoff, and friends kings of the pitch in Europe.

When Juventus clinched the championship in Spain, the streets of Torino — well before nightfall — went wild in celebration, chants of Forza Juve! filling the increasingly smoky air. The air was smoky, as my blurred memory recalls, because of small fires, not all of them celebratory. Torino, you see, has not one, but two major soccer franchises. If Juventus is the Yankees to northwest Italy, Torino F.C. is the Mets. And fans of Torino that May evening back in 1977 were not thrilled about the UEFA Cup coming to town. Not only were trash cans set aflame, there were Juventus flags burning on the sidewalk, some ripped from the hands of Juve fans riding along in trolley cars. It was scary for a boy of my age. And it was exciting. These were "Met" fans attacking a "Yankee" parade . . . but fueled purely by Italian blood. The culture's reputation for passion — passione — is well-earned.

Images of that street riot have danced in my head of late for two reasons. The first: My 16-year-old daughter is in Europe this week, competing and touring with her own soccer club (Memphis FC). She'll be exploring Brussels for much of the trip, but crossing into France for a couple of World Cup games, a live look at the greatest female soccer players on the planet. There won't be any rioting (fingers crossed), and I doubt she'll witness a rivalry along the lines of Juventus-Torino. But Elena will be immersed in a form of international sports culture only soccer — calcio! — can deliver.
The Bluff City Mafia - COURTESY MEMPHIS 901 FC
  • Courtesy Memphis 901 FC
  • The Bluff City Mafia

My Juventus memories are also triggered by this town's very own soccer club, 901 FC. Memphis is struggling in its first season in the USL Championship, having won but two of 14 matches (with five draws). But don't tell the Bluff City Mafia, the band of fans who arrive at AutoZone Park on game night with multi-colored (and quite safe) smoke bombs and enough drums to wake Kong himself. Soccer culture has arrived in the Bluff City and it's a culture that connects us globally in ways that the NBA hopes to someday. (When there's a riot between a city's rival basketball clubs in, say, Munich, let me know.) A few home wins will help 901 FC among casual fans. But the club's mere existence has transformed Memphis sports culture, and for that I'm grateful.

My daughter is likely playing soccer in Europe as you read this column. And I still have Roberto Bettega on my wall at home. It is indeed a soccer world we call home. Glad we Memphians now have a permanent address.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Beat Me in St. Louis: The Cardinals' Crisis

Posted By on Mon, Jun 17, 2019 at 9:16 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals are fluttering. While much of the team's fan base basks in the silvery shine of the St. Louis Blues' first Stanley Cup championship, the esteemed baseball club — owner of 11 trophies of its own — is hovering around break-even in a season it was expected to make a return to meaningful games in October. Here in Memphis, the Triple-A Redbirds have dropped even further in the standings, the two-time defending Pacific Coast League champions are wobbling with a record of 29-41 through Sunday, essentially out of contention for another playoff berth before the Fourth of July.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt - COURTESY ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  • Courtesy St. Louis Cardinals
  • Cardinals manager Mike Shildt

What to make of the struggles? Seventy baseball games make for a considerable sample size. By now, the Cardinals should know what they have (and have not). A rotation of starting pitchers considered as deep as any in the National League in March now finds itself without an ace, minus that "stopper" who can end thoughts of a lengthy losing streak with a shut-down performance. Miles Mikolas was The Guy last season (18-4, 2.83 ERA), but this season appears to be merely a guy (4-7, 4.83 through Sunday). Young Jack Flaherty is the ace of the future, but emphasis on future, as the 23-year-old righty is sporting a 4.28 ERA and last won a game on May 14th. Veteran Adam Wainwright (5-6) has landed on the injured list with a hamstring injury, and Michael Wacha — just last week returned from a brief banishment to the bullpen — got mauled by the New York Mets in his last start. When a rookie (Dakota Hudson) is your most consistent starting pitcher, your baseball team will struggle.

And the Cardinal hitters have been no more consistent than the pitchers. Newly acquired Paul Goldschmidt — armed with a new contract extension — brought the kind of All-Star resume expected to fuel the St. Louis batting order for years. Through Sunday, the slugger is fifth on his team with 29 RBIs. Making matters worse, only one of the four teammates ahead of him (Marcell Ozuna) has driven in as many as 40 runs. This is not a potent attack Cardinal manager Mike Shildt is fielding.

Is help on the way? Three Memphis Redbirds recently made their big-league debuts for the Cardinals. Lefty Genesis Cabrera doesn't appear to be a threat to any of the struggling starting pitchers in St. Louis. Catcher Andrew Knizner is a legitimate prospect, but returned to Memphis the moment Yadier Molina's wounded right thumb healed. And Tommy Edman is a versatile talent, both with the bat and glove. Will he be a difference-maker for the 2019 Cardinals. That's a stretch.

In a season of bewildered looks, the "face of the franchise" may well be Alex Reyes, still the Cardinals' top prospect, now toiling for Memphis. Since his return from a broken finger — injured when he punched a wall in frustration over a poor outing — Reyes hasn't missed a lot of bats with his arsenal. In three June starts, Reyes has surrendered 14 earned runs in 12 innings, never reaching the sixth inning in any of those starts. A young man who appeared to be ace material is now some distance from being merely big-league material.

