Let national magazines call Memphians poor, fat, and ugly. You can go to the mall and see that for yourself. But there are still things unique to Memphis that we all enjoy. Sure, we have the river, rock and soul music, and the world's best barbecue, but we also have the Memphis Tigers. Every basketball season, thousands of West Tennesseeans become riveted to their televisions on game nights. For most people, television is their only access to the team, and the better the season, the higher the spirits of the citizenry. Until recently, the TV coverage was excellent and brought the game to thousands who would otherwise have to depend on the radio and their imaginations. As a result, few cities share a bond with their local university's athletic teams quite like Memphis loves its basketball Tigers.
Memphis' love affair with the Tigers really began in 1957, when tiny Memphis State College lost the National Invitation Tournament to Bradley on national television by just one point. The Commercial Appeal reported on March 25, 1957, that a huge crowd showed up at the airport to greet the returning team, including Elvis Presley, who had had a pretty decent year himself. My Tiger loyalties are generational. My dad had season tickets back in the Field House days, and I was that little kid under the bucket shagging errant jump shots for the team's pre-game and half-time warm-ups.
Suffice it to say that I saw the entire Wilfong family wear the Tiger uniform, and I was in attendance at the NCAA finals in St. Louis in 1973. I suffered through the Moe Iba years and celebrated Dana Kirk and the formation of the Metro Conference, the best collection of unaffiliated schools in the nation. Along with that came a hatred of all things Louisville. I hated their team, their fans, their coach, their school, and the color red. But the memorable games at the Mid-South Coliseum were annual gatherings of the rabid faithful to hopefully witness the Cardinals defeated and humbled, and they were as loud as any rock concert.
I had season tickets in the Coliseum and showed up in snow, rain, or iced parking lots, while the team's following throughout the city boomed. When the Coliseum restricted smoking to the concourses, it was necessary to breast-stroke through a fog of grey plumes to get to the concession stand. And the team had so many Jewish supporters that half-time looked like Rosh Hashanah at the Temple. Almost all the games were televised on local channels, with WKNO offering a replay of every home game at 10 p.m. I used to drive home from the games and watch Channel 10 to see if I'd missed anything.
The team outgrew the Coliseum, but season ticket-holders were assured of preferential seating in the new Pyramid to reward their loyalty. I wasn't among those who got to choose their seats, but I was certain my assigned tickets would be satisfactory. Imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting parallel to Larry Finch's jersey hanging from the rafters. When I appealed to the university's ticket office, I was told that it would be no problem to improve my seats, only it required an additional $2,000 "contribution" to the athletic department. I didn't want to pay the extortion, so I gave up my nose-bleed section tickets.
With the move to FedExForum, and its corporate suites and blaring techno music, I decided the best place to watch a Tiger game was in my living room. Four seasons ago, I invested in a 47-inch, flat-screen television specifically for basketball season and scored extra points by telling my wife that it was a present for her.
Say what you will about the Calipari era, the Memphis games were all televised, either on local or cable networks, and we made an evening of it. Select friends and former disenfranchised season ticket-holders came to my house for the games, and Melody put out hors d'oeuvres in our Tiger serving dishes, alongside the Tiger napkins. It's become a tradition. On game night, we all wear Tiger gear and erect a small shrine around the TV with our blue and white pom poms, the stuffed tiger's claw, and the tiger-striped footstool with the tail that I got at Walgreens. Only now, if it's not a nationally televised game, we're in trouble. While I love everything about the current team and their coach, somebody made a lousy TV deal for the fans that not even high definition can fix.
The games on the CSS Network come through clearly enough, but in the last game, some computer whiz forgot to throw a switch, and the graphic that shows the score didn't come up until five minutes into the telecast. In addition, the picture distorted and froze throughout the game, although it was not shown in high def. When a game is scheduled to be shown on the Sports South Network, however, it's a true reason for despair. It's a lucky thing that Greg Gaston and Hank McDowell are great announcers, because you can barely see the action they are describing. For the second straight season, the network is using some antique camera that would be better suited for a high school game. The resulting picture is so dark that the players' faces are indistinguishable and the jersey numbers are a blur. It appears as if the arena is experiencing a brown-out. When a recent game was televised on a delayed basis, an announcer said, "Because of time constraints, we are moving ahead in the action," and they cut out 10 minutes.
I understand that Memphis is mired in a mediocre conference with no visible way out, but do you suppose the league could afford to buy a digital camera for its damn network? Or is it possible the athletic department, which remains solvent only because of the basketball team, might negotiate a better TV package for the fans? Both the team and their loyal supporters deserve better than this. Besides, I really need to see this group of Tigers play, especially since I bet a Barcalounger that they make it to the Elite Eight.