The five most memorable sporting events I attended this year.
5) Grizzlies 86, Utah 70 (April 17) — I like significant numbers. Zach Randolph starred in the Grizzlies’ regular-season finale, scoring 25 points and pulling down 19 rebounds. But those numbers, to Z-Bo’s broad-shouldered credit, weren’t that astounding. (This was his 45th double-double of the season.) Mike Conley added 14 points and five assists, coordinating the home team’s second-half surge that turned a two-point game into a blowout. The significant number was 56. No team in the franchise’s 18-year history (including the first six in Vancouver) had won as many games in a regular season. This game was merely prelude to the Grizzlies’ climb to the Western Conference finals, but it established a new standard for 82-game excellence, all the while eliminating the Jazz from the playoff hunt.
4) Tigers 31, Arkansas State 7 (September 21) — You had the feeling a corner had been turned when the Memphis football team earned its first victory of 2013 in blowout fashion at the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers took the ball 77 yards to pay dirt on their first possession and never looked back, piling up 505 yards of offense (329 on the ground), the only game all season, it turned out, the U of M surpassed even 400 yards. Brandon Hayes rushed for 118 yards, but freshman Marquis Warford stole the show with 173 rushing yards on just 11 carries. A star is born! (Warford even appeared with Tiger coach Justin Fuente at the postgame press conference.) The Memphis defense contributed a program-record seven sacks. This is what Memphis football can be. If only for one day. Seven losses later, Warford was dismissed from the team and local football fans are no more encouraged than they were when Tommy West was fired near the end of the 2009 season.
3) FESJC, third round (June 7) — Who the hell is Harris English? Golf is truly Everyman’s Game. I followed the University of Georgia alum (the tournament’s first-round co-leader) for six holes on Friday. His “gallery” would not have been able to play a pickup game of five-on-five basketball (without recruiting English’s caddy and a drink vendor). But one birdie after another, English took control of this tournament, headlined by Phil Mickelson. (Mickelson’s gallery had me dodging elbows and golf fans with larger feet than mine.) English broke par in all four rounds to edge Mickelson and Scott Stallings by two strokes for his first PGA Tour victory. The tournament directors had no trouble spelling English’s name on his check for $1.026 million.
2) Redbirds 6, Iowa 0 (June 23): — Michael Wacha will be the pitcher most remembered from the summer of 2013 at AutoZone Park, but on this Sunday night, Carlos Martinez was as dominant as any Triple-A hurler can be. (Like Wacha, Martinez would throw his final pitch of the season for the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.) The 21-year-old “Baby Pedro” allowed but three hits over 7 2/3 innings against the I-Cubs, striking out eight without allowing a walk or run scored. Most impressive of all: Martinez was hitting the mid-nineties with his fastball in the eighth inning. He and Wacha were two of six rookie pitchers on the Cardinals’ World Series roster.
1) Grizzlies 103, Thunder 97 (May 13) — Leading the reigning Western Conference champs two games to one, the Grizzlies hosted a pivotal contest in the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series. Even with the injured Russell Westbrook in street clothes, the Thunder resounded after tip-off, taking a 29-18 lead in the first quarter with Reggie Jackson manning the point guard position. Memphis was still down eight at halftime, but steadily closed the gap over the last 24 minutes of regulation to force overtime. Marc Gasol — a few days earlier named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year — hit the biggest shot of overtime to give the Grizzlies a 3-1 series lead and all but book their ticket to the Western finals. Gasol (23 points, 11 rebounds) Zach Randolph (23, 12) and Mike Conley (24 points, 5 assists, 4 steals) played like the headliners they’ve become.