Baseball is merciless — and relentless — in its everyday schedule. Players have little time to "find themselves" when lost on the mound or at the plate. If Goldschmidt hits in the season's second half like he has in the first, the Cardinals will miss the playoffs a fourth straight season. (Something that hasn't happened since 1988-95.) On the other hand, if Goldschmidt finds his groove and if Matt Carpenter becomes a shadow of the homer-machine he was last August, the Cardinals are within range of the Brewers and Cubs in the National League Central.

Old friend Albert Pujols returns to St. Louis this weekend, the three-time MVP's first appearance at Busch Stadium since he departed for the L.A. Angels after the Cardinals' 2011 championship season. Perhaps a reminder of the most recent glory days will spur a turnaround for the Cardinals. There's lots of baseball to be played yet for the Cards. Will the coming months be an extended slog or a return to glory?

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Monday, June 3, 2019

St. Louis Blues Fans: Hope Hard

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2019 at 8:59 AM

This is a column about optimism and possibilities, at least in the realm of sports. It's also a column about patience, the most frustrating, maddening "virtue" on the spectrum of human emotion. If your team of choice wins championships regularly, you might move on to our dining coverage, perhaps our calendar of (non-sports) events. Boston sports fans have no business here. But if, say, you've chosen to ride with a still-young professional franchise — to date, title-free — or a college program that has gotten this close but not quite . . . well, read on.

I adopted the St. Louis Blues upon landing in the middle of hockey country (Vermont) in 1982, a 13-year-old boy choosing to root outside the regional box of Boston Bruin and Montreal Canadien fans. I'd been raised on Cardinal baseball, and if I needed to speak hockey to survive, I might as well track another St. Louis team in the NHL standings. Upon their arrival in my winter thoughts and prayers, the Blues had played 15 years in the NHL without winning the greatest trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. They had been gifted trips to the Stanley Cup Final their first three seasons, the result of a bizarre alignment strategy in which six expansion teams comprised the same division, its champion to face the best of the Original Six in the final series. (Imagine the PCL-champion Memphis Redbirds facing the Boston Red Sox last fall.) St. Louis was swept all three times. When they lost to the Bruins in the 1970 Final, I was in diapers and certainly couldn't say "Plager brothers."

Fast-forward 49 years, and 37 years from my adoption of the Blues. Several life stages there: high school, college, marriage, parenthood, firstborn to college. The Blues have still not won the Stanley Cup (17 other franchises have). They've suited up Hall of Fame-bound players: Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger. Each of those players has his name engraved on the Cup, but under a team he played for after leaving St. Louis. (Think it hurt for Pau Gasol to win an NBA title with the Lakers? What if brother Marc does so with the freaking Raptors?) The greatest coach in Blues history (Joel Quenneville) has won the Cup three times . . . for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blues won division titles and made the playoffs every year from 1980 through 2004, but departed every postseason by shaking hands with a team that was better. They reached the conference finals in 1986, 2001, and 2016, three painful teases of what might come should the Blues achieve one more elevation on this all-too-steep mountain.

Then 2019 arrived. The first week in January, St. Louis had the worst record in the 31-team NHL. But a rookie goaltender (Jordan Binnington) and interim coach (Craig Berube) proved to be historic boosters. The Blues reeled off the longest winning streak (11 games) in franchise history. They upset Winnipeg in the opening round of the playoffs, beat Dallas on a goal in the second overtime of Game 7 (patience, remember?!), and then — cue angels — knocked San Jose silly in the Western Conference finals to earn a berth with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final.

I haven't handled this as "professionally" as a longtime fan should. My highs have been among the puffy white clouds (in the clear Blues sky). My lows (the Bruins are formidable) have reminded me of crushing, season-ending losses of days gone by. I've come to recognize that winning the final four games necessary to raise the Cup is every bit the challenge of winning the 12 playoff games necessary to play for it. I never had this perspective before. And I'm so grateful for the perspective.

Your team will win a championship. It's gonna happen. Or you know what? It won't happen. (A 90-year-old Chicago Cubs loyalist who died in 2015 personified die-hard fan.) The math is very much against you. Only one playoff team ends its season with a victory. The vast majority of fan bases in your sport of choice are actually brethren, suffering the same abrupt termination to one season after another. But let me emphasize: Your devotion is worth the wait, however long. That notch on the mountain — the one you can sometimes see, however distant — is yet attainable. Don't take your eyes away. More importantly, and no matter the scars, don't take your heart away.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Memphis Sports Hall of Fame Announces Inaugural Class

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2019 at 2:12 PM

As Memphis celebrates the city's bicentennial, its sports legends will soon have a home — a Hall of Fame — all their own. Wednesday afternoon at AutoZone Park, the Memphis Sports Council announced the members of what will be called the Bicentennial Class of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame. The inaugural class includes 22 members — six of them deceased — and will be featured in the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame exhibition space on the third floor of AutoZone Park. The Hall of Fame will be open to the public year-round. (Visitors will need tickets when attending during sporting events at the stadium.) According to Memphis Sports Hall of Fame project manager Pierre Landaiche, the goal is to complete design work for the museum in 2019.

The Memphis Sports Council tasked a 35-member advisory committee to select the inaugural class after a nomination process that began in March. (Disclosure: I'm a member of the committee.) There are three categories under which candidates could be considered. Athletes must be five years removed from competing in their sport of choice. Coaches must be five years removed from competition or over the age of 50. And contributors include administrators, philanthropists, trainers, or members of the media who have demonstrated "outstanding service . . . through the development and advancement of sport."

