His footwork was phenomenal, considering that Chris Massie's listed 6'9" frame carries an easy 260 pounds. And Massie's hands were arguably the strongest yet softest pair in the collegiate game. His voice was equally soft -- except for flashes of on-court emotion -- and usually completely muted when members of the media neared.
But, according to U of M head coach John Calipari, those three Massie talents never worked better in unison than they did Thursday night in Oklahoma City -- following his 20-point, 13-rebound effort in the Tigers' 84-71 first-round loss to Arizona State.
"As I turned to walk, he jumped up, took three steps, grabbed me and said, 'Hey, coach, thanks for letting me come back,'" says Calipari about their post-game exchange on the team bus. "And then it really got emotional while all of us were in there."
Calipari had just finished delivering his final post-game speech of the abruptly completed 2002-03 season. "It got emotional," Calipari reiterates. "You start getting emotional anyway, because it's the last time you're going to see these guys and be in that situation with them. You had guys crying and you had guys that were in an almost depressive state."
Massie snapped out of it long enough to provide one final assist to Calipari. "That just shows how far the kid has come and how appreciative he is of opportunities," Calipari says. "It has taken him a year and a half to get that way. That's why I said that it is disappointing how things are sometimes portrayed."
The "portrayal" Calipari referred to was a March 19th Commercial Appeal story detailing Massie's unconventional road to joining the Tigers. Calipari said the story negatively affected the Tiger senior and his immediate family. Chris' mother, Bernice Massie, was reported to have called her son crying, upset and incensed about the article. The coaching staff questioned the late-season timing of the story and also wanted to clarify that the then-19-year-old Massie's criminal trespassing charge was a misdemeanor he received for jumping a fence to go fishing.
Tony Burlingame, an Elkins High School basketball coach and once Massie's world history teacher, said via e-mail that his quotes describing Massie (who passed 21 first-semester hours in 2002 to gain eligibility) as a "thug" were taken out of context.
Burlingame added: "I was led to believe that the article was a tribute praising Chris for overcoming so many obstacles that he faced early in life to become a tremendous asset to [the Memphis] community and university. We should be praising him for his accomplishments in the present day rather than digging into his past."
In the CA's defense, story sources often read their attributed quotes and then deny them, even when they've been recorded. Perhaps that's why Massie chose his words so carefully this season, speaking only when his words mattered most.
n Due to the Wednesday night declaration of war with Iraq, fans' emotions were somewhat subdued in Oklahoma City's Ford Center -- the NCAA Tournament West region site and Memphis' draw -- in the days and hours leading up to the Tigers' game. Providing a brief respite from news of troop movements and air strikes thousands of miles away, the Tigers prepared for their game with the Sun Devils, played just blocks from the Oklahoma City National Memorial, site of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. The U of M staff decided to forego the 20-minute shoot-around scheduled for all teams and instead practiced at an undisclosed location. But as tip-off approached, the large contingent of blue-and-gray-clad fans crammed through the gates, displaying face paint and optimistic smiles.
n As for the future of Tiger basketball, New Jersey native Sean Banks, the recently maligned Top 15 Memphis recruit, played his final prep game for Bergen Catholic March 16th, losing 45-44 to Camden Catholic in the Parochial A state championship. According to Bergen Catholic's school newspaper, Banks, who scored two points in 12 minutes, sobbed after the game and spent an extra three minutes on the bench and 30 minutes in the locker room. He had been allowed to return to his team March 8th after a February 18th arrest for a "disorderly persons offense" when a car he was in tried to elude police. Memphis assistant coach Tony Barbee said it would not affect the university's decision on Banks.
"We are still behind Sean 100 percent," Barbee said. "We have plans on him being here. It's unfortunate that sometimes we get lumped in with people we sometimes associate with. He wasn't driving. Those people picked him up from practice and were taking him home. Somebody else may have had an issue, but that has nothing to do with Sean."