We'd known Coach Gene Bartow was sick since his cancer diagnosis was made public in 2009. But just like Larry Finch's passing nine months ago — another Memphis icon who fought illness longer than he should have had to — Bartow's death on January 3rd is painful to accept. 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.
Bartow, of course, endeared himself to all Memphians as the coach of the legendary Memphis Tigers squad that went to the NCAA Finals in 1973. He then went on to coach at UCLA, then to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he established that school's athletics program from scratch. Along the way, he made friends. Lots of them. Perhaps the greatest achievement of a man's life is to be loved by others. Bartow had a surplus of love from not one but two communities. He impacted both 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 white, one black — 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 about. They gave Memphis an interracial marriage in which class, dignity, and kindness were the foundation.
Rest in peace, Coach.