Below are the members of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame's Bicentennial Class:

Betty Booker-Parks — Record-setting basketball player at Memphis State (1976-80). Scored more points (2,835) than any player at the university, male or female. Jersey number (31) retired by Tigers.
Isaac Bruce — First Memphis Tiger football player to accumulate 1,000 receiving yards in a single season (1993). Jersey number (83) retired by Tigers. His 15,208 receiving yards rank fifth in NFL history. Caught game-winning touchdown pass for St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Bill Dance — Nationally renowned bass fisherman and TV personality. Three-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year and member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.
Billy Dunavant — Founder and original owner of The Racquet Club of Memphis and key player in attracting professional tennis to venue, which hosted a tournament for 40 years. Owner of Memphis Showboats, one of the most successful franchises in USFL (1984 and 1985). Helped attract Ducks Unlimited headquarters to Memphis from Chicago in 1992.
Larry Finch
  • Larry Finch
Larry Finch — Star guard for the early-Seventies Memphis State basketball team that helped unify the city in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Led Tigers to the 1973 championship game and still holds program record for career scoring average (22.3 points per game). Won 220 games in 11 seasons (1986-97) as Tiger coach.
Avron Fogelman — Prominent real estate developer and owner of the Memphis Chicks for 20 years (1977-97). Part-owner of Kansas City Royals when franchise won first World Series (1985). President of ABA's Memphis Pros. First chairman of Memphis/Shelby County Sports Authority.
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway — Most accomplished basketball player in city's history. All-America (1992-93) at Memphis State, third pick in 1993 NBA draft, two-time first-team All-NBA with Orlando Magic, and member of the 1996 gold-medalist U.S. Olympic team. Took over coaching duties at the U of M in 2018.
Claude Humphrey — Star defensive end with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. Twice named All-Pro and accumulated more than 100 sacks before stat became an official statistic in 1982. Born in Memphis and played at Lester High School. Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Johnson — Won more than 800 games over 46 seasons as basketball coach at LeMoyne-Owen College. Led Magicians to 1975 NCAA Division III national championship.
George Lapides — Longtime sports journalist, first an editor and columnist at the Memphis Press-Scimitar then a longtime talk-radio host and sports editor with WREG-TV. President of the Memphis Chicks in mid-1980s when Bo Jackson played briefly for team.
Keith Lee — All-America forward for Tiger team that reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 four straight years (1982-85), culminating with an appearance in the 1985 Final Four. Tops Tiger charts in career points (2,408) and rebounds (1,336).
Verdell Mathis — One of the top left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues. Played nine years for the Memphis Red Sox and beat the legendary Satchel Paige three times. Attended Booker T. Washington High School.
Tim McCarver — A baseball and football star at Christian Brothers High School before playing for three World Series teams with the St. Louis Cardinals, earning championships in 1964 and 1967. Followed playing days with renowned career as a TV analyst. Honored in 2012 by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the annual Ford C. Frick Award.
Nikki McCray-Penson — Star basketball player at Collierville High School before earning All-America status at the University of Tennessee. Won gold medals with U.S. Olympic team in 1996 and 2000. Played nine seasons in the WNBA.
Cary Middlecoff — After graduating from Christian Brothers High School, became first All-America golfer at Ole Miss (1939). After giving up dentistry to play full time, won 40 PGA tournaments including the 1955 Masters and two U.S. Opens (1949 and 1956).
Cindy Parlow — Led Germantown High School to 1994 state soccer championship before twice being named national player of the year at North Carolina, where she helped the Tar Heels to two national titles. Member of iconic 1999 World Cup-champion U.S. soccer team.
Ronnie Robinson — Teammate and close friend of Larry Finch, first at Melrose High School, then at Memphis State, where "the Big Cat" helped the Tigers reach the 1973 Final Four. One of only four Tigers to score 1,000 points and pull down 1,000 rebounds.
Verties Sails — Won more than 700 games over 33 years as basketball coach at Shelby State Community College. Graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and University of Memphis (where he earned his master's degree in 1967).
"Memphis Bill" Terry
  • "Memphis Bill" Terry
Fred Smith — Founder, chairman, and CEO of FedEx. Integral in promoting and supporting the Memphis sports landscape, with FedEx attached for years to the local PGA tournament and FedExForum the home (since 2004) of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. FedEx is also the presenting sponsor of the annual Soutern Heritage Classic football game at the Liberty Bowl. Graduate of Memphis University School.
Rochelle Stevens — State champion at Melrose High School then 400-meter national champion at Morgan State. Won 400 meters at 1992 U.S. Olympic trials and earned silver medal as part of 4x400 relay team at Barcelona Games. Won gold with 4x400 team at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Melanie Smith Taylor — Won gold medal in show jumping at 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. One of only two to win Triple Crown of show jumping, and only rider to win aboard the same horse (Calypso). Longtime television analyst.
Bill Terry — Star first-baseman for the New York Giants in the 1920s and ’30s. Batted .401 in 1930 and .341 for his career. Later managed Giants to three National League pennants and the 1933 world championship. Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Precious! Memphis Secures Top Recruiting Class in the Country

Posted By on Fri, May 17, 2019 at 12:15 PM

"We want to win a national title. I don't think that's far-fetched. That drives me."

Penny Hardaway shared those sentiments with me before the start of his first season as basketball coach at the University of Memphis. The interview would inform a feature in which Memphis magazine named Hardaway its 2018 Memphian of the Year. (Yes, we named him MOY before he coached his first college game. Any questions about that now?) Hardaway did not say in that interview, "We want to win a national title in 2020."
Penny Hardaway, recruiting king. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway, recruiting king.

