Friday, November 25, 2005

Anatomy of a Conversion - Or, Kill Duke Tonight!

I'm a Tiger fan. Memphis, that is.

I wasn't always that way. As a child of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I know a bit about UK basketball, and I'll always have an appreciation for that. And, we hold a common nemesis - Louisville.

Part of my early adolescence was spent in West Tennessee, and that meant I was exposed to UT football - even went to a couple of games in Knoxville, even had an orange (God forgive me) jacket. But when I remember those days, I harken back to the Apostle Paul, who said,

"When I was a child, I thought and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away those childish ways for good."

But then, in 1981, when a senior in high school, I went to a Memphis State basketball game with some of my buddies. There I was introduced to the Mid-South Coliseum, and there I watched the Tigers hot new freshman, Keith Lee. The Tigers were playing Florida State, then a Metro Conference foe. We were sitting behind the Tigers' basket on the top level of the Coliseum.

Nationally televised game...bright lights gave the court a transfiguring glow.

And this is how my conversion happened.

Otis Jackson, point guard, bounced passed to the wing, where Phillip "Doom" Haynes took the pass looking to take his famous bank shot (guy had the best bank shot I've ever seen), but, alas, the defense wouldn't allow it.

So, he passed back to OJ (back when a guy would count that nickname as a compliment).

Bounce pass to Bobby Parks (great player who could dribble drive to the hole), but nothing doing.

So, back to OJ, at the top of the key, who faked another pass and then squared up for a long jumper.

The shot was a little too hard, so it hit the heel of the rim and bounced back high off the rim.

Out of nowhere, I see the arm. The man's elbow was at the rim. This hand grabbed the ball in mid-air and slammed it back through the hoop.

It was this tall, skinny kid from West Memphis.

Keith Lee.

But on this day - he was issuing an altar call to be a follower of the Tigers as clear as any evangelist could.

And I answered.

In the words of Dick Enberg - "Oh My!"

It's strange how some moments are so clear in memory, and others fade away, but this one is burned in me.

I had to stay in Memphis.

I had planned on attending Lambuth - you know, get out of town and do what college kids do in a small liberal arts school with a 4 to 1 female to male ratio.

But Memphis had a couple of things going in its favor . . .

. . . my first girlfriend,


the Tigers - the team with a small, but loyal following. Too often derided as "Tiger High," a wannabe when spoken of by UT or Ole Miss...MSU was for me - if, for no other reason, there would come a time when we'd get them, and maybe only once - and a lifetime of losses wouldn't hurt nearly as bad as one victory would hurt them.

"Tiger High" doesn't hurt those of us who bleed blue and gray, it motivates us to want to kick your butts!

That's me. I'm weird that way.

There's been a lot of disappointments and "wait until next year"s in my vocabulary. It's perpetual if you're a Tiger fan.

The heartbrakes are too many to name. Too many times where we've snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, and when that happens against UT or Ole Miss, or Louisville or Cincinnati, it's just a bit much to take. The varied scandals across the years, the disappointments, the tragedies

- if Rex Dockery had not died in an plane crash in the mid-80's, the Tigers football program would be on a par with Florida State (and, no, I'm not joking when I say that). It took 20 years for us to recover.

Watching our local hero, Larry Finch, be put in an untenable position leading to his firing, sad.

Yep, too many "what ifs."

But the victories are sweet when they come.

In football -
Beating Ole Miss in Oxford - I was there.
Beating UT - I was there
Going to our first bowl in 30 years and winning it - I was there.
Watching DeAngelo run - I was there

In basketball
Keith Lee
Andre Turner
Beating Louisville in Freedom Hall while we were on probation and keeping them from going to the NCAA's - I was there.
Going to NCAA's
Watching Penny Hardaway play ball
Beating UCLA

And maybe tonight...we play Duke.

Duke, #1, storied program, Coach K. Multiple titles. Perennial contender.

A great program. No doubt. And one I often pull for in other contexts.

But I want them. I want them because of the "Duke" attitude.

In my world, I encounter a number of graduates from Duke Divinity School. And here's one thing about Duke grads, you'll never have to guess where they went to school, they'll tell you first - as if to say "I went to Duke, so, therefore, where you went to school is irrelevant.

Man, I hate that.

So boys (Tigers, that is) you're up against it tonight.

New York City.

Madison Square Garden.

Against #1.

One time, time.

Let's go.

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