I moved to Memphis from New England in 1991, just in time for Penny Hardaway's two brilliant seasons as a Tiger. I began covering Tiger basketball for the Flyer
in 2001, just as John Calipari was getting acquainted with barbecue and the blues. (We launched "Tiger Blue" eight years later.) I've been around my share of Tiger players and coaches, but I've spent far more time — during basketball season or otherwise — with Tiger fans. At work, in restaurants, concerts, festivals, youth soccer games . . . Tiger hoop fans are everywhere.
And I've developed a theory. As attendance has dwindled to uncomfortably sparse crowds on game nights at FedExForum, three distinctive types of Memphis Tiger basketball fans have made their presence (or lack thereof) felt. The classifications can be defined by how each group sees the Tiger program in their lives.
A) "The Tigers are our team."
These are the fans you see — with plenty of elbow room — on a Tuesday night in December when Samford is in town. They don't miss the Siena game. And a late tipoff with 10-degree temperatures and slick Memphis streets? No problem. It's the UConn game!
Our February 28, 2008 cover.
The Tiger A fans consider the program part of their city's functionality. They pay attention to the roster's composition — many of them intensely — and they follow recruiting reports (and rumors). They obviously prefer the Tigers winning lots of games, reaching the NCAA tournament, and playing after St. Patrick's Day. But winning isn't the reason they follow the team or, importantly, why they attend games. Memphis Tiger basketball is how these fans see themselves.
And this is an important component to remember. What makes any of us Memphians? The zip code on our mail? Our high school alma mater? The college we attended? What about the college basketball team we call our own?
B) "The Tigers are my team."
For lack of a better (or kinder) term, Tiger B fans are selfish. They are passionate — many of them outwardly emotional — about the Tiger program. They are the most frequent voices you hear on local call-in radio shows. And they are extraordinarily hard to please. Whether it's memories (or stories they've heard) about 1973, 1985, and 2008, or Penny Hardaway highlights, or John Calipari's coming-and-going, Tiger B fans place the program's standard of excellence beyond the reach of nearly every program between Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Tucson, Arizona.
Not that long ago, Memphis won an astonishing 64 consecutive conference games. Trouble was (for Tiger B fans), each of those games featured an opponent from Conference USA. So what's the big deal? That level of play won't help the Tigers come March. (Memphis reached the Sweet 16 four straight years during this stretch, the Elite Eight twice, and played for the national title in 2008.)
McDonald's All-Americans are the desired recruits among this group of fans. (At least those left over when Duke is finished making calls.) And when a local talent chooses to play elsewhere (see Leron Black or Chris Chiozza), it's verifiable proof that the Memphis program has "lost the city." So get rid of the coach. Tiger B fans will boycott games, convinced their empty seats will somehow convince that McDonald's All-American to sign with Memphis. Sign up, Tyler Harris!
Bless Tiger B fans for their visions and dreams. Sympathize for them as reality continues to unfold, one winter after another.
C) "The Tigers are a team."
I've never witnessed a basketball crowd like the one I was part of on February 23, 2008, when an undefeated Memphis team — ranked first in the country — hosted second-ranked Tennessee (second-ranked Tennessee!
) at FedExForum. There have been Grizzly playoff games (particularly in 2011 and 2013) when the building actually shook. But no more than it did during pregame introductions of that Tiger-Vol showdown, when — for two hours — FedExForum was the center of college basketball's universe. The arena was packed that night, and the 17,000 inside the arena were boosted by a few thousand more watching in clubs on Beale Street.
Memphis Tiger basketball in 2008 was a happening. Games were events, particularly once the team topped the national rankings in late January. If you didn't know the previous night's score (and the team Memphis had beaten), you weren't paying attention to Bluff City life. Happenings and events draw crowds. Tiger C fans stir when the games matter in a larger context. And games against Mercer, Samford, and Bryant in December don't matter beyond a coaching staff's mission to teach and develop players. Tiger C fans will return, and they're critical to selling out FedExForum. But it will take the program becoming, once again, a happening. To the casual eye, this seems a long way to climb.
The Tigers will host Cincinnati — a Top-20 team, one of two in the AAC — this Saturday at FedExForum. With a 5 p.m. tipoff and no NFL playoffs on the air, I'm betting we'll see the first crowd of 10,000 fans to cheer the Tigers this season. (Memphis ranks sixth in the AAC with an average announced attendance of 5,943.) A Memphis win would be a monumental upset, considering the Bearcats won by 34 points in the teams' first meeting just four weeks ago. Should the Tigers pull off the victory, count on lots of B and C fans joining the As on Beale Street. Should form hold, listen to the Bs (they're loud) try and persuade the Cs as they stroll back to their cars, March getting closer, but the madness miles and miles away.