Gene Bartow: Your Friend and Mine

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Over the last several years, I probably ran into Gene Bartow a dozen times, usually in a basketball arena. Every time I got the chance, I’d shake his hand and introduce myself. (He’s Gene Bartow, I thought, and surely has no room in his mental Rolodex for weekly sports columnists.) Every time I shook his hand, though, Bartow would smile at me and offer an enthusiastic, “Good to see you again!” As though we were old college buddies.

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We knew Coach Bartow was sick since his cancer diagnosis in 2009. But just like Larry Finch’s passing nine months ago — another Memphis icon that fought illness longer than he should have had to — Bartow’s death on January 3rd is painful. Not so much because we lost a Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer (Bartow was inducted in 2009), but because we lost a rare member of the Humanity Hall of Fame.

I’m too young to have covered Bartow’s Tiger teams in the early Seventies. And I didn’t know him as well as he’d lead me to believe. But I’ve lived in Memphis 20 years and have heard and researched my share of stories, and I’ve yet to hear a single, solitary negative comment about Gene Bartow. Perhaps the greatest achievement of a man’s life is to be loved by others as much as the love he’s able to share. If possible, Bartow had a surplus of love from not one, but two communities (also Birmingham) he impacted with his talents as a basketball coach and his supreme skills at the game of life.

Let’s not forget Bartow was a coach of the highest standard. The season before his arrival in Memphis, the Tigers went 6-20 under Moe Iba. In Bartow’s first season (1970-71), with a pair of hometown sophomores (Finch and Ronnie Robinson) suiting up for the varsity, the Tigers went 18-8 and beat 13th-ranked Louisville at the Mid-South Coliseum. They won 21 games the next season then, of course, played what remains the most epic season in Tiger hoops history. Despite starting the 1972-73 season 2-3, the Tigers reached the NCAA tournament (with a record of 21-5) and gave mighty UCLA all it could handle (at least for a half) in the championship game. Two years later, Bartow was the chosen successor to John Wooden. Not a bad line for your resume.

Sports are about time and place. The confluence of Gene Bartow and Larry Finch in the early 1970s in Memphis, Tennessee, provided this city with a pair of lead actors — one black, one white — for a story it desperately needed told. The argument could be made that this was (and remains) the most significant development in the history of Memphis sports. Bartow and Finch didn’t just give a community — reeling from the horror of Martin Luther King’s murder — something to cheer. They gave Memphis an interracial marriage in which class, dignity, and kindness were the foundation.

I’ll miss introducing myself to Gene Bartow.

• When the Baseball Hall of Fame announces the results of the writers’ vote Monday afternoon, we’ll likely see Barry Larkin — the 12-time All-Star shortstop who led Cincinnati to the 1990 world championship — join the late Ron Santo (elected by the veterans committee last month) as the only 2012 inductees. But if I had a ballot, there are three more players who would have my support:

JEFF BAGWELL — Despite hitting 449 home runs, scoring and driving in more than 1,500 runs, and earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, Bagwell only received 42 percent of the vote last year, his first on the ballot (75 percent is needed for election). He’s clearly been lumped into the steroid crowd despite never being implicated for using performance enhancers. Based on evidence to date, Bagwell’s a Hall of Famer.

LEE SMITH — He saved at least 30 games 12 times (and led the National League with 29 in 1983). He retired in 1997 as the career saves leader with 478. He represented four different teams in the All-Star Game. If Rich Gossage is a Hall of Famer, so is Lee Smith.

JACK MORRIS — I’ve gone back and forth on Morris. He won 15 games 12 times but won 20 only three seasons. His strikeout total (2,478) falls short of the magical 3,000 for starting pitchers. His career ERA is 3.90. But here’s the clincher: Morris pitched in the rotation for world champion teams in Detroit (1984), Minnesota (1991), and Toronto (1992). He pitched and won one of the most famous games in World Series history (1991, Game 7). Morris was a gamer, and a Hall of Famer.

This year, of course, is mere prelude to the 2013 Hall of Fame vote, when the Larry, Moe, and Curly of the Steroid Era (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa) will appear on the ballot for the first time. Let the debates begin.

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