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

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?
Robert Pera - COURTESY MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
  • 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."
Ben Johnson - COURTESY MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • 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.
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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!"

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bridge ’Birds

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 11:22 AM

The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals are about to take flight for what might be called a bridge season for the franchise. The tag will be especially apt when the club visits AutoZone Park to play the Memphis Redbirds in an exhibition game next Monday. After all, they play their home games 280 miles north, on the other side of the Mississippi River.

The Redbirds' parent franchise — winners of 11 World Series, the most a National League team can claim — still suits up veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina. When the former Memphis players start their first game this year, it will be the 243rd of their careers, the most by a battery in Cardinal history. But if you’re curious about this team’s performance ceiling, the impact variable is the team’s young talent. Can pitcher Jack Flaherty (23) enter Cy Young Award discussions? Can Harrison Bader (24) be an offensive sparkplug to match his defensive impact in center field? What about Alex Reyes (24), perennially one of the game’s top pitching prospects, but coming off two years lost to injury?
Paul Goldschmidt - TAKA YANAGIMOTO/ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  • Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
  • Paul Goldschmidt

The star of the show — at least for this season — is likely to be a player who falls right between the two “bridge” extremes of aging veterans and rising stars: 31-year-old first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Acquired in a December trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt brings a middle-order threat the Cardinals have lacked, really, since Albert Pujols departed after the 2011 championship season. Goldschmidt won four Silver Slugger awards with Arizona, slamming more than 30 home runs four times and driving in at least 110 runs three. His career slugging percentage (.532) matches the top single-season figure Matt Holliday posted in his seven-year tenure with St. Louis. Goldschmidt also won three Gold Gloves for the Diamondbacks, not an incidental factor for a team that led all of baseball in errors in 2018.

Baseball has never been more about pitching. (The sport produced more strikeouts than hits in 2018.) Wainwright and Flaherty will be joined in the Cardinal rotation by Miles Mikolas (an 18-game winner last season), Michael Wacha (if healthy), and a fifth member from a group that includes Reyes (starting the season in the bullpen), Dakota Hudson (the 2018 Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for Memphis), John Gant, and former ace Carlos Martinez (currently nursing shoulder soreness). Jordan Hicks — he of the 103 mph fastball — will be joined in the bullpen by free agent acquisition Andrew Miller, just three years ago MVP of the ALCS with Cleveland.

If you’re looking for the metaphorical bridge between these Cardinals and Memphis, gaze into the dugout when the Cardinals are in the field. The last two men to manage here in Memphis — Mike Shildt and Stubby Clapp — are now the manager and first-base coach, respectively, for the parent club. Shildt has climbed the Cardinals’ development ladder as methodically as any player, and won championships at the Rookie League and Double-A levels. Clapp merely won two Pacific Coast League titles (and was twice named PCL Manager of the Year) in his two seasons in Memphis. These two men were never stars as players, but they each understand the game inherently (in part because it challenged them both). Furthermore, they have been embraced by their players, respected for treating every man in the clubhouse like a valuable asset. (A common question from Shildt when greeting someone: “What did you learn today?”)

The most important bridge for the Cardinal franchise is the one that leads back to postseason play. You have to go back to a time when the internet was merely a rumored military tool (1988-95) to find the club’s last four-year playoff drought. (Flaherty was born in October 1995.) This won’t be an easy bridge to cross for St. Louis, as Milwaukee aims to defend its NL Central title with reigning MVP Christian Yelich. The Chicago Cubs have played October baseball four years in a row, and the Cincinnati Reds intend to be in the mix with former Dodger star Yasiel Puig now hitting behind Joey Votto.

There’s a numerical oddity when you look back on more than 120 years of Cardinals history. The franchise has reached a World Series in a year that ends with every digit except 9. For this to change in 2019, a proud franchise must find strength from foundation to superstructure.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hockey and the Hoop Hall

Posted By on Mon, Feb 18, 2019 at 9:09 AM

I've come to believe the essence of team sports — its purest form at the highest level you can find it — can be experienced on Division 3 college campuses. No athletic scholarships in D-3. No TV contracts and very few sponsors. Athletes with very little chance of making a career out of their game of choice. And free admission to many events for the few hundred fans who might attend a “big” football game.
Hockey in its purest form: Wesleyan vs. Trinity
  • Hockey in its purest form: Wesleyan vs. Trinity

I spent much of last week in Connecticut, on the campus of Wesleyan University, where my daughter, Sofia, is studying (and competing for the Ultimate Frisbee club, Vicious Circles). On Friday night, Sofia forfeited the latest screening in the campus film series (Oscar-nominated animated shorts) for a hockey game at the Freeman Athletic Center. The 12th-ranked Cardinals hosted 11th-ranked Trinity College in a clash between the top two teams in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). I’ve been to my share of hockey games, and this was the best I’ve ever attended.