He might say that today.

With Precious Achiuwa's announcement Friday (via social media) that he will play at the U of M, Hardaway has landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. Along with James Wiseman — the top-ranked player in the country, a center who starred at East High School for Hardaway — Achiuwa gives Memphis a pair of five-star recruits for the first time since Joe Jackson and Will Barton arrived on campus as part of Josh Pastner's second recruiting class in 2010.

But the five-stars have a supporting cast. Forwards Malcolm Dandridge (another East product) and D.J. Jeffries have been signed for weeks, along with Tennessee Prep guard Damion Baugh. Guard Lester Quinones committed to Hardaway a week ago (which may have clinched Achiuwa, the two having played together for years) and Boogie Ellis signed on the blue-and-gray line earlier this week. All five players are considered four-star recruits by Rivals.

Achiuwa's commitment pushes Memphis above Kentucky, Arizona, and Duke to number-one in the national rankings, according to 247Sports. When you add up the numbers, fully 10 percent of the country's top 50 recruits (according to Rivals) are coming to play for Hardaway at Memphis. In order: Wiseman (1), Achiuwa (17), Ellis (37), Quinones (48), and Jeffries (50).

I recently asked someone close to Hardaway how he has reacted with the serial signings of superstars. Excitement? Delight? Does he consider this normal? The description I received: "Supreme confidence."

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

U of M Athletic Director Tom Bowen Steps Down; Prescott Named Interim A.D.

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2019 at 10:21 AM

University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen resigned Tuesday morning and will be replaced on an interim basis by Memphis attorney and longtime Tiger booster Allie Prescott.

Tom Bowen
  • Tom Bowen
“I have made the decision to step down as director of athletics to pursue a new career opportunity,” said Bowen in a press release. “I know that the athletic program here at the University of Memphis will continue to achieve great success both in the classroom and on the fields and courts of competition. It has been my privilege to serve this University.”

The Tiger football program has reached new heights under Bowen's watch with Top 25 teams in both 2014 and 2017. A new indoor facility is under construction to help close the gap between Tiger football and the wealthier programs on nearby SEC campuses. In addition to football's growth, men's basketball is now housed in the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center and has experienced a resurgence (and top-five recruiting class) under second-year coach Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. (Bowen took his share of criticism for hiring Hardaway's predecessor, Tubby Smith.) Tiger women's soccer and men's golf are current American Athletic Conference champions.

A longtime community leader, Prescott has been both president of Allie Prescott & Partners, LLC since 2002 and senior vice president of Waddell & Associates Inc. since 2007. An M Club Hall of Famer who was a three-year letterman in baseball from 1967-69, Prescott was an All-Missouri Valley Conference first baseman in 1969. He was the original president and general manager of the Memphis Redbirds upon the franchise's arrival in 1998.
Allie Prescott
  • Allie Prescott

“Allie Prescott is quintessential Memphis,” said U of M president David Rudd in the release. “Growing up as a Tiger, he has played a pivotal role in supporting the University of Memphis and the City of Memphis in his lifetime. Allie is the perfect person to lead Memphis Athletics in this transitional period. His diverse leadership background will help us continue the momentum as University of Memphis athletics continues its quest for preeminence.”

Monday, May 13, 2019

Prospects Assemble!

Posted By on Mon, May 13, 2019 at 9:54 AM

I'm going with James Wiseman as the incredible Hulk. Then D.J. Jeffries as Iron Man. We'll find a shield for Lester Quinones and call him Captain America (Captain Memphis?). And Malcolm Dandridge has the arms to play Thor. At least for now. At Penny Hardaway's current pace, the casting for the 2019-20 Memphis Tiger basketball team is hardly complete.

Hardaway's second recruiting class has become an Avengers movie. And if you have trouble focusing during an all-in Marvel battle at the multiplex, just wait for upcoming winter nights at FedExForum. If Hardaway's second class of freshmen lives up to its ranking and signing-day reactions across the country, Tiger basketball and the NIT won't again be mentioned in the same sentence.
Does this man own an eye patch? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Does this man own an eye patch?

By now, we know a single Avenger can make a blockbuster. (Iron Man proved this three times.) Had Hardaway merely signed Wiseman — the top-ranked recruit in the country, a five-star center who starred for Hardaway at East High School — the Memphis program would find itself in new territory come November, one where teams well beyond the American Athletic Conference must now consider Penny power in the national recruiting race. But Wiseman now represents the centerpiece in a collection of NBA-bound talent, a group unlike any seen in these parts in over a decade. (And I'm not convinced any of John Calipari's classes topped this one.)

Let's review the new arrivals. In addition to Wiseman, Hardaway — as Nick Fury, minus the eye patch — has landed two other top-50 recruits (according to Rivals): Quinones (48) and Olive Branch star D.J. Jeffries (50). Guard Damion Baugh (ranked 84th by Rivals) and Dandridge (123rd) give the class no fewer than four four-star members to surround the five-star Wiseman. With two scholarships still on the table, Hardaway's pursuing a trio of five-stars: New York forward Precious Achiuwa (a pal of Quinones'), Alabama forward Trendon Watford, and Texas guard R.J. Hampton. Yet another blue chip, guard Boogie Ellis, was on the U of M campus last week, deciding if Memphis might be a better fit than his original destination: Duke. Consider that: A prize recruit is deciding if Memphis basketball is more attractive than Duke.

