Rightly Seasoned! 

The 1990s are back, and the University of Memphis and Li’l Penny are leading the charge.

On March 19, 1992, my teacher brought her own television to school.

She had promised us earlier in the week that we would get to watch the Tigers as a treat if we had good conduct or learned our times tables or whatever else elementary school kids do to earn treats. Being relatively new to the area, I had no idea what "watching the tigers" would entail. A nature documentary maybe? A surprise field trip to the zoo seemed unlikely. But my classmates were excited, so I played along.

We took a break from practicing cursive to watch basketball on a Thursday afternoon. I learned about an extraordinary player called Penny, who was from Memphis. I learned Memphis State was more than the place where I went to day camp in the summer. Crowded around a tiny set in the back of a portable classroom, I learned basketball was a Big Deal here. Watching some basketball players from our city — the same school where my dad took business classes at night! — on national television blew my 9-year-old mind. And they were winning! I was fully on board.

I recall proudly announcing to the crossing guard that "THE TIGERS BEAT PEPPERDINE!" as I skipped to my neighbor's car at the end of the day. I am confident I had no idea what or where was a Pepperdine, because all I can tell you to this day is that it is in California.

That Tigers team made it to the Elite Eight. It didn't happen again until I was a senior in college, three coaches and two arenas later. A lot of things have changed, right down to the name of the university.

But the '90s are back in a big way. Twin Peaks and Roseanne are on TV again. Slipdresses and round eyeglasses are cool for some reason, and Bruno Mars' tour dates are sponsored by Cross Colours. They're making another Lion King, for crying out loud. The albums I grew up listening to are being reissued as 20th and 25th anniversary editions, and they're in heavy rotation on the "classic" stations. Well, they're in "classic" playlists on Spotify, which I suppose is the closest equivalent. The cultural cycle is coming back around to my generation's "good old days" and I'm okay with it. Flannel and tearaway pants are extremely comfortable. Just not together.

click to enlarge Penny Hardaway - PIERRE DUCHARME | REUTERS
  • Pierre Ducharme | Reuters
  • Penny Hardaway

So yeah, I am 1000 percent here for the ultimate '90s throwback: a return to the days of Li'l Penny, those black and blue Orlando Magic Starter jackets, and the squeaky-clean foamposite Nikes the boys in my class showed off the first day back at school after Christmas break. I'm here for King Cotton meats (they're Rightly Seasoned!) and Being Smart, Staying Clean, and Keeping the Dream.

I'll be honest, Grind City has felt more like Groan City lately. So I am ready to recapture a piece of the excitement. It's been a few Marches since I've felt this optimistic about Tiger basketball.

Long-ago times and long-gone people associate Tiger basketball with happy memories for a lot of us. The moments may have happened in the Mid-South Coliseum in a cloud of Grandpa's cigar smoke, on the steps of the Tomb of Doom, in a bar off campus, or on a spur-of-the-moment drive to San Antonio, but they have one thing in common: community. I've heard so many stories, and they never get old. They start with friends, parents, aunts and uncles, and siblings, and they don't always end with a win. We remember where we were, who we were with, even what we were wearing in case a particular outfit has lucky powers we might need to activate during a future game. I bet my former teacher told her friends about the time she didn't want to miss a tournament game, so she lugged her heavy old TV to work and conned her class into thinking they were being rewarded for their good behavior.

That's not unique to Memphis. What makes us different is the fact that we are a little nuts and we care too much. Memphis fans come in all stripes, but they share a reputation for outsized expectations. Whether those expectations are viewed as passion or delusion, endearing or annoying, determines just as much as recruiting and X's and O's. It's a blessing or a curse, depending on your outlook. And I have a feeling this new guy gets it.

Jen Clarke is a digital marketing specialist and an unapologetic Memphian.

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