I attended more sporting events over the last 10 years than my father did in all 63 of his. That being the case, I was surprised at how easy it is to pick the five most memorable from here in Memphis. Hope you were there, too.
Pujols Homers for Championship (September 15, 2000) — Among the hundreds of sporting events I’ve witnessed live, this is my “grandchildren” game. (You know: “Someday, I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I was there.”) Having been promoted from Class A(!) Potomac only two weeks earlier, Albert Pujols was given leftfield for the Memphis Redbirds when Ernie Young left the team to play in the Olympics. As I recall, he was introduced by the p.a. announcer as “Alberto” Pujols. The point is, no one knew who the guy wearing number 6 was. This team — the first to play in AutoZone Park — had reached the Pacific Coast League championship series behind the likes of Stubby Clapp, Mark Little, Larry Sutton, and Lou Lucca. All popular players . . . and all footnotes now.
With the Redbirds leading the best-of-five series with Salt Lake two games to one, and Game 4 tied at 3, Pujols stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 13th inning. (The game was tied only because a Buzz base-runner had earlier been tagged out having missed the plate.) Pujols drilled a line drive that looped just inside the rightfield foul pole, giving Memphis its first baseball championship since 1990. Still shy of his 21st birthday, Pujols was named MVP of the PCL playoffs. A year later, he was the National League’s Rookie of the Year and on his way to Cooperstown.
Memphis Goes Big League (November 1, 2001) — Thoughts of the ABA, the WFL, the USFL, the CBA, the CFL, and way too many lonely nights at Tim McCarver Stadium ran through my mind as I sat in The Pyramid — with two NBA teams on the floor below — listening to Isaac Hayes sing “God Bless America.” With the Memphis Grizzlies hosting the Detroit Pistons, the Bluff City finally had a team that would impact standings that people check from Seattle to New York. No gimmick, no exhibition, no temporary home. The Grizzlies started Jason Williams, Michael Dickerson, Shane Battier, Stromile Swift, and native Memphian Lorenzen Wright. The first points scored by the home team were on a trey by Dickerson, who would play a total of nine more games in a career shortened by injury. The final score — Detroit 90, Memphis 80 — didn’t matter all that much. But it was a score they checked in Seattle. And New York.
Tigers vs. Cardinals, in Shoulder Pads (November 4, 2004) — Despite the final score, this is among the most important games in Tiger history. Televised nationally on a Thursday night, the game featured remarkable performances by the U of M’s greatest player of alltime and its greatest quarterback, too. Better yet, it was a contest against the U of M’s historic basketball rival (ranked 14th in the country), making the intensity a bit higher than your average Conference USA tilt. Each team scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, and the scoring didn’t end until the Cardinals’ Eric Shelton scored the game-winning points with 37 seconds left in the game: Louisville 56, Memphis 49. DeAngelo Williams gained 200 yards on the ground for Memphis. Danny Wimprine passed for 361 yards and four touchdowns, slightly better than the performance of Louisville signal-caller Stefan LeFors, who passed for 321 yards and three TD’s. LeFors and Williams went on to share C-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Tears and Cheers for Darius (March 12, 2005) — The Memphis Tigers weren’t even supposed to reach the finals of the 2005 C-USA tournament. With 14 losses, coach John Calipari’s fifth Memphis team was already making plans to headline the NIT. Facing 6th-ranked Louisville in the Cardinals’ last game as a C-USA member, the Tigers were a nice hometown story, but little more than lamb for a lion.
The teams each drained a pair of treys — four total — in one sixty-second stretch near the end of the first half, which ended with the score deadlocked. Memphis was leading with but 30 seconds left in the game, only to see the game’s final three-pointer — by Louisville’s Larry O’Bannon — make the difference.
As time expired, Washington was fouled when he shot up a desperation three-pointer, the Tigers down two. Three converted free throws and Memphis would win its first tourney title in 18 years and be fitted for a glass slipper at the NCAA tournament. With no time left on the clock, no players lined up alongside the key, as they would for any other free throw. Washington — as alone on that court as Crusoe was on his island — drained his first shot and turned to wink at Calipari. His second attempt — to tie the game — fell to the side. His third . . . Memphis fans know and will never forget. An athlete collapsed because of injury is hard to watch. An athlete collapsed in tears and regret, though . . . that’s heartbreak. Still the finest college basketball game I’ve seen live.
#1 vs. #2 (February 23, 2008) — The Memphis Tigers had spent a month atop the national polls when they welcomed the Tennessee Vols — ranked second in both major polls — to FedExForum. Better yet, Memphis was 26-0, having recently surpassed the longest winning streak in the program’s rich history. Safe to say, this game belongs in the conversation for Greatest Sporting Event in Memphis History. (The Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight tilt of 2002 is its only real competition.)
The Tigers led by one at halftime in the nationally televised contest. Defense prevailed, as neither team shot 40 percent. UT star Chris Lofton was held to five points (2 of 11 from the field) while the Tigers’ Chris Douglas-Roberts scored but 14. A late put-back by the Vols’ Tyler Smith broke a tie and gave Tennessee a 66-62 win. The following week, UT ascended to the top spot in the national rankings for the first time in men’s basketball history.