The Memphis Tigers' Fine Fifteen (Revisited)



I love rankings. And the more subjective the better. Whether it’s U.S. presidents or swimsuit models, books, movies, or NFL linebackers, I love the debate stirred by a good, well-considered ranking.

And I love the feedback I’ve received on my ranking of the top 15 Memphis Tigers of all time. (I’ve taken to calling this bunch the “Fine Fifteen.”) As subjective as the day is long, the ranking was, in fact, well considered. Two spots in the ranking were open as I was writing the final draft. There are probably 30 current or former Tigers who could make a case for being members of the Fine Fifteen. But I’m sticking with my selections. I will share, though, some thoughts on that feedback.

• Keith Lee was a power forward! Penny Hardaway was a small forward!

I take some comfort in the most frequent criticism of the Fine Fifteen being the positions where I placed one player or another. And I’ll acknowledge taking some liberties. I didn’t want to simply number the players one through 15. Instead, I borrowed from the All-NBA format, essentially presenting three teams of Tiger greats, ranked first to third. (Presenting the list by position may have blurred this interpretation, and I regret that.)

I understand Keith Lee played power forward from 1981 to 1985, alongside centers Derrick Phillips and William Bedford. Particularly considering Phillips and Bedford didn’t make the cut for the Fine Fifteen, I felt moving a 6’10” rebounding machine to the pivot would not do major damage to the list of players as I composed it. That said, I’ll confess to a late decision that locked Lee into the center position.

I wanted Ronnie Robinson on my “first team,” atop the power forward rankings. The last cut I made was Bedford, in favor of David Vaughn (a power forward who actually played in much the same way Lee did a decade earlier). Instead of calling Vaughn a center (and placing him third, behind Lorenzen Wright and Joey Dorsey), I placed him at power forward (behind Robinson and Forest Arnold). And I remain quite comfortable with Keith Lee starting at center for this fantasy team. With Lee between Robinson and small forward Rodney Carney, a pair of guards from the Washington Generals would keep this team undefeated.

As for Hardaway, come on. As I wrote, Hardaway “could actually fit any of three positions.” Memories of Penny as an All-NBA point guard may have influenced his placement on this team (directly between the point and small forward). If I were to make a revision, though, it would be to slide Hardaway in front of Carney at small forward, then move Win Wilfong from second among small forwards to second among shooting guards. It’s hard to picture an alltime Tiger starting five without Penny in the lineup.

Last thought on positions: this is basketball, not baseball. I didn’t put a shortstop in rightfield or a second-baseman behind the plate.

• Any ranking of greatest Tigers has to include Larry Kenon!

Third paragraph of the original column: “My one qualifier for this ranking is that a player had to have suited up for at least two seasons with the Tigers. The ‘one-and-dones’ were fun to watch, players like Larry Kenon (left), Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. But they don’t belong on this list.”

The safest number in the Memphis record book is Larry Kenon’s 501 rebounds in 1972-73. (Second on the chart: 372 by Robinson in 1971-72 and Wilfong in 1956-57.) Had Kenon played a second season as a Tiger, he’d have a Fine Fifteen jersey today. Unfair to exclude one-year wonders? Rankings are unfair.

• But you overlooked [several great Tigers]!

Doom Haynes should be on this team for his nickname alone. Not just the best moniker in Tiger history, but in all of college basketball. One reader called Bobby Parks “the best all-around Tiger ever.” (Take that, Penny.) Another called James Bradley the “best forward, period.” (Take that, Keith Lee.) Cheyenne Gibson deserved consideration. Cedric Henderson and Dexter Reed are the top career scorers not among the Fine Fifteen. Chris Garner was an electric point guard over Larry Finch’s last four seasons as coach.

Alas, it’s a Fine Fifteen. Not a sweet 16 or top 20. Fifteen faces and stories that — undeniably, regardless of position — helped make the University of Memphis basketball program the civic treasure it’s become.


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