Monday, March 31, 2008

I am going to throw up on my shoes.

In less than ten hours Memphis will take on Texas in the battle to win the South Region in the NCAA tournament.

I think I am going to throw up.

I haven’t been able to sleep well for weeks solely because of basketball. I know this is a sore point of contention amongst my friends in Boston. People either think it’s annoying- because I make plans that revolve around my basketball schedule- or they think it’s cute and quaint because it’s Just So Odd for someone like me to be so invested in something like a bunch of dudes throwing a ball that swishes through a hoop at the perfect moment.

Let me explain it thusly.

My first memory of life is of shopping for the birthday cake on the day of my first birthday party. I was about to be a year old. I loved Bert and Ernie, and so they were to be on my birthday cake. I remember being tiny; I remember everything being huge; I remember holding my dad’s hand as I teetered through the parking lot of the Big Star on Summer Avenue, knowing it was my special day and that I was going to get a cake just for me. I recall looking at the fancy display of cakes, pointing out the one that was mine, and watching my daddy exchange money for My Cake. There’s a blur between then and the happy birthday song, but I remember blowing out the candles while my family sang the song to me.

My second, third, fourth, fifth and beyond memories are all of Memphis Tigers Basketball. Somewhere in there is a memory of my sister being born. In my child mind I rated them all as being of relative importance. For some reason that is beyond my grasp, my memory of meeting my baby sister for the first time is in the same mental file cabinet as watching Keith Lee take Memphis to the Final Four in 1985.

And that is how it goes. My childhood constantly revolved around the Tigers. Every game came on local syndicated television and we watched them religiously. I can still recite the local commercials (anyone remember the commercials for Big Daddy’s Bowling Alley in Poplar Plaza? They had a free dinner for the kiddies! I know this cos I can still picture the fat girl customer stuffing her face with corn from the all-you-can-eat buffet). I memorized starting lineups. I memorized plays. If I hear the announcers (Dave Woloshin and John Albright, bitches!) now on the radio my brain shuts everything else off. Their voices are comforting to me the same way it’s comforting for some people to go to their parents’ houses and cuddle with their childhood teddy bears.

There were many minor players, but as far as the major stuff goes here is the rundown.

Elliot Perry was a little too short to be an NBA phemonenon, but his goggles were cool and he was a fucking star. As a result of his amazingness I copied his style and wore my swimming goggles all over the place from about 1989 to 1991 (this was before contact lenses were the shit, you see), just cos Elliot Perry did it first. I lived too far out in the country to have a basketball hoop, so I wore the goggles Elliot-style and dribbled my ball in circles in the loop of our driveway, doing it so many times that I remembered where each large rock was in our driveway that could send my ball flying into the bamboo bushes or towards the catalpa trees.

Penny Hardaway was obviously the most amazing phenomenon to hit Memphis since Elvis, but he was cooler ’cos he was local and kept it real. The day he announced that he was going to play for the Tigers he got shot in the foot. Not that you would know this, but THAT IS SO MEMPHIS. It was fucking depressing. Plus his grades sucked, so his whole freshman year was spent on the bench. After that wait though it was magic. Memphis went all the way to the Elite Eight during his junior year- what was that, 1992? I remember peeling the shot from Sports Illustrated of David Vaughn going up for this amaaaazing basket out of the magazine and putting it up on my wall. Memphis lost to Cincinnati in their bracket, which was especially painful, but what a fucking year that was.

I remember regularly seeing Coach Finch at Ike’s at Eastgate Shopping Center and, thanks to my mom’s encouragement, waving at him and congratulating him on his good year while he pushed his shopping cart out to his car, politely smiling and nodding at everyone in his path along the way. I remember feeling like I was a part of something special because he thanked me for acknowledging him. I remember how his smile towards me felt genuine, and I remember how when I watched the next Tigers game it felt like I had something to do with it.

I remember my parents screeching and hollering about The Great Name Change, how it would always be Memphis State to them and how their diplomas would always say that. Sure enough, they still call it Memphis State from time to time even fifteen-plus years later. Haters call it Memphis State all they want, but it makes me smile every time I hear it. I remember Coach Finch being unceremoniously fired and how it made the entire city so, so angry. I also remember how Tic Price was the biggest douchebag that the city ever had the misfortune of dealing with, and how it was like the second coming of Christ once the Tigers landed Coach Cal.

I remember watching and watching, but nothing happening. Then I remember the 05-06 year, going to RP Tracks with Lauryn a month or so before I moved to Boston and sitting with her and Hillary and watching Memphis come So Fucking Close to knocking off Duke in the preseason. It was something. I remember watching this mysterious but amazing number 14, this Chris Douglas-Roberts character, and hearing everyone in the bar murmuring, "who the fuck IS this kid?" I remember doing the math in my head. These kids are all freshmen and sophomores. The next two years will be sweet, but 2007-2008 will be their year. Something big is going to happen.

In a lot of ways, Memphis is a crappy city. Segregation is still alive and well, and as a result the crime is out of control. The poverty is sky high and it’s easy to grow up there and have extremely low expectations for your loved ones and yourself. Honestly, I don’t think I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost a friend because a robbery went wrong. That’s a horrible thing to have to say, but it is true. When you are raised in a town like Memphis you’re just set up to either be an incredible survivor via suffering horribly or to be an extremely sheltered and mediocre human being.

If Memphis wins the championship this year, it’s not just about a fucking ball going through a fucking hoop. It is about forcing the entire country to acknowledge what it means for a city in a shitty position to overcome mid-major status, financial obstacles, extreme racism and classism, and eternal underdog status. Memphis Tigers basketball isn’t just about a basketball program at a college in the city of Memphis; it’s a perfect emblem of the city itself. If the Tigers win, it’ll be like we hit the fucking lottery. It means some kids in Frayser and Orange Mound whose parents never graduated high school are gonna get a free ride to the University Of Memphis. It means that our parents and grandparents are going to get to experience something they never thought they would- seeing the Tigers cutting down the nets. It means that all these schools/cities/states that think they’re better than us will have to man up and accept the fact that on a basic human level, we’re all pretty much the same.

Memphis kids are in a class by ourselves. We grew up with our parents forcing their versions of their local hipster bands in our ears constantly, which turned out to be The People Who Fucking Invented Rock And Roll And Soul Music. As a result we have impeccable taste- basically, it’s in our blood to know when something’s good or when it sucks. Right now the entire city is rumbling like the big earthquake is finally settling in under its feet. We all know this is special, even when we’re a thousand miles away from home.

This is big.

I don’t think I’ll have to eat my words in a few hours. This feels real.


k. irène said...

You seriously need to send this into the sportwriters at the CA (one of them, Jason Smith, grew up the street from me and was tight with my lil bro) and also the NYT. FUCKING INTENSE!!!!! I cannot believe how well you captured it. JEEZUS!

Yeah, we Memphis kids are something incredibly special huh? Both my parents have their multiple degrees from there (natch) and now there is an entirely new generation of kidlets whose parents are returning home and going back to old Memphis State (whatevs, I love it) and getting their masters or JD so they can put some food on the just keeps going. I cannot wait to return, actually!

chrishaley said...

Oh man, now I've got hell of pride.

I remember my friend Corey drawing Elliot Perry when we were little kids in art class.
I remember my friend Wes getting to meet Penny because his grandma was friends with Penny's grandma.
I remember us all having those big pennies with his face on them.

This was all really well said and right on, and I appreciate you taking the time to write it.

M.Sea said...

I was referred to your blog by Chris Haley. I am also a Memphis native. I felt everything that you said. Thank you for writing this. Hopefully, it will help people understand our plight as Memphians.

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