Along with juke joints on Beale Street, riverboats on the Big
Muddy and Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard, the city of
Memphis is known for basketball prodigies on its playgrounds. At
the University of Memphis (formerly Memphis State), four
starters are native Memphians and nine of the 14 players on the
roster are from the city.
"The kids from Memphis live and die to be here. For them, it
means a little more," says coach Larry Finch, who grew up in the
city and was an All-America guard at Memphis State in the early
1970s. "We're like a family here."
Let Finch count the ways. His son Larry Jr. is a walk-on
freshman guard on the team, but that's only the beginning.
"Cedric Henderson's mother and I go to the same church. And I
was in the same high school class with Michael Wilson's dad. And
I played against Rodney Newsom's dad in high school. And I used
to change Lorenzen Wright's diapers," says the 44-year-old
Finch, who must commit scores of NCAA recruiting violations
every time he visits a buddy's house or worships on Sunday.
"It's frightening that I'm coaching my friends' children."
"I have known Coach Finch forever," says star center Wright
(page 74), whose father, Herb, grew up with Finch in the city's
Orange Mound neighborhood. "I came here because I knew he would
do right by me."
Critics around town are quick to point out Finch's
shortcomings--"He's not a strong game coach" is the usual
refrain. Last December the criticism reached peak volume. The
football coach, Chuck Stobart, had just been fired. The
basketball team was 4-3 going into a game against Tennessee on
the 17th, and the speculation on the talk-radio shows was that
if the Tigers lost again, Finch would be history. But Memphis
won 50-46, Finch's job was secured, and the team went on to
"I was attacked personally, but you just have to keep believing
in yourself. Everybody has an opinion," says Finch, whose record
at Memphis is 182-107 over nine years. He has had only one
losing season (13-16 in 1993-94), while putting together six
20-win seasons and five NCAA tournament appearances. He is the
only coach in NCAA history to take his alma mater to the Final
Four, have his jersey retired by the school and become the
school's alltime winningest coach.
Alas, even with such accomplishments, Finch realizes that some
people will never be happy with him. But not even his harshest
critic can utter a discouraging word about Finch's ability to
keep top players home on the range.
He has always attracted many of the city's best players, but
there's no denying that this year's group is something special.
Five starters return from the team that won the Great Midwest
Conference championship. Now competing in a new league,
Conference USA, the Tigers have 73% of their scoring and 63% of
their rebounding back.
After the Tigers' losing season in 1993-94, nobody expected a
quick turnaround, but last year they went all the way to the
NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 before losing to Arkansas 96-91. With
14 seconds remaining in regulation, a hand-checking foul was
called on Tiger guard Chris Garner. Arkansas's Corey Beck made
one of two free throws and sent the game into overtime. In the
extra period Arkansas went on a 9-2 run as Memphis ran out of
"I was sick for a while after that game," says the 5'10" Garner,
a speedy junior who will again play the point this season. "We
were hand-checking each other all night, and I was the one
caught doing it. The hurt in my heart is still there. We had a
chance to go a long way."
This season expect the Tigers to go a ways longer. "We're eager
to get started. The national championship is our goal," says
6'2" senior guard Mingo Johnson, the only starter who does not
hail from Memphis. Johnson grew up all of a three-hour drive
away in that other music mecca, Nashville.
Leading the pack of returning players is 6'11" sophomore Wright,
who was one of the top freshmen in the country last season,
averaging 14.8 points and 10.2 rebounds. "My goal is to break
the school record of 28 rebounds in one game," says Wright of
the mark set in 1971 by Ronnie Robinson. Wright led the Tigers
in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots last season. Says
Finch, "For us to win, he has to step up offensively."
The Tigers held their opponents to 39.3% field goal shooting
last season, and the best defensive player on the court was
power forward Henderson. Finch calls him Mr. Versatility for
good reason: The 6'7" junior was also second on the team in
scoring, with a 12.9 average.
One of the most dazzling players to behold is 6'5" senior small
forward Wilson, whose vertical jump has been measured at 51.5
inches by Memphis strength and conditioning coaches. "He can
flat jump out of the gym," says Finch of Wilson, who seemingly
has springs inside his shoes. Adds Wright, "On dunks, he gets so
high it's as if he's dropping a wad of paper in the garbage can."
Wilson leaped into the starting lineup last February after
junior forward David Vaughn went out with a stress fracture in
his left foot. Vaughn, who was drafted in the first round by the
Orlando Magic in June, did not start the final 10 games of the
season; on five of those occasions he sat because Wilson was
playing so well.
The two key reserves on the team are 6'7" juco All-America James
Newman, a junior forward who transferred from Cincinnati State,
and senior forward Newsom, who last year was called upon to
provide instant offense. Against the University of Cincinnati,
the 6'6" Newsom scored 23 points in 25 minutes in a 74-69
Memphis isn't an especially tall team, but the players do love
to dunk. Last year they set a school record with 177 slams. But
it would figure that a bunch raised on the blues of Beale Street
would love to jam. "Most guys my age listen to rap," says
Wright, "but my favorite song is Down Home Blues."
The Tigers enter the season with an 18-game home winning streak.
If Wright and the rest of these hometown heros live up to their
promise, expect most opponents to leave Memphis singing the same
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Johnson and his fellow Tennessee natives have some lofty goals for this season. [Mingo Johnson]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Larry Finch
Career record: 182-107 (9 seasons)
Record at Memphis: 182-107 (9 seasons)
1994-95 record: 24-10 (final ranking: 14th)
Great Midwest record: 9-3 (first)
SF *Michael Wilson, 6'5", Sr.
Shot 57.3% from the field
PF *Cedric Henderson, 6'7", Jr.
58.3% free throw shooter, hit 18 of last 20
C *Lorenzen Wright, 6'11", Soph.
Team leader, had 15 double doubles
SG *Mingo Johnson, 6'2", Sr.
Sank 72 three-pointers last season
PG *Chris Garner, 5'10", Jr.
Led team in assists (6.4) and steals (2.7)
Jan. 4 at Massachusetts
First-ever meeting between the schools
Jan. 8 vs. UNC Charlotte
Conference USA debut for Tigers
Jan. 18 vs. Arkansas
Chance to avenge 96-91 NCAA-tourney loss
Feb. 3 at Louisville
Tigers are 8-25 on road against Cardinals
Feb. 17 at Georgetown
Wright takes on Othella Harrington
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
James Newman, a 6'7" forward, is Memphis's top newcomer. Newcomer?
The man is 25 years old and has a month-old son. From 1988 to
'91 he served in the Navy, always finding time when at sea to
play basketball on deck. "We lost plenty of balls overboard," he
says. After completing his tour of duty, Newman drove a forklift
at a factory in Cincinnati. In 1993 he enrolled at Cincinnati
State Junior College and joined the basketball team. The last
time he had played organized hoops was as a high school
freshman. Yet Newman was a second-team juco All-America last
season, averaging 14.8 points and 8.5 rebounds.
Once in a while he finds it hard to believe he is at Memphis,
playing on one of the nation's top teams. Says Newman,
"Sometimes I just want to pinch myself."