For the first time in a quarter century, the Tigers will open their season without a single starter from the previous campaign. (Hardaway himself was part of the 1992-93 starting five that departed together.) And it's a good thing those starters are gone, for there are still only 200 player minutes to distribute in a college basketball game. It's little wonder three members (all reserves) from last year's team have decided to transfer. There would not be room in next year's rotation for Antwann Jones, Victor Enoh, or David Wingett. When you boil things down — remember, two scholarships left — there's only room for two of three more five-star recruits on the Memphis radar.

Recruiting rankings go only so far. No banner will be hung at FedExForum for Hardaway-as-Fury landing a top-five class. Ultron (Houston?) is out there, standing between Memphis and its first AAC championship. For the ultimate goal — a national championship — to be attained, Hardaway and his recruits will have to topple Thanos in one form or another (Kentucky? please??). But here's the thing: You don't topple Kentucky without the star recruits. Thus the spring euphoria around the U of M program.

By the time you read this, Achiuwa (Hawkeye?) may be posing for pics in blue and gray with Quinones.  Perhaps Ellis will sweep back into town (Falcon?) to make Memphis the envy of Duke fans far and wide. However Hardaway's roster is completed, the 2019-20 season can't get here soon enough. Marvel fans had to wait an entire year between Infinity War and Endgame. It's only six months until this Tiger blockbuster premiers at FedExForum.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

Rising Redbirds

Posted By on Mon, May 6, 2019 at 10:01 AM

The Memphis Redbirds return to AutoZone Park this week after a lengthy (13-game) road trip. Good time for a refresher on a few rising stars as the club seeks a third consecutive Pacific Coast League championship.
  • Adolis Garcia

Adolis Garcia — The 26-year-old Cuban is blocked by an abundance of outfielders with the parent club in St. Louis. Which means Garcia will likely anchor the batting order for manager Ben Johnson throughout the Triple-A season. Through Sunday, he leads the club with eight home runs and 25 RBIs. The one thing that might compromise Garcia's impact for Memphis this season? A trade. A lesson we learned a year ago when the Cardinals dealt Oscar Mercado to Cleveland: extra outfielders are easily moved for more coveted commodities (pitching or low-level prospects).

Daniel Ponce de Leon — There's no commodity in baseball more valuable than starting pitching and the Cardinals are blessed in this area. Having fully recovered from a skull fracture suffered during the 2017 season, Ponce de Leon won nine games for Memphis last season and started four games for the Cardinals. With Michael Wacha briefly on the injured list, St. Louis promoted the 27-year-old righty for a start against Milwaukee on April 23rd. He earned the win, striking out seven and allowing but one run in five innings, only to be demoted to Memphis to make room for Wacha's return to the rotation. "Ponce" is 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA for the Redbirds. There are big-league teams for whom he'd be starting every fifth day. They just don't call Busch Stadium home.

Andrew Knizner — Catching prospects in the Cardinal system tend to find themselves eventually making a living in other systems. Carson Kelly appeared to be the man to finally succeed the ageless Yadier Molina in St. Louis, only to be shipped to Arizona in the deal that brought Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals. The eighth-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system, Knizner is the latest to carry "heir apparent" status behind the plate for Memphis. The 24-year-old Knizner is a better hitter than Kelly, currently slashing .329/.391/.456 for the Redbirds. He comes equipped with a strong arm and has time to develop his catching skills at Triple-A, with former All-Star Matt Wieters currently backing up Molina in St. Louis.

Tommy Edman — The PCL has long been a hitter's league. Edman's .333 batting average barely places him among the circuit's top 20. But the infielder's bat is proving to be a top-of-the-order spark plug for the Redbirds, his versatility — as a second-baseman or shortstop — expanding Johnson's options when putting together a lineup card. Edman starred in last year's PCL playoffs, hitting .432 over the Redbirds' nine-game run to the Triple-A national championship. Keep that performance in mind as the 23-year-old Californian finds his way. There's no intangible for a professional baseball player like confidence.

Austin Gomber — Like Ponce de Leon, Gomber has already established major-league credentials. The 25-year-old lefty went 6-2 in 11 late-season starts for St. Louis last season, helping the Cardinals climb within a short winning streak of a playoff berth. (That winning streak, alas, didn't happen in September.) He's off to a 4-0 start for Memphis this season, with a 2.97 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 33 innings pitched. The Cardinals are currently functioning with no left-hander in their rotation and only two pitching out of the bullpen. It stands to reason Gomber will get a call for the trip up I-55 this season. Only a matter of when.

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Run to Glory?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2019 at 9:36 AM

American football is a strangely named sport. The ball is rarely kicked and such plays only make highlight shows when they prove decisive in a game. If you paid any attention at all to the doomed Alliance of American Football, you'll know there are efforts to remove the kickoff from the game entirely. In a sport where cranial injuries are part of the story, helmeted heads colliding on kickoffs are especially vulnerable.
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

Then you have the running back. You know, the guy who makes a living by carrying the football, his feet taking him through gaps (however larger or small), toward the end zone, six points, and a glory dance. There was a time, not that long ago, when running backs shaped the way teams were built. Between 1977 and 1986, teams chose a running back with the first pick in the NFL draft five times. Alas, not one of those five players took the team that drafted him to the Super Bowl and only one (Earl Campbell) now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Last fall, the University of Memphis suited up an All-America running back, and the fastest player I've seen in a Tiger uniform. But Darrell Henderson had to wait until the third round when the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams selected him with the 70th pick in the draft. Ironically, Henderson will apprentice under one of the NFL's few star running backs, two-time All-Pro Todd Gurley.

