John Grice measures over 10 feet tall, scowling at his audience and dribbling hard toward an unseen goal. Thousands see him each day, showcasing the ball-handling skills his head coach John Calipari would prefer never to witness. ("John Grice can take one dribble," says Cal. "That's it.")
Grice has become an ambassador of sorts for the Memphis Tigers, at least for thousands of truck drivers, rush-hour commuters, and family vacationers. The physically gifted, sometimes troubled Tiger senior is the face on a Tigers billboard next to I-40 at the Whitten Road exit.
It was a somewhat embarrassing and unexpected honor for the mostly reserved Grice. He didn't even know about it until mid-season. "The only reason that I found out about it was that Nathaniel Root told me that he and his girlfriend saw it," Grice says. "I just feel honored that they would put me up there. It's a great feeling."
He wasn't the only one surprised.
Grice, who was enveloped by his large family during senior ceremonies at Saturday's Cincinnati game, at one time seemed closer to having his face emblazoned on a milk carton, joining a long list of "whatever happened to" former Tiger players who didn't pan out.
It's been nearly three years since Grice signed with Memphis out of Southwest Tennessee Community College as a first-team JUCO All-American. His first two years at Memphis, Grice worked to overcome disciplinary suspensions and academic ineligibility. Then, in August, Calipari announced that Grice had regained eligibility. And now, as March Madness grows more fervent, Calipari's compliments toward Grice (though he had zero points and two rebounds in limited minutes in the Tigers' emotional 67-48 win over Cincy) have escalated. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown called Grice's comeback the "success story of the year."
"I was just saying to myself, I can beat this," Grice says. "I just asked God to give me another chance, and he did. I put it in His hands and here I am."
Says former teammate Courtney Trask, who was suspended with Grice after academic misconduct: "The hype he had when he first got there created a lot of pressure. But he worked hard and stayed through it and he's made it back."
There are others Grice credits with molding him as a person and player. One of those is his mother, Mary Grice. The other is his wheelchair-bound grandfather -- another 6'6" John Grice -- who obviously passed on more than a name. Both have attended almost all of the younger Grice's games. It's an attendance streak that stretches back to junior college, high school, and beyond, according to the family.
"Ever since John came home from the hospital, he came over to my house, and we've grown up together like that," says "Grand Pappy" Grice, crossing two long fingers. Even seated in a wheelchair, the elder Grice makes for an imposing presence behind the basket. "I know that he got a lot of his height from me because his mom is kind of tall and she got hers from me," says the elder Grice. Grice's family also supplied him with some additional advertising on December 30th. During the Tigers' home game with Murray State, nearly a hundred relatives and friends wore T-shirts announcing Grice's 23rd birthday.
"It felt great that my family came out and supported me like that in big numbers with signs and things on my birthday," Grice says. Calipari, at times Grice's biggest critic, has also been quick to support his player even during some of his least-productive games.
"I'm proud of John Grice," Calipari says. "He's listening. He's trying to do the right things. I'm happy for him and how he's playing."
"We have a mutual understanding that I'll go out and do what he asks," Grice says.
Grice has also turned into the Tigers' "Mr. Clutch" down the stretch, burying late free throws and three-pointers. He even overcame his own admitted bad judgment with a throat-cutting gesture to ice the Tigers' win over Louisville at the line. Tiger fans can only hope there are more heroics in store and a possible drive down I-40 to see Grice again -- and the rest of the Tigers -- in the 2003 NCAA Tournament's first round in Nashville.
n If the NCAA men's basketball-tournament selection committee follows ESPN.com "Bracketologist" Joe Lunardi's current predictions, Memphis will indeed be traveling to Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center for a March 21st showdown with Bobby Knight's Texas Tech Red Raiders. Says Lunardi: "I'm guessing the Tigers would take this draw. Texas Tech and Wake Forest in Nashville is a path to the Sweet 16." The Tigers would be the number-six seed in Lunardi's scenario; Tech, number 11. Also seeded in ESPN's Nashville bracket is current ACC leader Wake Forest (3) which was beaten recently by C-USA leader Marquette.
n The Tigers, who play at late-season nemesis Houston Thursday and finish the regular season at UAB Saturday, moved up to number 18 in the Associated Press basketball poll released on Monday.