Monday, March 26, 2007

Go Tigers Go

Amid the excitement of the University of Memphis playing in the "Elite Eight" of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, I was trying to tell a new convert to Tigermania that you really needed to be a lifelong Memphian to fully appreciate the significance of this team to this city. It's not like Boston or Chicago where long suffering fans were devoted to their professional sports teams, in part because we have never been "long suffering" in our quest for a national title and have had glorious years and wonderful memories along the way. And our teams' athletes came from a cross-section of America, often unrecruited by the major schools, and accomplished amazing things along the way to establishing Memphis State as a basketball power. The bond between the city of Memphis and the basketball Tigers is far more intimate than that. And then today, in "News from Bygone Days," in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it noted the huge crowd that gathered at the airport on March 25, 1957, to welcome home the Memphis State College basketball team, who's rise from nowhere and remarkable run had resulted in the runner-up spot in the National Invitational Tournament, losing to champion Bradley by one point. Among those present to greet the Tigers was Elvis Presley, who had a pretty good year himself. Legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips constructed a goal on the set on his 1957 zany afternoon television show, "The Pop Shop," to entertain the Tiger players who regularly stopped by. Basketball became interconnected with the rising popularity of Rock and Roll in Memphis.

I watched that 1957 game from Madison Square Garden on my parents oval-screened, black and white Philco TV, and though I had not yet turned 10 years old, I remember the flickering images of Win Wilfong, the first of a family dynasty to play for Memphis, struggle for a rebound, and had the ball just bounced a little this way, the Tigers might have won the tournament that was every bit the equal in prestige to the NCAA tournament. My father did more than say "wait until next year." For the 1958 season in the campus' Field House, he bought the season tickets that he would keep for the rest of his life. I was one of those little kids under the bucket, grabbing stray rebounds and throwing them back to my favorite players in the warm-ups and half-times of the games. The players sat on a literal bench, completely accessible to the crowd. If things were going well, it was nothing for me to walk up behind the bench, sit on a railing, and ask Lowery Kirk or Jamie McMahon if they thought we were going to win. And how glorious when our little college defeated a ranked opponent, as they did with Dayton and Loyola of Chicago in packed to the rafters games with wild celebrations following. Then there are the names, memorable only among Tiger fans, now embossed with an aura of greatness; Gene Wilfong, Skip Wolfe, Orby Arnold, Jim Hockaday, Oscar Ammer, Hunter Beckman, Frank Snyder, and King George Kirk.

The move to the Coliseum in 1964 only added to the fortunate number who could now see the Tigers play in person. We went in ice or snow. Fans griped when a "no smoking" in the arena policy was initiated and took their habit to the concourse level, which often resembled the testing rooms at Phillip Morris Tobacco. I also noted that among season ticket holders, a Memphis State home game during half-time, often resembled Temple Israel on a Friday night. Then came the Moe Iba years, when a coach, heavy on discipline and a belief in a defensive game, often had his team hold the ball for five minutes at a time (no shot clock), which resulted in final scores of 36-33, or even 22-19. And although Iba was rightly criticized for wasting the talents of Mike Butler, one of Memphis' first home-grown heroes to play for MSU, the Tigers still packed the house. And Herb Hilliard became the first black player to wear the Tiger uniform.

When I returned to Memphis in 1971 after an absence of six years, there was a new coach, Gene Bartow, who had recruited players like Memphis' Fred Horton, and put a new excitement into Tiger basketball. I was in the balcony for the heartbreaking loss that year to #2 Marquette, where it seemed an incredible series of Tiger missteps gave Bo Ellis the chance to sink a last second, desperation shot to win the game and send the Marquette coach, Al McGuire, into a frenzied celebration, making the obscene "up yours," elbow and forearm gesture to the stunned Tiger crowd, over and over again. I held season tickets the remarkable year that Larry "The Legend" Finch and Ronnie Robinson came from Melrose High School to the Tigers, beginning a heartening trend that lasts until this day. And I was in St. Louis in March of 1973, in the hallways of Keil Auditorium at halftime when MSU was tied with UCLA for the national championship game, and thousands of Tiger fans were screaming at the top of their lungs, "Can you believe it?" I still wince when someone remarks that Bill Walton hit 21 of 22 shots from the floor to lead the Bruins to victory.