Another speed-demon who took some reps at running back for Memphis, Tony Pollard, waited even longer. The Dallas Cowboys selected the incomparable kick returner late in the fourth round on Saturday, with the 128th pick. Like Henderson, Pollard will join a team with a certifiable star at tailback, two-time rushing champ Zeke Elliott. The Cowboys also have one of the best offensive lines in football, with three All-Pros opening gaps for ball-carriers. Both Henderson and Pollard would seem to be in comfortable situations to begin their pro careers.

What are we to make of standout college ball-carriers getting the playground-nerd treatment on draft day? It's an aerial game. Nine NFL players rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2018 season while 21 receivers caught passes for at least 1,000. If teams aren't drafting the next Manning or Brady, they're looking for men to stop the league's star passers. Ten of the first 20 picks in this year's draft were defensive linemen, with a premium on a new descriptor: edge rusher. (As in, player responsible solely for taking down the quarterback.) Three linemen from the same unit (national champion Clemson) were among the first 17 picks. These are the men Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard will be dodging on Sundays for years to come.

• Can fans become the star attraction on game day? This seems to be reality for Memphis 901 FC, our new franchise in the USL Championship. The Bluff City Mafia has been loud and, somehow, proud, despite the local side providing little to chant about over its first four home games: three losses, a draw, and a grand total of one goal (thank you, Elliot Collier). Passion counts, though, and tends to be rewarded in the long run. So keep singing, ye BCM. Sunnier days ahead.

• On April 19th in St. Louis — two days after being promoted from the Memphis Redbirds — outfielder Lane Thomas became the 10th Cardinal to hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat. No other club in baseball has seen as many players make the ultimate intro. Remarkably, seven of those ten players went yard immediately after a promotion from Memphis, all over the last two decades. (The Cardinals have been playing in the National League since 1892.) In case you've forgotten the names of the other six (and three of them are pitchers): Keith McDonald (2000), Chris Richard (2000), Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), Mark Worrell (2008), and Paul DeJong (2017).

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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Memphis Grizzlies: Stability Matters

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2019 at 9:56 AM

Remember when Memphis Tiger basketball seemed to have lost its way? (Go back 14 months on the calendar and you're there.) Remember when discussion around Tiger football turned toward whether or not the university should field a team? (Larry Porter was in charge merely eight years ago.) Today, this city's flagship college programs — in particular, those programs' stability — are the absolute envy of our lone big-league operation. After last week's shenanigans surrounding the dismissal of Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff, we're left to wonder not just who's calling the shots for our NBA franchise, but are those shots being called with an ounce of wisdom? With foresight?
  • Courtesy Memphis Grizzlies
  • Robert Pera

I spend my winters wearing blue-and-gray blinders, my focus primarily the fortunes of the basketball Tigers, the Grizzlies' pay-by-night tenant at FedExForum. I'm not going to pretend to know the front-office mechanics most recently led by Chris Wallace (assigned last week to scouting duty, it would appear). But with one franchise icon (Marc Gasol) recently traded and another (Mike Conley) exasperated — and that was before last week's front-office bloodshed — the Tigers' landlord seems to be a bit light in the tool belt.

What an odd year it's been in Memphis sports, and we aren't even approaching Memorial Day yet. Penny Hardaway's first season as Tiger coach raised the community's collective happy-joy metric to almost unreasonable heights ... and the Tigers played in the NIT. The most passionate fan base in town, though, pound for pound, may prove to be the Bluff City Mafia, recently seen in a cloud of blue smoke at an AutoZone Park soccer game. Who gives a kick-in-the-grass if 901 FC scores a goal?

The Memphis Redbirds — two-time defending champions of the Pacific Coast League — are back for their 22nd season, lending some brand stability to the sports landscape. But they have a new manager (Ben Johnson) in the dugout and the usual collection of new faces that comes with every minor-league season. The Redbirds have won so much over the last two years, any losing in 2019 will feel like not so much a disappointment as an inconvenience.

We even have pro football! Well, scratch that.

All of this brings us back to the Grizzlies, the one Memphis franchise that appears in standings printed in the New York Times or Chicago Tribune. It's the one Memphis franchise that should be this community's rudder in the stormy, emotional sea of sports fandom. Win or lose, we'll wear Grizzlies gear to remind us we're big-league.

The Grizzlies will open the 2019-20 season with their fourth coach in five years. (Remember how a broken Tiger program had to survive three coaches in four years?) This is the "stability" model of the Phoenix Suns or New York Knicks, not a club anywhere close to contending for an NBA title. The new hire, of course, will be a primary component of Griz owner Robert Pera's solution for the recent descent of a franchise only two seasons removed from a seven-year playoff run. If Jason Wexler and/or Zach Kleiman prove more savvy with roster building than Wallace (the man who brought Conley and Marc Gasol to Memphis), stability will once again don Beale Street Blue. But for the time being, Pera might need a breathalyzer before his next move.

