Memphis State, March, and the Madness of Our Fans
By Elliot Perry
As the Big Dance is about to dominate the sporting landscape, it reminds me that Memphis State Tigers’ fans embraced MADNESS in March long before the Big Dance was ever conceived.
I grew up knowing Memphis basketball to be a religion (so to speak), and on Saturday afternoons or nights, I, along with family and friends, gathered in one room (as faithful disciples do) and went to the "Church of Memphis State Basketball". I watched (as my recruitment proceeded) and heard the "Reverend Dana Kirk" and his "Associate Pastor Larry Finch" deliver some of the best sermons to their congregation and lead the likes of Keith Lee, Andre Turner, William Bedford, Vincent Askew, Baskerville Holmes, John Wilfong, Dwight Boyd and others to the Final Four in 1984-85.
Years earlier, as I started to ascend as a young "pip squeak" growing up in North Memphis, my mentor and dear friend Michael Toney not only helped me gain confidence in myself personally and in the classroom, but he carefully set me up to be "baptized" in basketball by some of those same players I had grown up watching and admiring. Great players like Andre Turner, Curtis Hollowell, Steve Mitchell, Larry Simpson, and Kenny Green had given me nightmares on the court and yet encouragement off the court.
When I graduated from Treadwell High School in 1987, I didn't have to rely on some in or out of state national ranking or any AAU team to validate me as a player. I had earned my stripes through basketball "baptism" and came out of the water all the better (a better player, a better person, a better citizen).
LIVING UP TO THAT TIGER LOGO
Memphis is not a place you can "shuck and jive" the fans; this city is downright gritty and knowledgeable when it comes to their basketball and the players who have worn the Memphis State/University of Memphis...(Hell, worn Memphis anything) across their chest. When it came time to step on the court at the Mid- South Coliseum, I was a nervous wreck. I was also filled with the anticipation of hopefully becoming an elder in the church and getting my name called on the roster of great players who have served and made history in some way. Would my name be next to Win Wilfong, Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, Keith Lee, and later Penny Hardaway? I couldn't have told you at that time, but one thing I did know was that I was committed to giving every ounce of talent I had to my school, teammates, fans, and the city of Memphis. I had no choice, for they had embraced me throughout my high school years.
My experience as a Tiger was the best time of my life for several reasons:
- I had a chance to be the first in my family to attend college and earn my college degree - One of the proudest moments and greatest accomplishments in my life.
- Larry Finch was my coach (Yes, the associate pastor had become head of the church). He was a man who I admired and respected tremendously and who gave me the power of leadership by pouring into me a great deal of personal time and energy. He was the first to introduce me to Benjamin Hooks, and they both challenged me to DO MORE with what I had been given.
- My family and I built some life-long relationships both on and off the court with teammates and fans.
- I was part of a "tradition" (the best Memphis high school players going to Memphis), and I had earned the right to attend Memphis State University.
- It's where I figured out that my purpose in life was not only rooted in basketball, but that my platform could be used to serve my community in a way that basketball could never do.
I now realize that college basketball was the purest and most rewarding competition in my life, a time where I not only was challenged on the court, but in the classroom as well. As much as I was playing to make it to the NCAA tournament, I was also trying to leverage my opportunity to walk across that stage on graduation day. I loved the thought of not giving in to the "stereotype" of just another basketball player or not letting basketball use me, but instead, using it to set me on another path beyond athletics.
Now, as we approach the Big Dance, my emotions are running in three directions. First, I'm very grateful to have participated in post season play for my beloved Tigers. Secondly, what a treat it was to have watched and cheered for Penny Hardaway, Chris Garner, Cedric Henderson, David Vaughn, Lorenzen Wright, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey, Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Tarik Black as they represented Memphis in the tournament. The third is a more selfish emotion - "Lawd" I wish I could play in the tournament again - the most exciting tournament in the world, just for the love of the game, and do it while competing for the school I love.
WHO YOU ROOTIN FOR... MSU, WHO YOU ROOTIN FOR... MSU!-- Elliot Perry