Trinity scored first, but the Cardinals rallied with three unanswered goals and took a 3-2 lead into the third period. The Bantams scored two goals early in the third, but Wesleyan rallied with two of their own for a 5-4 lead that brought most of the crowd — all 300 of us — to our feet. Alas, Trinity scored the game’s final two goals, the game-winner with just 1:33 left to play. Eleven goals and four lead changes. If such a game occurred in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it would be replayed ad nauseum on the NHL Network. Be glad you got to read about it here.

There was no advertising on the ice or boards. Sofia purchased a bag of candy for $2.50. We sat near center ice, with plenty of elbow room between us and the Trinity cheering section. (The school is in nearby Hartford. This was a D-3 hockey version of Memphis-Ole Miss.) Wesleyan’s top scorer, Walker Harris, scored his team’s last goal. And Harris will eat in the same dining hall Sofia does, unrecognized by most students who aren’t his teammates. A student who happens to be an athlete, and a very good one. Imagine that.
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• I hand-delivered a copy of the December issue of Memphis magazine to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The issue includes my case for Penny Hardaway’s induction. On the day I delivered the magazines, the Hall announced its finalists for the 2019 class, and Hardaway’s name is not on the list. The man Orlando traded to Golden State for Hardaway during the 1993 NBA draft (Chris Webber) did make the cut. Number of first-team All-NBA selections: Hardaway 2, Webber 1.

Should you have any doubts about Hardaway’s credentials for enshrinement, consider the name of a 2018 inductee: Dino Radja. Debate over.

• The Hoop Hall presents honorees in a dynamic, but inefficient, manner. A large, black-and-white, photo of each Hall of Famer is backlit and stares down from the domed roof of the facility. But there is little order to where you might find one Hall of Famer or another. They are not grouped by induction year. They're not alphabetical. And they don't correspond to the information panel that rings the platform below where visitors can read about each basketball legend (by induction year). Furthermore, the photos need to be more carefully chosen, with players as they appeared in the prime of their careers. Larry Bird, for instance, doesn't have a mustache in his Hall of Fame portrait, taken near the end of his days with the Celtics. At the very least, the induction year needs to be added to the Hall of Famer's name, so a visitor can cross-reference the information panel below.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Futures Trading

Posted By on Mon, Feb 11, 2019 at 9:29 AM

When my daughters were younger, I had some uncomfortable conversations with them, trying to explain why one of their favorite players was traded by one of their favorite teams. It's the kind of transaction we adults come to expect, accept, even tolerate. But for kids, those "future fans" who are actually a team's lifeblood for longterm success? It can be a hard conversation.

Marc Gasol - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol
"David Freese was MVP in the World Series. Just two years ago. Why would the Cardinals trade him?" The question — from my then 14-year-old — was perfectly reasonable. My attempt at an answer: "Well, Sofia, St. Louis feels like Matt Carpenter is a better hitter, a better long-term fit in the lineup, and fits better at third base than second base." She looked at me, expressionless. Shook her head and left the room. (She's a David Freese fan to this day.)

Now, find a Memphis Grizzlies fan younger than 15. And I challenge you to explain last week's trade-deadline deals, most significantly the one that sent franchise icon Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors. "Is Jonas Valanciunas better than Marc Gasol?" No. "Do the Grizzlies have a better fit at center, long-term?" No. "Did Gasol not like playing in Memphis?" No.

Trades have become budget deals and little more. They've become stock plays for future returns, rarely immediate. (The last significant midseason trade that helped a team win a championship at season's end? Houston's acquisition of Clyde Drexler on Valentine's Day in 1995.) They are an accountant's fantasy league, the addition of not-yet-spent dollars here, the subtraction of contracted dollars there.