Sports are distraction. Heart-squeezing, at times soul-draining distractions, to be sure. Even with last week's head-scratching news, I happen to believe the overall Memphis sports landscape has never been healthier. (Yes, my Penny-endorsed blinders are a factor here.) We prefer our tackle football in the fall. We've embraced 901 FC like we really are a part of planet futbol. We have good baseball for summer nights and an NBA team when winter comes. Stability wins championships and will be achieved by the Grizzlies before a banner is raised at FedExForum. As for the current state of affairs, embrace the madness and call it a Memphis thing.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Out of Their League: Express Exit for the AAF

Posted By on Mon, Apr 8, 2019 at 9:13 AM

I liked the idea of the Alliance of American Football. I had plans to attend the Memphis Express season finale this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, a showdown with the Atlanta Legends. My wife was going to join me. (As a measure of our commitment, consider Sharon's policy of "one live football game per decade.") Alas, there will be no Express-Legends showdown, as there is no longer a Memphis Express, Atlanta Legends, or AAF. Simply put, the upstart league ran out of money and its largest investor — Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon — turned off the lights with two weeks to go in the regular season.
Memphis Express Coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Johnny Manziel at Manziel's initial press conference.
  • Memphis Express Coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Johnny Manziel at Manziel's initial press conference.

The venture had a steep climb to credibility, first in terms of marketing then financially. (The two go together.) Without stars on the field — and Johnny Football for two games in late March doesn't count — the AAF had little to sell the American sports fan beyond flashy (or not-so-flashy) uniforms. Chilly weather and basketball season didn't exactly help fill football stadiums. Despite lukewarm backing from the NFL (live games could be found on the NFL Network among other cable channels), "the Alliance" clearly didn't attract the sponsors and advertisers envisioned by founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian.

Ironically, the AAF's final desperate plea for life — borrowing players from NFL rosters — may have been the concept that would sustain a development league for pro football. Those who scoff and say the NFL already has a development league (initials: NCAA) do so under the premise a football player can only develop between the ages of 18 and 23. Ask former Memphis Tiger star Paxton Lynch about the importance of development after a player's college days are over. If the NFL and AAF had established ground rules for the player-sharing, starting with a limit on the number of total games a player could enter in a calendar year, there might have been legs for the gridiron minor league.

As for Johnny Manziel and his two-game Memphis legacy? No concussion could stop JFF from clubbing (in L.A.!). He'll join the likes of Christian Laettner and Allen Iverson in the Bluff City sports not-so-Hall of Fame.

• In losing two of their first three games of the season to division rival Omaha, the Memphis Redbirds fell out of first place for the first time in 708 calendar days. It's the final statistical salute to a remarkable two-year stretch that saw the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate win two Pacific Coast League championships and last year's Triple-A National Championship. The good news is that the season isn't even a week old, with first place in the Redbirds' division still very much up for grabs. On his way to Memphis is Alex Reyes, for three years now the Cardinals' top-ranked prospect. The flame-throwing righty has missed most of the last two seasons to injury, though, and got knocked around out of the Cardinals' bullpen in the first week of the season. He'll get regular work under the watch of Redbirds pitching coach Dernier Orozco, with the primary goal of establishing arm strength and a rhythm for Reyes in his current role as a relief pitcher.

• Hats off to the AutoZone Park grounds crew. At least for the Redbirds' opening home stand, the field showed no indication that two professional soccer matches have been played there. And the pitcher's mound looked precisely like a mound should. (It takes between three and four hours to build the mound after it's been shaved off for a 901 FC game.) There appears to be structural harmony between professional baseball and soccer at the stadium, celebrating its 20th season — baseball season, that is — in Memphis.

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Ben's ’Birds

Posted By on Mon, Apr 1, 2019 at 9:55 AM

When the Memphis Redbirds open their 22nd season Thursday night at AutoZone Park, they'll do so with their eighth manager. But 37-year-old Ben Johnson will be the first native Memphian to deliver the Opening Day lineup card to the home plate umpire. So it's a homecoming of sorts for the former Germantown High School centerfielder, but with a recent standard almost impossible to match, particularly for a man in charge of his first Triple-A club.

"I'm in a position to put these players in a position to succeed," emphasizes Johnson. "I don't know that every manager puts his players first in their day-to-day. Their dream is my dream; I want them to be great. I can help them with that."
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Ben Johnson

Born at Baptist East in 1981, Johnson entered professional baseball as a St. Louis Cardinal, adding a layer to his homecoming this season. The Cardinals chose Johnson in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, but traded him to San Diego a year later. He made his debut with the Padres in 2005 and played in 98 big-league games, his last with the New York Mets in 2007. (Johnson suffered a severe injury to his left ankle sliding into second base, one that contributed to his early retirement as a player. "The body went," says Johnson, "and it took some time for the mind to grasp that.") He chose to stick with baseball, becoming a scout for four years (2014-17) with the Arizona Diamondbacks before joining the Durham Bulls (Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) as third-base coach for the 2018 season.

The Bulls fell to Memphis in last season's Triple-A National Championship Game but, for Johnson, the event led to a career-altering meeting with St. Louis president of baseball operations, John Mozeliak. "We had a good conversation, and that started the ball rolling," says Johnson. "He didn't ask about my interest [in the Redbirds job], but just how interested I was in coaching. How I felt about coaching. He knew from my response that I love coaching." Mozeliak happened to be the Cardinals' pro scouting director in 1999 when the Cardinals originally signed Johnson as a player. The reunion had a road map.

"I'd see Mo on the scouting trail, and I covered the Cardinals [as a Padres scout]," notes Johnson. "You make sure you speak to a guy like that when you see him. There was some depth to it, I guess."

Early in his playing career, Johnson spent offseasons in Memphis, but he and his wife and two children have lived in Phoenix for more than a decade now. "Better weather, more players coming together," notes Johnson. "It was better for my career [in baseball]." But the lure of Memphis — and the Cardinals system — seemed more than serendipitous. "Interviewing for this job hit home more than any other position I'd ever interviewed for," says Johnson. "We grew up Cardinal fans."