I also witnessed the most tragic incident to ever befall the team, which was on December 21, 1976. Shortly before the Tigers were to take the floor against Ole Miss, a hushed and unprepared crowd was informed of the death of John Gunn. Gunn was one of Memphis' all-time brightest recruits from Melrose High, when only a few games into the season he fell ill with a rare disease that no one had ever heard of, much less believe might be fatal. When announcer Fred Cook said, "Ladies and gentlemen, John Gunn just died," the soul-chilling wails and screams that arose from the student section are something I will never forget. Cook continued to inform the packed house that the Tigers had a meeting where they were given the option of postponing the game, but they decided to play in honor of their fallen teammate. In the end, when the Tigers won a close victory, 12,000 people stood cheering for the team and sobbing for the young man that we would now never know, who had unlimited potential, but died so young. To be in that crowd on that night was an emotional catharsis that touches me still.

Later that same year, my band, Randy and the Radiants, was playing at a nasty nightclub in North Little Rock called The Living Room, where the walls were lined with red shag carpet and the wet T-shirt contest was among the most smarmy I had seen. But that was Wednesday and this was Saturday, and the Tigers were in Little Rock to play the ranked Arkansas Razorbacks. It was a late night club, so we were allowed the privilege of staying in our lice-ridden trailer to watch the Tigers pull a gutty upset over a hostile Arkansas home crowd, and we were in good spirits by the 10:00 start time of the gig. In mid set, in walked Coach Wayne Yates and the rest of the Tiger team and staff. I announced their arrival over the microphone and welcomed them with a bit too much exuberance for the lounge hounds. Wayne Yates approached me and asked if I minded recognizing the assistant coaches. I was more than happy to, but I went on to say what a courageous group of young men these were, and how that gave their road win even more significance. The Tigers responded with hearty applause but when the band took a break, a burly, red-faced man reeking of sore loser whiskey rushed up to my face and said, "If you say one more word about the fucking Tigers, I'm going to kick your ass all over this club." I had already said enough.

When the Tigers fall just short of their intended goal, I don't sweat it too much. I have had a lifetime of "wait until next years," but what a ride this team has given me, and my father before me. So, I say thank you Tigers, for the years of exciting late-night airport welcomes. Thank you Dexter Reed, David McKinnie, Marion "The Elevator" Hillard, Billy Buford and Bobby Parks. Thank you Bill Cook, Johnny Hillman, and Phillip "Doom" Haynes. Thanks for "Keith Lee Day" in Overton Square. Thank you Elliot Perry and Andre Turner, Baskerville Holmes and John Wilfong, Penny Hardaway and Lorenzen Wright and Rodney Carney. And thank you to the outstanding players who took average seasons and made them great, like Omar Sneed and Jermaine Ousley, Shyrone Chatman and Steve Betzelberger. The team of 2006-2007 was one of the most exciting ever, and already their names are being mentioned with the great names of years past.

I used to have a pet theory that the dark cloud over Memphis caused by the King assassination in our city, could be lifted if the Tigers won the National Championship. That was when the city's spirits seemed to rise and fall with the fortunes of the team. But I now believe that the cloud, if not dissipated, has brightened considerably because of the way this community has joined ranks over this team. It is the brightest spot in our city's fractured racial history and a sign of the continued metropolitan-ization of our populous. When John Lennon sang, "Come together, right now, over me," I believe he must have been thinking of the Tigers.

