"I was hoping they could make it through the season without getting in trouble." So said my wife last Wednesday when I told her the name of Memphis Tiger basketball player Robert Dozier had appeared in a police report alleging the junior forward's involvement in a downtown altercation on February 3rd. My favorite U of M alum knows exactly two things about the John Calipari era of Tiger basketball: (1) they are a supremely talented bunch of players, capable of reaching "that Final Four thing" and (2) they are capable of showing up in headlines we don't read in the sports section.
"It just goes to show that good kids do stupid things too," said Calipari after Wednesday night's drubbing of the SMU Mustangs at FedExForum. Following a brief, though on the surface sincere, apology by Dozier in front of the TV cameras, a subdued -- sad? angry? -- Calipari addressed the same throng and stressed two points in the aftermath of his program's most recent brush with the law: (1) he'll deal with Dozier firmly (witness his benching for that night's game) and (2) he will treat Dozier like a son and not "throw anyone under the bus" (witness Dozier's return to the floor Saturday against UCF).
Whichever side you take in this particular case -- and if the allegations prove true that Dozier hit his ex-girlfriend in the face, your take should be vehement -- you have to believe this can only harm the chances of the 2007-08 Tigers reaching their ultimate goal of a national championship. In the best-case scenario, a program already labeled "rogue" by critics will have to answer questions that have nothing to do with substitution patterns or shot selection. And in the worst-case scenario, one of the team's leaders and most valuable two-way players will be sidelined for the most important stretch of games the team has played in over 20 years. Another slip-up from Dozier, and you'll next see him in uniform as a senior, if then.
Had it been Joey Dorsey's name in the police blotter, there would have been a collective rolling of eyes. "Not again." But for the soft-spoken, team-first Dozier to initiate the firestorm? It makes this a real head-scratcher.
Robert Dozier has been part of the Tiger program -- and part of the Memphis community - for going on three years. He's been an eyewitness to the troubles that caused Jeremy Hunt to miss the entire 2005-06 season (among Hunt's transgressions was hitting a woman). He saw the public admonishment Calipari delivered the entire team after Shawn Taggart and Jeff Robinson were arrested on Beale Street last September. (The curfew established for that incident, alas, was lifted in October.) Perhaps even more damning, Dozier is a 22-year-old young man with two parents in his life. He has the kind of guidance and direction that, frankly, too few Memphis Tiger stars of late have enjoyed. Why did he put himself in a position to be seen publicly on a downtown street at 3:00 in the morning, let alone raise his hand to a woman?
A bit of paranoia surfaced in Calipari's comments last week when he referred to his team as "targets." But it's beyond question that the faces (and, importantly, height) of the number-one team in the country -- playing in the biggest "small town" in America -- are far more recognizable than any City Council member or professional stage performer. It's part of the mix that makes Tiger basketball the most galvanizing public enterprise Memphis can claim. And it's a heavy dose of responsibility that every member of that team must swallow: Their game faces must stay on long after the court lights at FedExForum have gone dark.
Among this team's virtues is its depth. If Dozier misses games, there are players (ironically enough, Taggart and Robinson) who will fill his shoes capably. Whether his replacements are capable of boosting a championship run remains to be seen. Likewise, whether this team will be remembered for more than "getting in trouble" is a new angle to be followed all the way to season's end.
My wife, among thousands of other alumni and fans, will be watching closely.