Larry Finch was the embodiment of all the positive hope and spirit that allowed Memphis to heal from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. More important, he was the impetus and cause for the healing process, as the leader of the 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team that went to the NCAA Finals in 1973.
In a sense Memphis could never fully heal from the deep wound that King’s death brought to the city. It was an event of global importance that had profound implications for not only the Civil Rights movement, but also the American labor movement in general, and the rights of municipal employees in particular. But this isn’t about labor politics – it’s about a great man who galvanized a city for three years with his basketball skills, and united the various communities within that city with his smile and game.
I first saw Finch play in a high school tournament at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1968. He was a junior at Melrose High School and stood out for his dominating shooting, flawless ball-handling and omnipresent smile. He seemed to be saying, “I know what I’m going to do and can’t nobody stop me – watch this ya’ll.” He carried that attitude and skill to Memphis State where he led the Tigers on an unbelievable climb to national prominence.
The great Gene Bartow was Finch’s only college coach, and this is about him too. For without Bartow, there would have been no Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson or Larry Kenon at Memphis State, and no runner-up finish in the 1973 Finals. Bartow brought the Tigers instant legitimacy in a league with regular national contenders. He was mild-mannered, calm, and pensive even in the most dramatic moments.
I was blessed to attend Bartow’s first summer hoops camp, and made the all-star team, I’m proud to say. One day, during a scrimmage, I yelled and cussed at one of my teammates, whom I’d known for years in the Jewish community – it was like yelling at one of my brothers or cousins to me. Without stopping the game or making a scene about it, Bartow simply shouted, “Watch your language Scott. You can’t EVER talk to a teammate like that.” I said, “Yes sir,” and went back to the game without missing a beat, but I was deeply impacted by that gentle correction. Bartow groomed Larry Finch with that strong, gentle demeanor. Finch became an All-American and great coach in part because Bartow molded him.
The Tigers run to the Final Four in 1973 was a culmination of a magical era, which saw them attain national ranking for the first time since the late 1950s and an improbable Missouri Valley Conference championship. Finch created huge expectations for himself during those three years and rarely disappointed. A defining moment may have been the St. Louis game his senior year. The Tigers were down by 10 with about under three minutes to go, when Bartow called a time-out. I was getting hungry for post-game pizza and a dramatic Tiger win, and I was gratified on both counts. Finch hit four or five straight shots to pull it off. He'd again met the improbable expectations, and I enjoyed pizza with my buddies at Pete and Sam’s.
Memphis State’s Senior Night in 1973 was the first time I cried at a sporting event. It was the last home game for Finch and Robinson, and no two players had ever given so much and accomplished so much in the history of the program. The game was a blowout win against West Texas State, and the Tiger band director, Dr. Tommy Ferguson manipulated the emotions of 11,000 people as no one else could. As the game wound down, Ferguson led the band in a very soft, half-tempo rendition of that great fight song he wrote (“Go Tigers Go”). He repeated it at least once before bringing up the volume and tempo at the EXACT moment that Finch and Robinson were taken out of the game, and brought the band up to full volume. That was probably the most emotional moment I’ve ever seen in a sports arena. Not a dry eye in the house. That magical moment prompted me to think the unthinkable -- FINAL FOUR. But it was just a feeling and I didn’t say a word.
Finch’s matchup with Ernie DeGregorio of Providence in the opening game of the 1973 Final Four was one for the ages, matching two of the best point guards of the day. Finch averaged 26.8 points through the entire NCAA Tournament. In the final game, undefeated UCLA and Bill Walton got the better of the Tigers, but Finch showed the country exactly how he’d done it for three years, scoring 29. Watching a replay of that game recently reminded me of all the improbable off-balance, leaning, twisting, contorted, one-handed shots that Finch made with regularity from as far as 23 feet. As a player, Finch created a new set of capabilities and expectations for young players to strive for. Lots of Memphis boys learned how to play the game from Larry Finch.
Memphis has not always treated its heroes well. Sports talk radio gives a mouthpiece to many ignorant louts who say stupid things and express profound ignorance about the games they watch and the people who play and coach them. As a radio broadcaster and broadcast engineer at WREC, I was required to engineer many sports-talk shows during Finch’s tenure at Memphis State. I took the liberty of pulling the plug on a few guys because they were SO offensive and because I could ... so I did. I told my boss that I was disrupting a profanity on the delay, even if it wasn’t true. To me the coded racism was worse than any four-letter word. Partly in response to this, I was one of the speakers at the mid-season Larry Finch appreciation night organized by his former players in 1993, and got to hug the coach on the pulpit.
Yes, Larry Finch was a sports hero in Memphis, but along the way, he also became a civil rights icon as a uniter, healer, and finally coach. That is his legacy. That he passed during the Final Four has a spiritual significance: It is said that only the most righteous Jews pass during our High Holy Days; the greatest basketball players go during the Final Four.
— H. Scott Prosterman