Coming of age in the 1990s, Johnson admired the Atlanta Braves dynasty, particularly outfielder David Justice. But the Cardinals were in his heart, notably Ozzie Smith and a man he now counts as a colleague, Cardinals bench coach Willie McGee. "Sometimes when you meet your heroes, they're not [what you'd like them to be]," says Johnson. "It's all about the players with Willie, and it's genuine. He's transparent with the players."

When asked about managers who have influenced his own philosophy from the dugout, Johnson starts with his high school coach, Phil Clark. "He helped me through the initial pro phase of my life," says Johnson. "He helped me with what to say and what not to say to scouts." Johnson also appreciates the influence of Dave Clark (currently the third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers) and Craig Colbert, his manager at a few levels in the Padres' system. "There were days we didn't like each other a lot," says Johnson. "As I matured, we started to get along better. He had a big part in bringing me up as a player."

Johnson's first big-league manager was Bruce Bochy, a man who has since won three World Series as skipper for the San Francisco Giants. "There was no 'eye wash' with [Bochy]. No false hustle needed. Fake energy is not necessary. I don't need you to sprint from field to field in spring training if you're getting your work in. Be a professional. Show up on time, work hard, and we'll be fine."

Johnson chuckles at the notion of filling the shoes of his predecessor, Stubby Clapp, a Memphis favorite before he won two straight Pacific Coast League titles as Redbirds manager. Now the Cardinals' first-base coach, Clapp is the first man Johnson calls with questions any rookie manager will confront. "The Cardinals have made it clear that it's my fault if I don't reach out," says Johnson. "I've probably asked Stubby a hundred questions. He's genuinely interested in what I have to say. He gives me an honest answer, and in a way that doesn't make me feel like he's annoyed."

Having benefited from his own development as a minor-leaguer, Johnson has a grasp on priorities as the Redbirds take flight under his watch. "We have a really talented young group," says Johnson. "I'm not judged by wins and losses. It's how we go about handling our business, and building the foundation of development. The number-one goal is to produce championship-caliber players for our major-league team."

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Yale Beats Maravich!

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2019 at 9:37 AM

When the Ivy League-champion Yale Bulldogs tip off against LSU Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the game will be merely one of 16 that day for millions of Americans highlighting their winning picks in this year's bracket. But for one Memphian — attorney Mike McLaren — the game will serve as a happy reminder of a previous matchup between the schools, the 50th anniversary of that clash coming later this year.

On December 30th, 1969, in the championship of the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, Yale upset LSU and its legendary guard, Pete Maravich. A player renowned for his wizardry as both a passer and shooter, Maravich had been named first-team All-America by the AP after both his sophomore and junior seasons. His Tigers were 7-2 entering the Tuesday night game and heavily favored against the 5-5 Bulldogs.

On the floor that day for Yale was McLaren, a sophomore guard enjoying his first season in a varsity uniform. (Freshmen were not eligible then.) "Pistol Pete" entered the game averaging 47 points per game, but was held to 34 by Yale, one less than Bulldog guard Jim Morgan put up in the 97-94 shocker. (Maravich had scored 53 against St. John's in the semifinals and would average 44.5 points for his senior season.)

"There are pictures where you'll see four of us who are supposed to be guarding Pistol," says McLaren, a partner with the Memphis law firm Black McLaren Jones Ryland & Griffee. "You've never seen better form on a jump shooter. He was 6'5". I don't know why I was expected to guard him." [McLaren surrendered five inches to Maravich.]

Yale knocked off host Hawaii and San Francisco to earn a shot at basketball's Beatle, his sagging gray socks part of an already growing legend. McLaren and his teammates knew they were sharing an island with a rock star on their flight west. Upon actually taking the floor to play him, the Bulldogs found something collectively that they didn't know they had.
Mike McLaren
  • Mike McLaren

"Before the game in the locker room," recalls McLaren, "[coach Joe Vancisin] said, 'Mike, you pick up Maravich when he crosses half court. He's got unbelievable range. When he beats you (it wasn't if he beats you), Jimmy [Morgan], you switch over and help Mike. When he gets by Jimmy and Mike, John [Whiston], you gotta come out [of the paint] and pick him up. And Jack [Langer], you help Whiston.'

"Our forward, Scottie Michel, said, 'Okay. I guess I got the other four.'"

How exactly did McLaren guard an unguardable player? "You had to force him left," he says. "He almost never posted up. He brought the ball up court. We tried to get the ball out of his hands, into another guard's hands, Rich Hickman. [Hickman] shot something like three for 15, so our strategy worked to that extent. If Maravich got within 15 feet, he just rose up and shot. They came down once, three-on-one, and I was setting up to take a charge [against Maravich]. He stopped on a dime, bounced the ball off the side of my head — on purpose — to a cutter. He was so fancy; it was impossible."

McLaren played a supporting role to Morgan offensively, but scored 14 points, most of them over the game's final 10 minutes. Maravich guarded him but, saddled with four fouls, didn't want to risk disqualification as McLaren launched one midrange jumper after another.

"There was no defense at all by Pete," says McLaren. "I remember partying hard after the game. I told the guys this was the high point of our athletic careers. We weren't going pro."

In Pistol, his 2008 biography of Maravich, author Mike Kriegel wrote that a "sunburned and hungover" LSU team lost to Yale in the game remembered so fondly by Bulldog players today. McLaren has an alternative view: "We were on the beach a lot more than they were, because we didn't think we had a chance!"

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