When the team of 2007-2008 prepares for another run in the basketball wars, I'll be right there with them. They are already a part of a grander history that doesn't just include the team and the school, but our memories, our families and friends, our fathers and mothers and our children who have cheered for this team. We'll get them one of these times, I'm certain. I thought for a minute that this might be the year after the 1 point win over Texas A&M in front of 20,000 screaming Aggie fans, but the fact that they didn't make the Final Four this year is alright too. I see a pattern. First, they won the NIT, something the team of 1957 came so close to doing that it set off a Memphis basketball bonanza for the school, the program, and the city. With two solid appearances in the Elite Eight and the entire team returning, minus one, I have everything I need as a fan for next season; hope. It seems as if every Tiger fan I know shares that sentiment too. One of the greatest gifts that you can give to a community is hope. So, well done Tigers. You made us proud, and I can barely wait until next November.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Texas Justice

I'm not a lawyer, so it's alright for you to believe me, but it seems as if among all the clatter and chatter about eight fired U.S. Attorneys, the main point is being overlooked. Every incoming President appoints his own party's faithful to the offices of Federal Prosecutor. It's a perk of the office. But if I hear one more administration toady say they "serve at the pleasure of the President," I'm going to be ill. Ordinarily, that statement would be true enough, but in this Justice Department, the U.S. Attorneys serve to please Karl Rove and his ideological litmus tests. No, Monica Lewinsky "served at the pleasure of the President." These inept cronies of President Zero and his buddy, Shooter, are merely party hacks and sycophants with law degrees, who serve to advance their careers and further the ideological agenda of the ultra-right, to reverse the progressive societal advances of the sixties.

Their e-mails are damning and Karl Rove has been found in the middle of it, but the eight firings weren't the most egregious breaches of the public trust. Sure, Alberto Gonzales fired Carol Lam after she successfully prosecuted the "Duke-stir" Cunningham for lingering too long at the Abramoff cash cow teat, and her sights had been set on another Republican congressman. Sen. Pete Dominici phoned Karl to say he no longer could abide the obstruction of federal prosecutor David Iglesias, a Navy Reserve Commander, because he refused to speed up indictments of Democrats before the last election. And Karl pressured the DOJ and Gonzales to appoint his assistant, Tim Griffin, to the prosecutor's office in Little Rock, just before Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President. The discussions among the amateurs in the White House concerning whom to fire and why, were ugly and possibly illegal, but the nastiest part of this entire incident is that the Patriot Act was abused intentionally and without question, for domestic political purposes. The Patriot Act gives the President the right to fire any U.S. Attorney and put his own man in the office without congressional oversight only in the case of national emergency. Usually, Federal Prosecutors are chosen with the input of state and local government officials and the area's bar associations, even if it is a partisan exercise. The NSA warantless spying and the government's examination of personal citizens' financial records may be debated on what is the extent of the President's wartime powers, but this interference with the judicial system is a right-wing Republican power grab, pure and simple.

I asked in a previous post what Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, was doing with sensitive information concerning covert officers of the CIA? Why has Rove, elected by no one and thus accountable to no one, been given the right of selection over which U.S. Attorneys are fit to serve the Bushies? If this were the late 18th Century, an operative like Rove, who had pledged his loyalty to a solitary monarch and attempted to subvert and manipulate the nations' system of justice for political gain, would have been hanged for treason. Now, it will be difficult just to get him to testify under oath before Congress. How many more Michael Browns, Scooter Libbys, and now Gonzales' aide Kyle Sampson, are going to fall on a grenade for this American Rasputin? It is now past time to recognize that this is a rogue government that does not care about the last election, or the Iraq Study Group, or the 9/11 Commission's suggestions. They will attempt to seize more power, territory, oil, and cash until they are stopped.

