It felt almost perfect, in that “too-good-to-be-true” territory the most passionate fans have grown to fear. On November 5th at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers opened the most anticipated basketball season in over a decade with a drubbing of the South Carolina State Bulldogs. James Wiseman — the crown jewel in coach Penny Hardaway’s top-ranked recruiting class — scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in merely 22 minutes on the court.
But Wiseman’s squad wasn’t the only Top-20 team in town. Three days earlier, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew placing the Tiger football program on the brightest stage it had ever seen — has Beale Street ever been so packed? the Liberty Bowl so truly blue? — Memphis upset SMU thanks to a record-setting night by Antonio Gibson (386 all-purpose yards!).
The Memphis Grizzlies appeared to have the NBA’s most dynamic rookie when Ja Morant put up 30 points and nine assists in his third game. And it wasn’t just what we saw unfolding as Thanksgiving approached; the horizon appeared glowing. Tim Howard — the Tim Howard, the most recognizable living American soccer star — would take an active ownership role with 901 FC, the local USL Championship outfit. And it appeared one of baseball’s top prospects — St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson — was on his way to AutoZone Park for some fine-tuning with the Triple-A Redbirds.
But there’s a reason fans fear “almost perfect.” Before his second game, Wiseman learned he’d been declared ineligible by the NCAA for having received moving expenses from his future college coach (Hardaway) in 2017. He played two more games as the university appealed the decision, but upon accepting would never wear blue and gray again.
The Tiger football team won the program’s first American Athletic Conference championship — right here at the Liberty Bowl — on December 7th, only to see beloved coach Mike Norvell depart for Florida State the next day. (Ryan Silverfield enjoyed a head-coaching debut unlike any other, leading the Tigers against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.)
Then it all stopped. All of it. The Tigers and Grizzlies played a winter of basketball, Morant running away in the Rookie of the Year race and the Tigers’ second-best freshman (Precious Achiuwa) earning AAC Player of the Year honors. But Grizzly playoff prospects and a chance for the 21-10 Tigers to reach the NCAA’s “Big Dance” via the AAC tournament hit the invisible wall — less forgiving than brick-and-mortar — we’ll remember as the coronavirus pandemic.
At least Memphis basketball fans saw something. Both of AutoZone Park’s tenants — the Redbirds and 901 FC — remained dormant as March turned to April, then April to May and June. An operation that relies almost entirely on the ticket-buying public found itself an oversized shell — all that brick-and-mortar — unable to entertain, to create the warm-weather buzz Bluff City fans had come to crave … and take for granted.
The announcement in June that the Southern Heritage Classic would not be played this year seemed especially cruel. The football game between Jackson State and Tennessee State — a September clash at the Liberty Bowl since 1990 — represented not just African-American sports, but African-American enterprise, culture, and outreach, its accompanying parade through Orange Mound among this city’s most distinctive gatherings … and impossible during a pandemic.
That almost-perfect feeling disappeared in such devastating fashion, and with losses that compounded just as positive rates among COVID-19 testing fluctuated uncomfortably high. Instead of micro-analyzing Hardaway’s third recruiting class, many of us were counting masks among those we saw in public. Who is taking safety guidelines seriously, and who has simply had enough of pandemic protocol? Can a community live without sports? Certainly. Is it the kind of life we’ll have to identify as that fabled “new normal”? We can only hope not.
“I coach and mentor young people who are hurting, angry, and expressing themselves in the only way they know how. They want justice, fairness, and to be treated as human beings. Some are looking to me for answers and I do not take that lightly.” — University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway (June 8th)
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — the 46-year-old choked under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th — two images were paired and shared all over social media. One showed that ruthless officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, while the other showed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, kneeling (in 2016) to protest the mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. Both images stirred outrage in segments of the American population. (Kaepernick has not thrown a pass in the NFL since 2016.) But only one of them showed a man dying.
Sports may have felt absent — lost, even — before Floyd’s murder. As thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality, though, a new layer of emptiness became part of the shutdown: Sports didn’t seem to matter. For the first time in almost three months, legitimate American crowds were seen on live television, most people wearing masks, an acknowledgment that human proximity in the time of a pandemic brings danger, no matter how worthy the cause for gathering. There was no cheering in these open-air arenas, though, and the chants had little to do with winning a game or championship. Instead, there were chants for justice, for the end of racist-driven brutality, for African Americans to enjoy the most fundamental, basic freedom of all: to breathe.
The Black Lives Matter movement — amplified in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder — somehow made the silent game nights in Memphis less of a void. Had there been a Redbirds home stand the week of June 1st, would Memphians have enjoyed their barbecue nachos while images on the stadium’s flat screens showed protesters being sprayed outside the White House as the American president cleared a path for a photo op? That colorized smoke Memphians have come to love before and during a 901 FC match looks all too similar to the chemicals that dispersed Americans merely exercising their right to assemble. Sports are a distraction, sure, but they can distract only so much.
