DEAR DENNIS Youve been on my mind a lot since January 6, 2002. My mind wrapped around the world of sports more than any adult could rationalize, Ive often wondered what Dennis Freeland would think about this, what Dennis Freeland would say about that. On occasion, Ive realized wed disagree and have a mild-mannered debate on the matter. Without fail, though, Ive realized the discussion would end with smiles. You were on my mind last March, when John Caliparis Tigers made their run (again) to Madison Square Garden and the NITs version of the final four. I heard you wondering, as I did, Are we supposed to cheer? The home team competing with 31 others for the right to claim they are the 66th finest program in the country . . . hmmm. Like any decent (and honest) sportswriter, I found the answer as I hopped around my living room, palms sweaty as the Tigers fought tooth and nail with Temple in the semis. When they pulled off the win, then whipped South Carolina for the championship, Memphis had itself a hoops Catch 22 like none other. We are the champions . . . heres hoping we dont defend! The kind of irrational celebration that would have brought out that ironic chuckle you delivered on countless topics. And its funny, Dennis, but I think you would have agreed: this beats the heck out of a first-round loss in the NCAAs. (And no, I still havent determined if hes smooth or slick. Ill keep you posted.) The day after the NIT final, the St. Louis Cardinals came to town for an exhibition with our Redbirds. You used to tease me with Cardinal stories from just before I was old enough to relish my beloved nine. (Loved the one about the Cards-Mets doubleheader you saw at Busch when the four starting pitchers were Gibson, Carlton, Seaver, and Koosman!) Im convinced you placed that Red Schoendienst-autographed baseball directly between us as a mouth-watering conversation opener during our visits . . . one I could gaze upon, but not touch. I know you were with me in the pressbox that night when, after a short rain delay, none other than Schoendienst himself sat down to my right. I managed the nerve to introduce myself to the ol redhead, talked a little baseball even. (Alas, Red thought Luis Saturria would come around.) We would have shared a belly-laugh, Dennis, if you had heard Reds response when I asked him which World Series ring he was wearing. Well, said the Hall of Famer, I dont always wear one, only for special occasions. You know . . . Ive got nine of em. To this day, I havent conducted a basketball interview without wondering if my questions would meet your standard. After sitting down with Jerry West last August, I came away thinking of your take on Mr. Logo: class, superstar, honest, gentleman, winner. And the descriptions would have had nothing to do with the mans achievements on the court. The kind of guy who made you feel lucky to be in his presence, win or lose. When I spoke to Gene Bartow last month, I was sure to remind him of the autographed picture of you and the coach that hung on your wall as long as we knew each other. In a happy mood as he recollected the 1973 Final Four, Bartow spoke as if he was the lucky one in that picture. He had it right. That same week, I managed to get John Wooden on the phone (had to get a take on the 73 championship from the other bench). Knees shaking under my desk, I asked the Wizard of Westwood if he had time to discuss that fateful game. His answer? Well, if youd like to ask me some questions, Id be happy to respond. Nothing like taking the ball into ones own court, right Dennis? Brushes with greatness -- however brief -- are the fuel in a sportswriters engine. You never shied from the great ones, and you loved sharing the experience with those of us who could appreciate the goosebumps. Wooden and Freeland would have made quite a tandem. Its cold outside, Dennis. A new year, conference play ready to begin. The time of year youd be clutching that tam-o-shanter to your head as you made your way to The Pyramid, your home away from home during the winter months. I have yet to approach our much-maligned arena without feeling like Im going to a home of sorts, too. One where youre still at my side. Still on my mind, the way I like it.