In a long gray overcoat and a blue MEMPHIS POLICE ASSOCIATION
baseball cap, Larry Finch picks his way through the crowd at The
Pyramid in Memphis, munching peanuts, shaking hands, chatting up
security guards, hugging anyone who approaches with arms
outstretched. Over the last five years Finch has lost a job he
loved, had his gallbladder removed and suffered a stroke that
limits his speech and movement. During that span former
University of Memphis president V. Lane Rawlins called him "the
most important figure in Memphis sports history," but, alas,
that encomium came on Jan. 30, 1997, the day that Finch, a
Memphis native and guard who led the school to the NCAA
championship game in 1973, resigned under pressure as Tigers
basketball coach. Memphis is home to the blues, and Larry Finch
sure does know the blues.
On the bright side, though, Finch loves hoops, and at The Pyramid
these days there are sometimes as many as five games a week,
featuring either Finch's old team or the NBA Grizzlies, who
relocated from Vancouver after last season. "I'm still loyal to
the Tigers," says Finch, who continues to undergo rehab for his
stroke, "but I'm more of a Grizzlies fan these days."
So the battle for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of Memphians
has been joined. Two teams, one arena, one city--the last the hub
of the smallest TV market in the NBA. It's not a battle exactly,
at least not according to the Chamber of Commerce level of
goodwill evident in the Bluff City these days, a city haunted by
the memory of franchises long departed (the Showboats of the
USFL, the Rockers of the World Basketball League, the Pharaohs of
the Arena Football League, the list goes on). Right now the
teams, both of which play a fan-pleasing racehorse style, are
coexisting in mediocrity, at least relative to their own
After an 84-66 road victory over Houston last Saturday night, the
Tigers were 17-4 but hadn't lived up to several preseason
prognostications. "Whoever picked us in the Top 20," said coach
John Calipari, "should be drug-tested." The Grizzlies were 12-31
through Sunday but had been at least as good as advertised,
considering that they'd traded their two best players (Shareef
Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby) and, because of injuries, have gotten
limited minutes from their two most established ones (shooting
guard Michael Dickerson, stress fracture near his right groin,
and center Lorenzen Wright, fractured left tibia).
The Tigers are winning the fannies-in-the-seats war, though not
decisively. They play to sold-out houses at every home game--the
arrival of the high-visibility Calipari last season has spiked
season-ticket sales from 7,800 to 17,500 in a 20,000-capacity
arena--but on some nights there are a couple of thousand
no-shows. That doesn't alarm the college administrators, but it
has caught their attention. "If the Grizzlies have two home
games and we have two home games," says Memphis athletic
director R.C. Johnson, "very few fans can go to four games in a
row. We're in great shape revenue-wise, but we need our fans to
keep showing up."
The Grizzlies, with a season-ticket base of about 9,900, are
drawing 5,000 fewer per game than the Tigers, but their 14,817
fans a game at week's end put them ahead of eight other NBA
teams. However, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have already
filled The Pyramid, so it would be wise to check back in March,
when the team is, say, 19-52 and the Golden State Warriors are
So far the civic double team has been full of Southern charm,
even quaint. One of the few prominent Memphians willing to go on
the record with a pessimistic opinion is Mike Rose, a millionaire
university booster who helps pay Calipari's $1 million salary, of
which the school chips in only $135,000. "The Grizzlies have made
horrible personnel decisions over the years, they're playing in
the smallest NBA market, and they're going up against an
established program," says Rose. "I'm glad I don't have my money
invested in them."
Rose concedes, though, that the Grizzlies have come into town
with the proper hat-in-hand humility. Indeed, the pros and the
amateurs have traded stereotypical roles. The Grizzlies have a
quiet, little-known coach (Sidney Lowe); a quiet, thoughtful
general manager (Billy Knight); and a choirboy first-round draft
pick (rookie Shane Battier) who moved into a modest loft near the
site of the new Grizzlies arena, which is scheduled to open in
2004. Even team president Dick Versace, who as a college and NBA
coach was a quote machine and wore a colossal cottontop, has
closed his yap and shorn his coiffure.
The Tigers, by contrast, have a ref-baiting, clotheshorse,
high-profile coach; a superstar player (freshman Dajuan Wagner)
with a megaposse; a sexy and sassy dance team (which has won 10
national dance-team championships); an imperious mascot (Tom II,
a Bengal tiger who arrives at The Pyramid in a cage air-cooled
to 50[degrees]); and an over-the-top 2001: A Space
Odyssey-themed introduction (mandated by Elvis devotee Johnson
because Presley, in his final years, began his shows with that
theme). And if Wagner leaves after one season for the NBA--"I'm
taking it one year at a time" is his position on the matter--the
collegians are going to look like the free-agent carpetbaggers.
Comparisons are rarely perfect, of course. The Grizzlies have a
tattooed, trash-talking loose cannon of a point guard named Jason
Williams, and Wagner seems at times to be almost too coachable,
looking over at Calipari instead of taking over the game on
instinct. "Dajuan is the nicest good player I've ever been
around" is the way Calipari describes him.
What's more, Calipari has a large target on his back, one that he
put there himself. He brought in not only Dajuan, who will hardly
help Calipari attain his stated goal of improving Memphis's
graduation rate, but also Dajuan's father, Milt, as coordinator
of basketball operations, and Dajuan's high school teammate,
Arthur Barclay, as a scholarship recruit. Milt had never coached
at any level, and Barclay, a backup forward averaging 2.6 points
and 2.1 rebounds at week's end, isn't Division I material. The
suspicion is that he was recruited simply to help close the
Dajuan deal. "I knew I'd take hits for all that," says Calipari.