God bless Molly Ivins, she tried to tell us. Before her death from breast cancer last year, Ivins reported on the career of George Bush longer and more insightfully than anyone else. Her bestseller, "Bushwhacked: Life in George Bush's America," (, $9.00) demonstrated, in Ivin's irascible prose, that every revelation of corruption and favoritism that is surfacing in the country right now, was first perfected in Texas, and with the same group of characters; Bush, Harriet Miers, Gonzales, Karen Hughes, Tom DeLay. And all these people shared the same thing in common; they were discoveries and clients of Karl Rove. That's why John Ashcroft was appointed Attorney General in 2000 after he lost the Missouri Senate race to a dead man; he was a client and fellow traveller of Rove. It was all there for anyone to see; the purging of the Texas Supreme Court of Democrats to be replaced by Rove clients, redistricting to try and insure a permanent Republican majority in the Texas legislature, and the unusual practice of smears and indictments being brought against political opponents just before an election, even if the charges mysteriously faded away afterward. This is just the way that Karl Rove conducts business. Molly Ivins' last column for, was an exhortation to regular citizens to stand up and raise hell about this war and this administration.

I used to be in favor of a Richard Nixon national holiday, where every year on the anniversary of his resignation, his corpse would be exhumed and dragged through the streets of San Clemente. Then we'd always have Nixon to kick around. He was so much more hateable than the current bunch, what with his taking the unprescribed and then experimental drug, Dilantin, a strong anti-seizure medication to control his rage and depression, and the few occasions where he blackened Mrs. Nixon's eyes. Oh, you didn't know? I said you could believe me. But the Bush/Cheney/Rove troika are giving us all black eyes. At least, Nixon understood the need for diplomacy with other nations, if not his own wife. This regime has become a clear and present danger to our form of government, in both foreign and domestic matters, and it is the Constitutional responsibility of concerned citizens to see that they are removed before the 2008 election. In John Dean's words, this is "Worse Than Watergate."

Speaker Pelosi has said that, "impeachment is off the table." Perhaps it is time to get a bigger table, because impeachment may be the last opportunity to rescue our representative form of government from the clutches of these rapacious men. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would be concerned that Cheney's bastard child, Halliburton, is moving from Houston to Dubai. If the United Arab Emirates were prevented from running our ports, Cheney will just bring the ports to them. And the 98,000 acres that the Bush family recently purchased in Paraguay wouldn't be so disturbing an investment had the Paraguayan government not just signed an agreement with the U.S. granting sanctuary and amnesty to any soldier, officer, or government official who may be inconvenienced by war crimes tribunals in the Hague over the Iraq debacle. To a conspiracy buff, it may appear that these guys are preparing to take the money and run. Bush has already been complimentary of the South American "carne." If Nancy Pelosi doesn't have the political will to press for impeachment, it is up to ordinary citizens to make enough noise to demand it.

Since these boys choose to go down the old Nixon stonewall road, the next thing we can expect is the banshee cry of "Executive Privilege," to keep the imperial advice of Karl Rove from becoming public. This is going all the way to the Supreme Court, so let the subpoenas fall where they may. It is well to remember that the Bush Supreme Court appointments began with Clarence Thomas, but might have ended with Harriet Miers were it not for the uproar of the populace and their representatives. Just because the Court appointed Bush, doesn't mean they will decide to keep him there. Judges don't usually take kindly to judicial demands by non-lawyers fiddling with the system, unlike the Attorney General and his para-legals who know no other way. Gonzales can go or stay, it doesn't matter. But piece by piece, the Bush team is unravelling. When all the layers are peeled away from an onion that has gone bad, you are left with the rotten core, which must be discarded lest it poison you. For the sake of our Democracy and the rule of law; Impeach.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bloody Sunday

Thank goodness for C-Span. I enjoy my news non-filtered and preferred to watch the Showdown In Selma without Wolf Blitzer nattering on about how significant the occasion was. I remembered watching the original news about the Selma march in 1965 and being horrified, as was most of the nation, by the brutality of the police as they mowed down the marchers with horses and billy clubs. C-Span allowed me to hear the electrifying address by Congressman John Lewis and the always magnificent Rev. Joseph Lowery speaking about the "good crazy people," which the major networks picked up on, but without context. Barack Obama was invited to speak at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church by John Lewis, a hero of the Selma March who was beaten and bloodied on that dark day. Obama did not give a stem-winding speech, although his emotion rose several times during the address. Rather, he was measured and respectful, aware that he was only a child when the events of Bloody Sunday took place, but cognizant of the personal effect of the movement on both his life and campaign for the presidency.

