Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year:
5) Redbirds 5, Oklahoma City 2 (July 1) — For the 12 years I’ve enjoyed as a father, AutoZone Park has been my family’s playground. Each of my daughters pranced along the leftfield bluff in diapers, each ran the bases on Sunday afternoons (following the directions of Rockey and the RedHots), and each have now played catch with me on the field to make Father’s Day unforgettable. But this midsummer Friday night was the first time I accompanied just my younger daughter, Elena. (Her sister had friendly obligations that kept her away.) It happened to be Baseball Card Night, which made me feel 8 years old (Elena’s actual age). Sitting at a table in the new rightfield patio section in the 6th inning, Elena pointed out that if the Redbirds could get one more player on base, a grand slam would be possible. The home team accommodated her wish and, yes, reserve catcher Steven Hill drilled a base-clearing homer over the leftfield wall, onto that bluff where Elena has so often pranced. Priceless.
4) Tigers 2, UTEP 1 (November 6) — I stood in line with my family at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex for the Conference USA women’s soccer championship about ten feet behind Mike Rose. Knew it would be a memorable afternoon. (The same two schools, of course, played in the C-USA men’s basketball championship last March.) Entering the game with a record of 20-0-1, the Tigers weren’t able to score until the 59th minute, when sophomore Christabel Oduro drilled a shot from the left side of the penalty area into the upper-right corner of the Miner goal. UTEP answered, though, with 15 minutes left in regulation, forcing two periods of sudden-death overtime. In the third minute of the second OT, freshman Kaitlyn Atkins took a pass in front of the goal from Oduro — C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year — and buried a title-winning shot. The win gave Memphis five consecutive C-USA tournament championships, the stuff of dynasties.
3) Tigers 97, Belmont 81 (November 15) — Opening Day (the game tipped off at 11 a.m.) is always special for Memphis Tiger basketball. It’s the renewal of the longest running family favorite in town. And this year brought the challenge of a Belmont team that won 30 games last season. No gimme. But this game was more about presentation to me. The Tigers took the court at FedExForum wearing uniforms that matched those of the 1972-73 team that took on mighty UCLA for the national championship. Better yet, the intro video produced by Running Pony Productions had as many black-and-white shots — Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Lorenzen Wright — as it did color. If sports are about connecting with your fellow fan — and across generations — this game, as presented, was pure sentiment at the volume of a Tiger’s roar. Wesley Witherspoon and Joe Jackson combined to hit 14 of their 15 shots. The outcome was never in doubt.
2) Grizzlies 104, Spurs 86 (April 25) — This was the night Memphis became a favorite in the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies shocked top-seeded San Antonio in Game 1 of their Western Conference matchup. And they edged the Spurs in Game 3 at FedExForum to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But this night (Game 4) was an ass-kicking. And by the time the final buzzer sounded, everyone leaving FedExForum — their ears ringing from the volume — knew Memphis would soon reach the second round for the first time in franchise history. The Grizzlies were actually down at halftime, 50-48. But the score was pure set-up. With Tony Allen running, O.J. Mayo gunning, and Darrell Arthur making the Spurs look their age (Arthur scored 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 17 minutes), the Grizzlies outscored Tim Duncan and friends, 30-15, in the third quarter. The final 12 minutes were a cruise for a team that saw nine players score at least 8 points, but none more than 15. In my mind, the perfect capsule for the greatest season in Grizzlies history.
1) Thunder 133, Grizzlies 123 (May 9) — Commentary during games is frequent on press row, reporters verbalizing the rough draft of their take on things. Head-shaking laughter is less common. What I’ll remember most about the sixth triple-overtime game in NBA playoff history is how little the result seemed to matter by the time the game ended well after midnight. Fans left disappointed, sure, but they left exhausted. The exhaustion had little to do with the game’s leap past midnight and everything to do with emotional exertion. Leading the series two games to one, the Griz stormed out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter. But Oklahoma City’s two young stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, did what rising stars do (the pair combined for 75 points). Marc Gasol played 57 minutes (scoring 26 points and grabbing 21 rebounds). Zach Randolph played 56 minutes (34 and 16). The wrong team won, but this was an instant classic.
Happy New Year to all. Here’s to cheers and laughter in 2012.