I don't mean to pick on Bobby Parks, ESPN's "front office insider," but this was an actual tweet he posted shortly after one of the Grizzlies' other trades last week: "Avery Bradley has a $12M cap hit this season and $12.96M for 2019-20. Bradley has $2M guaranteed for next season. Memphis has until July 3 to guarantee his full salary. The Grizzlies will create a $7.6M trade exception." Explain that to your 12-year-old Grizzlies fan, the one wiping tears away after the Gasol trade, hoping that Avery Bradley is somehow a step in the right direction toward more happy nights at FedExForum. "What's a $7.6M trade exception?"

Gasol and the Grizzlies needed to part ways, I suppose. Big Spain is 34 years old and would love to be part of a championship team, something the Grizzlies won't be able to provide in the next three or four years. And maybe that's your explanation for a young fan: Even our sports heroes are mortal. Father Time remains undefeated. If you love someone, let him go. Something like that.

I'm choosing to leave the bean-counting forecasts to Parks and his ilk. Maybe the numbers — some added, some subtracted — will one day yield a sharpshooting wing who can complement the rising star Memphis has in Jaren Jackson Jr. Maybe the empty pieces acquired last week — What is a Tyler Dorsey? — will be flipped into meaningful salaries for legitimate rotation players, the kind of players who sell jerseys in the FedExForum team store. You know, like Marc Gasol. But for now, any attempt at interpreting what shook down last week between the Grizzlies and their trade partners is  a fool's errand. If you can't explain it to a pack of middle-school Griz fans, perhaps it needs no explaining.

• With seven more points, senior guard Jeremiah Martin will pass Penny Hardaway for 17th on the Memphis Tigers' career scoring chart. (Let's remember the current Tiger coach only played two seasons.) Perhaps more significantly, with 15 more assists, Martin will become only the fifth Tiger to rank in the program's top-20 for scoring and top-10 for assists. He'll join Alvin Wright, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, and Joe Jackson.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Mike & Marc

Posted By on Mon, Jan 28, 2019 at 9:18 AM

I grew up devoted to some special Dallas Maverick basketball teams. New to the NBA (the franchise began play in 1980), the Mavs drafted my college hero (Tennessee's Dale Ellis) in 1983 and I adopted the team from afar (I was living in New England at the time). I quickly fell in love with a trio of players — Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, and Derek Harper — that steered a run of five straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988. (Does this sound familiar yet?)

The problem for my Mavericks was that they peaked at the same time a dominant team from California commanded the Western Conference. (Surely this rings familiar now.) After losing to the mighty Lakers one game shy of the 1988 NBA Finals, the team cracked. Aguirre was traded to Detroit the next season (where he'd win a pair of championships with the Pistons). Blackman was traded to New York in 1992 after a 22-win season. Harper was traded (also to the Knicks) in 1994 and helped New York win the Eastern Conference title. The "cracking" left a considerable emotional gap for at least one basketball fan for several winters to come.
The Grizzlies' dynamic duo. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies' dynamic duo.

It appears less and less likely that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will complete their NBA careers in Grizzly uniforms. With his team spiraling toward the bottom of the Western Conference — don't get too close to the Suns — team owner Robert Pera hinted earlier this month that the two franchise icons could be included in trade discussions. When asked about his name being used as trade bait, Conley was quoted as saying, "Memphis is all I know." Gasol suggested that his relationship with the Grizzlies franchise might change, but not his connection to Memphis, Tennessee. By that of course, Gasol means his connection to us, Memphians. It's a deeper sentiment than most modern professional athletes are capable of uttering. And it makes the thought of Gasol (and/or Conley) in another uniform even harder to stomach.

But the Grizzlies, as the roster is currently shaped, are moving further from contention for an NBA title and not closer. It's not a trajectory conducive to retaining highly paid stars, never mind the duo's decade of tenure in Beale Street Blue or the seven playoff trips they made possible. And this has been the hardest part of the reality math for me: Conley and Gasol will leave Memphis (the franchise) with a whimper, and not the celebratory flourish more reflective of their impact on Memphis (the city).

