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“Finch Diplomacy”

The iconic basketball leader demonstrated the harmony that sports can bring.

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MUMBAI, INDIA — While the entire Indian community celebrated a major victory in winning the Cricket World Cup championship this past weekend, I sat for a while as the only cheerless soul in Mumbai, saddened by the loss of my own native city's legendary coach, Larry Finch.

The saying "You don't know what you have until it's gone" acquired a new meaning for me once I grasped the news from the headlines: Larry Finch dead at 60.  Coach Finch had been a major part of the Memphis basketball community for as long as I could remember. He was an iconic figure who transcended generations and represented a local form of diplomacy during a time when Memphis needed it the most. Call it "Finch diplomacy."

I can remember countless basketball stories told to me by my father, long before I became interested in the sport, tales about his growing up playing basketball for Hamilton High School and admiring former Melrose star and future University of Memphis standout Larry Finch. Anyone familiar with Memphis rivalries understands that no Hamiltonian looks up to anyone or anything associated with our South Memphis neighbor, the Melrose Wildcats. The admiration my father displayed for Coach Finch reaffirmed to me that Finch was special.

Throughout history, sports has at times allowed for foes to become friends and allowed people to see through differences and focus on future progress. This past week, India and its neighboring political and nuclear rival, Pakistan, met in the World Cup semifinals. India and Pakistan, two South Asian countries that share borders, were energetically working toward repairing ties that most recently had been sundered after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which claimed more than 160 lives.

After the recent conflict, both prime ministers used cricket to ease relations as they enjoyed a competitive match together. Amid a history of three bloody wars and consistent conflict for the past 60 years, India and Pakistan were united through what CNN news labeled "cricket diplomacy."

In like manner, Memphis' racial and economic divide in the late 1960s and early 1970s was at its most dangerous. Memphis desperately thirsted for diplomacy, and, once again, sports became the vehicle to unite an area and initiate healing of a wound that needed attention.

The 1968 sanitation strike followed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remained fresh in the minds of many, creating a cloud that divided Memphis for years. In 1973, Memphians stood united with ambition for what was then Memphis State to be crowned NCAA national champions, an ambition which unified supporters of the Memphis State basketball Tigers behind the team's home-grown leader, Larry Finch.

Color no longer seemed to stand for exclusion, racial tensions decreased, and Memphians stood together for one color scheme, that of Blue and Gray. Since then, Tiger basketball has continued to manifest "Finch diplomacy" with the potential for bringing our city together amid school-consolidation battles, mayoral conflicts, city and county rivalries, and more. Just as Pakistani prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani joined Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in collegial appreciation for the love of cricket, sports in Memphis and Shelby County has symbolized a gateway to unity and opportunity for everyone.

Memphis found traction on less traveled roads due to Finch's dedication to Memphis during his college career, something that helped bring our city together. As I looked over Mumbai, a city in celebration while all of India celebrated its Cricket World Cup victory, I too began to celebrate among the fireworks and drums but in memory of a legendary Memphian who fused our city during a time of need.

The relationship between Indians and Pakistanis is far from being fully mended, as Memphis also has its persistent dividing mechanisms, which are obviously apparent. But coming together for a common goal in sports reminds us that these divides can in fact be overcome, even if a hard and arduous journey is required.

Here's to "Finch diplomacy" around the globe.

Omari J. Faulkner, a Memphian and former candidate for state representative, is now stationed in Mumbai, India, with the U.S. Diplomatic Service.

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