It felt almost perfect, in that “too-good-to-be-true” territory the most passionate fans have grown to fear. On November 5th, 2019 at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers opened the most anticipated basketball season in over a decade with a drubbing of the South Carolina State Bulldogs. James Wiseman — the crown jewel in coach Penny Hardaway’s top-ranked recruiting class — scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in merely 22 minutes on the court.
But Wiseman’s squad wasn’t the only Top-20 team in town. Three days earlier, with ESPN’s College GameDay
crew placing the Tiger football program on the brightest stage it had ever seen — has Beale Street ever been so packed? the Liberty Bowl so truly blue? — Memphis upset SMU thanks to a record-setting night by Antonio Gibson (386 all-purpose yards!).
Precious Achiuwa, AAC Player of the Year
The Memphis Grizzlies appeared to have the NBA’s most dynamic rookie when Ja Morant put up 30 points and nine assists in his third game
. And it wasn’t just what we saw unfolding as Thanksgiving approached; the horizon appeared glowing. Tim Howard — the
Tim Howard, the most recognizable living American soccer star — would take an active ownership role with 901 FC, the local USL Championship outfit. And it appeared one of baseball’s top prospects — St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson — was on his way to AutoZone Park for some fine-tuning with the Triple-A Redbirds.
But there’s a reason fans fear “almost perfect.” Before his second game, Wiseman learned he’d been declared ineligible by the NCAA for having received moving expenses from his future college coach (Hardaway) in 2017. He played two more games as the university appealed the decision, but upon finally accepting the suspension, Wiseman would never wear blue and gray again.
The Tiger football team won the program’s first American Athletic Conference championship — right here at the Liberty Bowl — on December 7th, only to see beloved coach Mike Norvell depart for Florida State the next day. (Ryan Silverfield enjoyed a head-coaching debut unlike any other, leading the Tigers against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.)
Then it all stopped. All of it. The Tigers and Grizzlies played a winter of basketball, Morant running away in the Rookie of the Year race and the Tigers’ second-best freshman (Precious Achiuwa) earning AAC Player of the Year honors. But Grizzly playoff prospects and a chance for the 21-10 Tigers to reach the NCAA’s “Big Dance” via the AAC tournament hit the invisible wall — less forgiving than brick-and-mortar — we’ll remember as the coronavirus pandemic.
At least Memphis basketball fans saw something. Both of AutoZone Park’s tenants — the Redbirds and 901 FC — remained dormant as March turned to April, then April to May and June. An operation that relies almost entirely on the ticket-buying public found itself an oversized shell — all that brick-and-mortar — unable to entertain, to create the warm-weather buzz Bluff City fans had come to crave...and take for granted.
The announcement in June that the Southern Heritage Classic would not be played this year seemed especially cruel. The football game between Jackson State and Tennessee State — a September clash at the Liberty Bowl since 1990 — represented not just African-American sports, but African-American enterprise, culture, and outreach, its accompanying parade through Orange Mound among this city’s most distinctive gatherings...and impossible during a pandemic.
That almost-perfect feeling disappeared in such devastating fashion, and with losses that compounded just as positive rates among COVID-19 testing fluctuated uncomfortably high. Instead of micro-analyzing Hardaway’s third recruiting class, many of us were counting masks among those we saw in public. Who is taking safety guidelines seriously, and who has simply had enough of pandemic protocol? Can a community live without sports? Certainly. Is it the kind of life we’ll have to identify as that fabled “new normal?" Having witnessed the Belmont Stakes run with nary a fan in the stands, we can only hope not.
Next week: As spring turned to summer, sports remained dormant, but crowds again gathered, and for a much bigger cause.