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.


chop said...

Being a fairly new Tiger fan I must say this has been the most exciting year I seen. I have laughed and (yes it's true) I've cried. But to tell you the truth I have never had so much fun. I feel like these boys are mine and they certainly love to make me happy.Way to go Tigers and Randy thanks for making it so real for me. Chop

Pat Rainer said...

Your story just took me on a roller coaster ride of emotions. You have painted a picture of Memphis that is truly unique and done with amazing detail and eloquence. I did not become a Tiger Basketball Fan till I was a student at MSU in the mid-70's, but from that time I have been hooked. Our small group of Memphians here in LA carries our love for the Tigers in the face of the UCLA Bruins every season.
I want to say "Thanks" to Coach Cal for a tremendous job. There are no words to express what he has done to bring our program back to national prominence.

davethedog said...

I love this story of sports of yesteryear. John Gunn was truely the "Gipper" of his day. The success of the Tigers had been a blessing to many. It has allowed us to put aside our differences and not be so judgemental of our brethren. Even Ann Couter, while still calling John Edwards an unkind homophobic name, has extended this goodwill to his wife. I heard that she said Mrs. Edwards looked "thin". What a compliment.

Ruff, Ruff

Alan said...

So make a donation and join us at the games. By the way it was the Arena not Keil. Also known as the Checker Dome.

Gizmo said...


That was wonderful!

Though I was too young to remember the 1957 NIT, you are correct in that it was certainly as prestigious as the NCAA tourney then.

We moved from Memphis in 1961 and did not return until 1969. I remember then being able to get into the Coliseum for free at half-time because in Iba's waning days the crowds were smaller.

When Coach Bartow arrived I was thrilled as a teen to be the guest of my neighbors ( who held season tickets) at Tiger basketball games where I saw the aforementioned Fred "The Chair" Horton, James Douglas, Don Holcomb, etal play. My family and I were members of the Jewish Community Center then and I always saw a lot of fellow members at Memphis State games.

( Later, when the Memphis Pros came to town and used to practice at the JCC, my younger brother and I used to hang out in the gym with them and snag balls for them just as you did in the Fieldhouse.)

In 1988 I was visiting friends in Boston, MA where I happened to meet then-Mayor Raymond Flynn ( who later became US Ambassador to the Vatican under Clinton.) When asked I told him I was from Memphis.
He replied, " I remember Memphis. I once played there in college against Memphis State. They had a great player named Wayne Yates."

In 2005, I was in Anderton's restaurant shortly before it closed forever. I noticed three tall men dining at a table and remarked to my friend Paul who, like you, is a University of Tennessee graduate and a lifelong Memphian, that they looked familiar.

Paul immediately recognized them as Jamie McMahan, John Snyder and John Hillman, from the 1964 Tiger squad. I still have their autographs on my refrigerator. They seemed thrilled to be recognized and remembered.

Over the years I have befriended many Memphis State ballplayers, including "Steady" Eddie Wilson, Buster Hancock, Hank McDowell, Dennis Isbell, Michael Golden and Ricky McCoy.

I loved the fact that you mentioned Omar Sneed. Only this weekend someone asked me who my favorite Tiger basketballers of all time were. Obviously Larry Finch was one, but Omar Sneed, Larry Kenon, Ronnie Robinson, Dexter Reed, Marion Hillard, Bobby Parks and Rodney Carney were my personal favorites.

I expect CDR will soon make my list.

Anyway, thanks for the great post. I suggest you submit it to either Memphis Magazine or the Flyer for publication.

Just one question. Didn't John Gunn go to Melrose rather than Booker T.?


Jan said...

Boy that brought back some old memories. I was talking to some friends here about growing up watching the Tigers play basketball. They were all so excited Memphis beat A&M (all good Longhorn fans hate the Aggies!) Thanks for sending your thoughts to me!

Don and I have had Longhorn season tickets (basketball) long before it was fashionable! Our father's would be thrilled!


Anonymous said...

Sad day when that news came down about John Gunn. Too bad John Gunn couldn't have announced that Fred Cook just died.

Babbygunn said...

Good story one of John Gunn cousin play's women's basketball at Tusculum College with a 20-3 record now. Much Love Tiger fan.

Gregg said...

Beautiful piece, RJ. I'm at work and saw you had created something so I hit the button. When I read your elegiac remembrance of the moment of Gunn's death announcement my eyes teared enough to spill over onto the chart on my desk. A great American treasure... that's you, old man.

I'll be watching tonight, screaming like a banshee, scaring the hell out of the lady who lives upstairs.

Marvell Thomas said...

Never let us forget the fact that made the Tigers so loved in this community, aside from their exploits on the court, was the commentary of "Big" Jack Eaton. He personalized the players for us, gave them their famous nicknames, and was the most unabashed Tiger fan you'll ever find. His calling of the Tiger games was so much a part of the Tiger mystique that fans attending the games would bring radios so they could listen to Jack Eaton while they watched in person. Tiger basketball, although phenomenal in it's current incarnation, isn't quite the same without Jack Eaton calling the games. GO TIGERS!!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I enjoyed reading it immensely. I was there on March 26, 1973. It was the Checkerdome, not Keil Auditorium. I ran into Gene Bartow at a Grizzlies game in December and proudly told him that was the first Tigers' game I ever saw in person. I was eight.

I was also there the night John Gunn died and remember the wailing from the student section. The program continued to wail for the next five years until Keith Lee came to town. Wayne Yates might have been a great coach if Gunn had lived.

And I was there the afternoon in March of 1997 when Larry Finch beat Bob Huggins and the Cincinnati Bearcats. Thirty minutes later, I saw Larry signing his resignation contract at a hot dog stand. Thanks, R.C. Johnson for giving him such a classy dismissal.

Last week I kept a muted TV set on at work waiting for some word that this was all some evil April Fool's joke, and that John Calipari was staying forever. That word never came.

And yesterday my hopes were raised by the unbridled enthusiasm of Josh Pastner, a kid who wasn't born until EIGHT YEARS after I became a Memphis Tiger fan.