It's the nature of Memphis — the nature of who we are as Memphians — that the stories we embrace most passionately tend to come with a bruise or two. We're the home of Elvis Presley, perhaps the most famous man of the 20th century but, alas, a star who has "earned" more money in the grave than he did on stage. We rightfully carry a banner for Dr. Martin Luther King and the message he embodied, but, alas, Memphis is connected to King primarily for being the place where he was slain. Even as noble an enterprise as St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is named for the patron saint of hopeless causes.
To that list of heartbreaking identifiers we can now add the 2008 NCAA basketball championship contest, won Monday night in San Antonio by Kansas — 75-68 in overtime — over a Memphis team that won more games (38) than any team in the history of the sport. Four missed free throws over the last two minutes by two Tiger All-Americans — Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose — allowed the Jayhawks' Mario Chalmers to drain a game-tying three-point shot with two seconds left in regulation. Including the overtime period, Memphis was outscored 24-8 over the game's last eight minutes. How does a team — and the community it embodies — retain perspective when told 38-2 isn't good enough?
When all the tears on all those Tiger-blue Final Four T-shirts are finally dried, this year's Memphis team will land where it belongs: a significant club in basketball history, the players now permanently a part of the city many of them will only temporarily call home. Joey Dorsey is from Baltimore, Douglas-Roberts from Detroit, Antonio Anderson from Massachusetts, Robert Dozier from Georgia, Rose from Chicago. But they are all Memphians now and forevermore. Twenty years from now, nearing the end of his NBA career, do you think Rose will have to buy a meal in Memphis? In the year 2038, do you think the initials CDR won't call to mind that dunk over UCLA's Kevin Love?
Memphis may be too large, too complicated a city to be called a "college town," but these Tigers are ours, as much a part of the community fabric now as your favorite corner bar or your favorite river view. They're ours, especially, because no one will understand the ache of April 7, 2008, like they will.
My friend Dennis Freeland and I used to chuckle over the joyous futility of sportswriting. The former Flyer editor — who died far too young in 2002 — recognized sporting events for what they were: moments in time. Which made it well-nigh impossible to convey that "moment" in words that must necessarily be written (and read) after the moment has passed.
But that's the joyous part of the endeavor: absorbing a moment — however crushing it may turn out to be — as it occurs, then reaching into the recesses of thought and sentiment to somehow add life to (or in this case, survive) an otherwise transitory event. Dennis — from whichever cloud he watched Monday night's game — would know how unnecessary even the most profound game summary of Kansas-Memphis will be in the days and weeks ahead. For it's the bond the Memphis Tigers hold to their city that will spawn the tales that heal, the verbal replays, rewinds, and reflections of a season — and even a last breathtaking game — that give sports "moments" a kind of immortality the best stories ride into posterity.
I had my groceries bagged last weekend by a young man in a Derrick Rose jersey. Saw a father eating breakfast with his son Sunday morning, wearing a T-shirt that said, "Joey Dorsey for Mayor." Did some banking Monday morning with a woman — dressed entirely in blue — more interested in talking about the Tigers' chances against Kansas than she was my account numbers. If you didn't see Tiger blue in Memphis over the last week, the cabin fever must be unbearable. The moments of hope and joy simply stockpiled.
A single free throw made (instead of missed), a desperation three missed (instead of made), and maybe three fewer seconds on the clock. Such were the moments Tiger Nation will imagine for what seemed so clearly to be a national title. The 2008 NCAA championship was a heartbreaking story. And very much a Memphis one.