If Obama came in humility, Hillary came in hubris. Uninvited to attend, Hillary leaned on Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, another hero of the movement, to ask her to address his congregation, only 100 yards from where Obama spoke. As if that weren't chutzpah enough, she brought Bill along for the first time in her campaign. For Hillary to bring Bill for her speech to a black audience reminded me of President Bush insisting that he would appear before the 9/11 Commission only with Dick Cheney by his side. Her speech in the church was more minstrel show than commemorative address. It could only have been more entertaining if she had done it in blackface. Hillary is so scripted and managed, you can almost see the key in her back. And why is it that when white people from the North speak to black people from the South, they get a sorghum molasses twang in their voice and an exaggerated drawl that seems more condescending than a poor attempt to "relate?" Sister Hillary had the cadence going and the sing-song voice rising when she attached that bloody day in Selma to her own candidacy. She neglected to say that in 1965, she was a Goldwater Republican from a wealthy Chicago suburb. She was all call, and no response.

If Sen. Clinton is so committed to civil rights, how does she explain her recent co-sponsorship of a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning? And how can she bitterly critique the Iraq war without denying her vote helped enable BushCo. to launch this war of choice? She mentioned the Little Rock Nine and how they had been friends all these years, echoing the implied but unsaid, "some of my best friends are Negroes." But her Hambone routine reached its zenith when she went for the Bill Clintonesque recitation of the classic Rev. James Cleveland gospel song, "I Don't Feel Noways Tired." It sounded a little like Pat Boone singing "Tutti Frutti." If it's true that Bill Clinton was our first black president, then he was definitely in a bi-racial marriage.

I would welcome a woman president, as I would welcome anyone justifiably qualified, but Sen. Clinton is as calculated a candidate that's come along since Bill Clinton, only without the finesse. Her new nickname should be "Slick Hillie." The senator's supporters always say how intelligent and capable she is, but she plays dirty, as evidenced by the ridiculous attempt to insist Obama distance himself from David Geffen and his critical remarks about the Clintons. I don't know a whole lot of people outside of the music business who even knew who David Geffen was until Hillary saw a chance to pick a meaningless fight with Obama over Hollywood contributors. (Geffen was the recording executive that Joni Mitchell sang about in "Free Man in Paris"). She exudes falsity. Her statement that when attacked by a political opponent, "You have to deck them," sounds like it came from the thesaurus of Karl Rove. If she expects to win the womens' vote, who advised her to be so macho? She is certainly demonstrating more testosterone than John Kerry, but do the voters wish to continue down this same road of divisiveness we have experienced for the last fourteen years?

The "Thing That Wouldn't Die," Newt Gingrich, recently referred to Hillary as a "nasty woman." I believe Gingrich to be a "horrible man." But could it be considered "nasty" to attempt to cut the legs from your political opponent by crashing a commemorative day in Selma, a turning point in the civil rights struggle marked by the blood of martyrs, and turning the entire affair into a political carnival? Was it "nasty" to use the occasion to unveil Bill on the campaign, just when the polls show Hillary dropping among black voters? Was it "nasty" for Bill to call John Lewis before the event and instruct him not to endorse Barack Obama? Maybe I'm just suffering from Clinton fatigue, or an all-encompassing weariness with the dynastic politics of these times. I would hate to admit that I agreed with Newt Gingrich about anything. But on Bloody Sunday, it would have served Hillary well to remember that the civil rights struggle was about measuring a person by "the content of their character."