The anguish brought statues back into the headlines, particularly those of long-dead “heroes” of the Confederacy. In Richmond, Virginia, city leaders announced plans to remove the bronze replica of the most revered of all Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee. (Tennessee legislators, alas, stubbornly refuse to closet a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the state’s capitol building.) These statues matter. Their removal matters, a more-than-symbolic statement about an era of hatred and racism that must never again be celebrated. That noose — rope-pull? — in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s Talladega garage in June may have been there for months. Maybe hate wasn’t behind the image. But NASCAR’s reaction — that glorious march of drivers and pit crews in unison behind Wallace’s car on race day — was a vivid reminder of how far we’ve yet to travel for racial justice.
Here in Memphis, we no longer see statues of Forrest or Jefferson Davis in Downtown parks. Better yet, we’ll soon see a statue go up, one of Larry Finch, the Memphis Tiger basketball legend who shined so brightly in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. The city will gain a memorial to an African-American sports figure doing what athletes do best: bringing communities together. How far might the symbolism — for brotherhood and tolerance — stretch in the year 2020? Minus the games we’re used to cheering, Finch’s statue will be an outsized reason for applause, especially in the context of a world trembling with unrest. Larry Finch made Memphis better, and we can be better still. Let him remain a standard.
A pandemic erased sports from the Memphis landscape, but only temporarily. A concurrent movement gave sports a perspective Memphians — and an entire country — desperately needed. Perspective we must hope long outlives the pandemic.
“Just as every restaurant, company, and organization across the country has had to change the way they operate to keep their customers safe, we’re having to do the same thing. … You can be assured, we’ll manage it appropriately.” — University of Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch (June 11th)
Picture the Liberty Bowl packed with 59,000 fans for that epic win over SMU last November, ESPN’s cameras broadcasting that sold-out football frenzy for the entire country to enjoy. Picture it now, because you won’t see it again — a football stadium packed to capacity — anytime soon. The University of Memphis has already disclosed the likelihood of limited seating — perhaps only season-ticket holders — if football games are played this fall. The aim, of course, is to practice a form of social distancing in an environment built for the precise opposite.
The current pandemic became the first — in these human lifetimes — to quite literally shut down the way we live, work, and play on a global scale. The global shutdown has stretched the thinking capacity of the world’s smartest scientists, to say nothing of what it’s done mentally to the rest of us. So what can be expected of leaders like Veatch in the realm of sports, where just about every instinct — starting with the gathering of people to, you know, watch — feels counterintuitive?
For longtime followers of the Tiger football program, the jokes write themselves:
The Tigers have played more than 50 years in a stadium about 20,000 seats too large. Until they started winning conference championships, that is. That oversized bowl may turn into a blessing as pandemic conditions persist. Arkansas State and UT-Martin — to name two opponents Memphis is scheduled to host this year — are unlikely to draw a crowd much larger than 30,000. Smallish groups (10 people? 20?) may be asked to sit together, and visits to the restroom, as uncomfortable as it sounds, will likely be regimented and monitored. (Even a crowd as small as 10,000 would make, say, “two visitors at a time” all but impossible in a public restroom.)
Here’s the thing: We have to try. Carefully and intelligently, but we have to try to play games again. Major League Baseball is scheduled to return later this month, a 60-game season of regional play that will, hopefully, be followed by a postseason and World Series in October. (It will be a cruel tease for fans of the Memphis Redbirds, as minor-league teams will not be stocked with players this year.) The World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has been rescheduled for July 30-August 2 at TPC Southwind. Golf is among the few sports made for a pandemic, where the view on television can be a better experience than hiking a course with a gallery of fellow fans. If the players and tournament officials can be properly monitored and cared for, the WGC could be an unforgettable — and singular — highlight of the Memphis sports summer.
There’s a reason beyond cheering and championships to find our way back to spectator sports. Games we play move dollars we spend. “If things play out as we’re currently projecting, it will be a seven-figure impact — to the negative — for the [athletic] department,” says Veatch in describing the financial hit the U of M will take in a reduced-seating world for football and men’s basketball. “We’re trying to get our heads around how to manage that appropriately.”
The absence of sports — locally and worldwide — has been traumatic, but hardly tragic. Not when the COVID-19 death toll worldwide has climbed above half a million. Not when the United States has become the global test case for how not to manage a killer contagion. No, the absence of sports has been merely a painful casualty of a global crisis. More patience required. More determination. We’ll remember 2020 as the year we learned it’s not so much our right to cheer our favorite teams, but a privilege.
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