Sports may be, as the late Howard Cosell used to say, the toy department of life. But it was still the basis for the caustic but candid lawyer-turned-sportswriter's livelihood, and, for most people, sports may in fact be the vehicle for doing what art is alleged to do — i.e., hold a mirror up to life.
Many of us remember the irony of the giant billboards that appeared over major thoroughfares in Memphis during the last months of John Calipari's tenancy as basketball coach of the University of Memphis. It was 2008, the Tigers had just played in the finals of the NCAA basketball championship, and the billboards boasted somewhat giddily of the respect and attention Tiger basketball had earned for the city during a run of years in which the team had figured as a contender for the NCAA's highest honors.
Well, as it is said, pride goeth before a fall, and when Calipari zipped off to Kentucky, taking his latest prize recruiting class of one-and-done future NBAers with him, the billboards came down.
During the next few years, when former Calipari assistant Josh Pastner was at the helm of the Tigers, the team's fortunes hovered between mildly successful and mediocre. And there was a counterpart to that in the attrition that sapped the self-esteem of the city, or at least of the Memphians, of whom there were many, who lived vicariously with the fortunes of the Tigers. Things were not helped in that regard by the University's sagging football program.
The University and its boosters resolved to dig deep and pay what it took to get both major athletic programs up to snuff. In football, that resulted in the hiring, successively, of coaches Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell, whose successful teams have brought the football Tigers up by several levels of respectability.
In theory, something like that was supposed to happen as well with the hiring of Tubby Smith, a former NCAA tournament winner with Kentucky, to coach the basketball Tigers. Under the circumstances, Smith didn't do badly in his two years here, but the circumstances included his inability to recruit and hold local talent, which had been the basis of the program's original successes pre-Calipari.
Enter this week a new coach: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, the former NBA star who had been one of the University of Memphis' own certifiably great players in the 1990s and who, moreover, has just won a state high school basketball championship as coach at East High School. Hardaway has the name, the zeal, no doubt the coaching ability, and, just as importantly, the local standing to attract local recruits again and bring the fans back into FedExForum and, who knows, to get those billboards back up.
Toy story or not, it is a source of much local hope this week.