TIME FOR HOPE
The world of sports is so cruel. It provides the moments we cheer from the deepest parts of our souls, the heroes we gaze upon with unconditional adulation . . . and too often the kind of sorrow where our tears flow directly from the heart. The halftime ceremony at The Pyramid Saturday night was a magical celebration of a transcendent group of athletes. The University of Memphis introduced members of the 1972-73 Tiger squad that advanced to the NCAA championship game, only to fall to John Woodens mighty UCLA Bruins. It was indeed a magical moment, and it was all I could do not to choke up.
On a team of heroes, a team of knights, Larry Finch was Lancelot. He was the cowboy in the white hat for those 73 Tigers, the general with the four stars, the gladiator with the silver shield. But Saturday night, during the 10-minute presentation that should have been his stage for prancing, Larry Finchs chariot was reduced to a wheelchair. Its an image no Memphis basketball fan in attendance will find easy to forget. A dozen still-strong, still-smiling heroes surrounding their wounded warrior chief.
The remarkable aspect of this halftime ceremony -- and its a credit to Tiger Nation -- is that the moment remained Larry Finchs. He was still the star, these 30 years after his glorious run to St. Louis. As his wife, Vicki, strolled him to centercourt, bathed in spotlight, Finch weakly pointed to the overhead scoreboard, where his image was broadcast to the crowd of 14,000. He pointed as if his army of admirers needed to be reminded where to look for a closeup of the legend. Once at rest on the courts U of M logo, Finch was joined by his supporting cast, the most special team this city has ever cheered. Ronnie Robinson. Larry Kenon. Bill Laurie. Bill Cook. Billy Buford. Wes Westfall. Kenny Andrews. Doug McKinney. And of course the old coach, Gene Bartow. A once-in-a-generation basketball team, back to smile and wave at a few younger generations, a reminder of greatness. Even more, a reminder of joy.
As if scripted for the moment at hand, the Tigers current incarnatio opened up a relatively tight game with UAB (Memphis held an eight-point lead at halftime), and drilled the Blazers, 94-70. Point guard Antonio Burks had a career night, with 27 points topped off by 10 assists. YoU had to wonder what Bartow thought of the score, considering the program that was honoring him had just torn apart the program he founded in 1978. The guess here is that, on this night, the outcome was exactly as the Coach would have liked.
Sports are cruel, though, and theyre unfair. The sad (and unfair) truth is that had any other member of this extraordinary basketball team been confined to a wheelchair for his public tribute, it would have been seen as an unfortunate casualty of three decades gone by. (And lets remember, one member of the 73 Tigers -- John Tunstall -- died in 1992.) But Larry Finch as the wounded Tiger? Remember his 29 points against UCLA, the grace and determination against impossible odds? Remember the smile, for crying out loud? Seeing Number 21 in that chair took on the heavy, hollow ache of tragedy.
Of course, the single greatest element of sport is that there is always hope. Hope for tomorrow, hope for next year, next season. And theres hope for Larry Finch. The only chance a wounded body has is its spirit, a quality the greatest Tiger of them all exuded en masse. Despite a stroke, a heart attack -- and wheelchair be damned -- Finchs spirit is not broken. He knew what he was doing when he pointed to that scoreboard, raised a weak arm above his head, and glanced at his own, super-sized image. How do you get 14,000 people with tears in their eyes to remember hope? Make them look up. Nowhere to look but up.