"I was prepared for it. But what's going on now isn't right."
In columns last month, Geoff Calkins of Memphis's main newspaper,
The Commercial Appeal, ripped Calipari, the impetuses being a
90-73 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 2 and an incident in which Tigers
assistant Tony Barbee elbowed Razorbacks freshman J.J. Sullinger
as Sullinger chased a ball near the Memphis bench. The Barbee
shove reinforced Calkins's opinion that the Tigers are "hard to
like" and that there's a "growing backlash" against both Calipari
(argues with officials too much, trashes regional rivalries, says
Calkins) and his team (aloof and difficult to deal with).
"Contrast it with the perception of the Grizzlies, and you wonder
exactly how things got flipped around quite this way in this
town," wrote Calkins. Calipari says his 14-year-old daughter,
Erin, cried when she read one of the columns, which prompted his
wife, Ellen, to cancel the family's subscription, which prompted
the newspaper to write a story about the cancellation, which
prompted John to get mad at The Commercial Appeal all over again.
Ironically, Calipari is one reason the Grizzlies have been so
well received. "As influential as John is, he could've been a
great hindrance," says Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies' CEO and
majority owner. "But he was a stand-up guy and said that us
coming was great for the city. We owe a great debt to John."
Calipari says he believes the pizzazz and publicity that come
from having a pro team in Memphis will help the university
attract the national spotlight, even though he says the spotlight
came at a personal price to him. How's that, John? "I was the guy
in town for advertising and marketing stuff," said Calipari.
"Let's say a phone company wants me to do something. I say I need
to be paid and I need airtime for me and my staff. But a
Grizzlies player says, 'I'll do it just for the phone.' So they
take the player."
To say that Calipari's image in Memphis has diminished on any
grand scale would be a vast overstatement. He's in place
precisely because the school needed someone to come up with W's
without further besmirching its reputation. Memphis coaches have
been fired amid recruiting irregularities and tax evasion (Dana
Kirk) and have resigned under pressure after having an affair
with a female student (Tic Price). Finch, Kirk's successor, had a
220-130 record with six NCAA tournament appearances in 11 seasons
but was forced out because attendance, donations to the program
and--with certain exceptions, local products Wright and Penny
Hardaway being the most prominent--recruiting successes had
decreased. Landing a coach like Calipari would've been a godsend
in any case, but against this backdrop it was as if John Wooden
had donned a designer suit and walked into The Pyramid with a
clipboard. "Tigers fans didn't give up on their program, even
with all that happened," says Jim Rothman, a season-ticket holder
for 30 years, "but John Calipari is the single biggest reason
we're excited again."
Although the Grizzlies have the unpredictability of Williams and
two strong rookie-of-the-year candidates in Battier and Pau
Gasol, a 7-foot forward from Spain, excitement might be too
strong a word to describe what the new kids in town have
generated. Still, the team has generated buzz, which started
after a 114-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at The Pyramid on
Dec. 21. Isaac Hayes has become a regular at games--he has
performed the pregame national anthem--and Lowe and his assistants
were among the revelers at Hayes's downtown restaurant on New
Year's Eve. Justin Timberlake of *NSync has shown up (his
stepfather is an executive at a local bank), and homegirl Cybill
Shepherd delivered a not altogether harmonic rendition of The
Star-Spangled Banner before one game.
While the university depends on a traditional base of loyal
locals, the Grizzlies have drawn from a wider area; it has long
been said that Memphis is the capital of Arkansas and
Mississippi, and the pro team hopes to capitalize on that. As for
the Grizzlies' dance team, don't even suggest that its hoofers
are content with second billing. "We're much more diverse and
professional," says Beth Vanderford, 21, who is one of five
former University of Memphis dancers on the Grizzlies' squad.
"We're more than straight-up pom girls." Whoa! Dance Team
The Grizzlies are waiting for 2004, when they move into their own
arena, for which Memphis-based FedEx has naming rights. "We're
going to crescendo in our new building," Versace often tells his
troops. Heisley says he might ask the Tigers to join him there, a
proposition that causes Johnson to furrow his brow. "Things have
been pretty nice for us at The Pyramid," he says, "but it's
something we'd have to take a look at."
For now, there's a lot of hoops to look at. After a recent
Grizzlies loss, there was Finch exchanging pleasantries with
fans. "You going to be around for the Tigers?" someone asked him.
"Oh, yeah," said Finch. "Another game tomorrow night."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE ALL SHOOK UP Wagner (far left) and Battier have enlivened hoops-hopping Memphis with shades of old glamour.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES TIGER TRACKS With players like Duane Erwin, a title-winning dance team and Calipari, the college game is the more reliable draw.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES GRIN AND BEAR IT In a variety of ways Williams & Co. have a more wholesome appeal than their collegiate counterparts.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BLUFF CITY? It remains to be seen whether the Grizzlies, based in the league's smallest market, will attract fans in the NBA's dog days.
Calipari believes the pizzazz and pub that come from having a
pro team in Memphis will help the university.
Excitement might be too strong a word to describe what the new
kids in town have generated.
"If the Grizzlies have two home games and we have two," says the
school's AD, "few fans can go to four in a row."