For me, Mike Conley will always be "the masked man," a point guard who played the majority of his minutes in the 2015 playoffs (and against the mighty Warriors no less) with a broken face. For me, the image of Marc Gasol I carry is Big Spain taking the opening tip at the 2015 All-Star Game. A Memphis player starting the All-Star Game. Save for a championship or perhaps an MVP, I'm not sure a moment could more legitimize Memphis as an NBA city than that tip-off in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Both players have been slowed in recent years by significant injuries. Both have nights now when they appear to have lost a step (as athletes do in their 30s). But neither Conley nor Gasol has ever griped, at least not about their plight as players. Their steady comportment, in good seasons and bad, has made them, well, Memphis AF. It's among the reasons no other Grizzly will ever wear number 11 or number 33. Conley and Gasol are destined, you have to believe, for the bronze treatment someday. Only if there's enough room in the FedExForum plaza next to the Zach Randolph and Tony Allen statues.

Our favorite teams hurt us as much as they help us. Only one group of players finishes a season with a parade. And the players we cheer — at least as long as they remain human — move on to new life stages. But joy, while never bottled, has no expiration date, not really. And those who deliver a certain brand of joy (a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs comes to mind) outlast physical presence. Here's hoping Conley and Gasol — no, Mike and Marc — find their paths to happier life stages than the Grizzlies' current record suggests. They'll remember Memphis, perhaps with the same profound appreciation we'll remember them.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Isaac Bruce: Hall of Famer

Posted By on Mon, Jan 14, 2019 at 8:53 AM

Isaac Bruce was born at the perfect time. The first University of Memphis football player to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season (in 1993), Bruce entered the NFL as the league was shifting from a rather balanced run-pass enterprise to one in which the passing game is almost everything. Trouble is, some other very good pass-catchers happened to be born around the same time.

On February 2nd in Atlanta (the day before the Super Bowl), the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce its newest class of inductees. Bruce is among the 15 modern-era finalists and hopes to become the first U of M alum to receive a bust at the sport’s cathedral of history in Canton, Ohio. While Bruce’s numbers — starting with 15,208 career receiving yards — were Hall-worthy the day he retired (after the 2009 season), Bruce missed out in his first four years of eligibility, the last two as a finalist. (A maximum of five modern-era candidates are enshrined each year.) I’m convinced this is Bruce’s year.
Isaac Bruce - U OF M ATHLETICS
  • U of M Athletics
  • Isaac Bruce

The challenge for Bruce has been catching (pardon the pun) appropriate attention among receivers who put up similar numbers and during the same time Bruce was setting records for the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf.” Upon his retirement, Bruce was second only to the incomparable Jerry Rice (22,895 yards) among receivers on the NFL’s career yardage chart. But as he waited the required five years to be placed on the Hall of Fame ballot, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss moved ahead of Bruce. Meanwhile, the 1,000-catch club grew from two in 2000 (Rice and Cris Carter) to its current 14 members (Bruce is 13th alltime with 1,024 receptions).

There developed a logjam of eligible Hall of Fame-worthy receivers, one that’s only now finally starting to clear with the inductions of Tim Brown (2015), Marvin Harrison (2016), Moss (2018), and Owens (2018) since Bruce became eligible. Among this year’s finalists, the Fort Lauderdale native is the only wide receiver. (Tight end Tony Gonzalez is eligible for the first time and is a lock for one of the five slots.)

Bruce was a significant part of one of football’s most historic offenses, one that has already sent running back Marshall Faulk (2011), tackle Orlando Pace (2016), and quarterback Kurt Warner (2017) to the Hall of Fame. Even with Faulk and the great Torry Holt taking carries and catches away from Bruce, he led the 1999 Rams — winners of Super Bowl XXXIV — in receiving yardage (1,165 yards) and scored 12 touchdowns. Bruce’s 73-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter proved to be the trophy-clinching score against Tennessee in that Super Bowl. Warner was named MVP, but the honor could have easily gone to Bruce (six catches for 162 yards).

Along with Gonzalez, a pair of defensive backs — Champ Bailey and Ed Reed — are likely to be elected in their first year of eligibility. This would leave two slots open for Bruce and the other 11 modern-era finalists. Tony Boselli? Steve Atwater? Kevin Mawae? John Lynch? Edgerrin James? All good players, all worthy of the case that will be made for them in the selection room. But more worthy of induction than Isaac Bruce? Hell no.

Bruce is one of just six players to have his jersey (#83) retired by the University of Memphis. He visits the Bluff City regularly and, with the Rams having returned to Los Angeles, remains an icon in our sister city of St. Louis. In these parts, we've long known Isaac Bruce is a Hall of Famer. It will be nice when the Pro Football Hall of Fame officially recognizes such. Let’s hope it’s February 2nd.

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