No doubt this will be among the more ridiculous things I’ve ever written, but in the maudlin sentiment of now, it rings true. That said, I would appreciate it if no one ever asks me about any of this ever again.1
You may notice that Memphis Tigers fans take their basketball a little too seriously. But if you understood the relationship between the city and that team, you wouldn’t be surprised. Many people dismissed Coach Calipari’s underdog talk as a motivational gimmick this year, and to some extent it was. But Cal is above all things perceptive, and he knew how to seize the heart of a city with his words.
There are only two blues that matter in Memphis: the kind you play on a guitar, and Tiger blue. If you’re born and raised in Memphis, and you have no other allegiances, you root for Tiger basketball; that’s just the way it is. Imagine if most Carolina grads stayed in and around Chapel Hill, or most Kansas grads settled near Lawrence. Memphis is a small college town of a half million people, most of whom are from around there, most of whom will stay nearby. A great portion of the city is run by people who graduated from Memphis. A lot of us leave after high school and never return. But most carry the spirit of a city that has for many decades searched in vain for healing, and validation.
Memphis is in a lot of ways a crucible for this nation’s deepest scars. We just observed the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. We still have cotton exchanges on Front Street. We have a riverfront park named after the founder of the KKK. We have square mile upon square mile of devastated ghetto, both north and south of a downtown that has been “redeveloped” or “gentrified,” depending on who you ask. We are about as perfect an example of the patterns of white flight as you could hope for. We have a public school system in serious crisis. We’re always near the top of the nation in the murder rate. We are a city derided in the region for being too black and too violent. We are in a region derided by the country for being too racist, too dumb, and too poor.
The racial divisions alone have plagued everything about our city’s politics, and psyche. It is a city where black and white work side by side, in the same offices, in the same jobs, and yet live in different worlds when they leave. And over everything hang the ghosts of 1968 riots, of bitterness over the corrupt administration of the current black mayor, the first one ever elected in Memphis.
So if it seems that we turn almost obsessively to something that brings the city together, I don’t think we should be blamed. Memphis is a basketball town in the football-mad South, always will be. Everyone can talk Tiger hoops, because everyone’s been talking Tiger hoops for so long. The 1973 championship game run came only 5 years after King’s assassination. The team featured local black high school legends, and the city rallied to them. Same with 1985 Final Four run by a team from a city riven as much as any other by crack and its violence. Tigers have always been Memphis kids, from the ghetto, from the suburbs, from white Memphis and black Memphis. Sure the campus is as divided in some ways as the city, but it is at least a concentrate of the community united by the Tigers.
We don’t recruit locally anymore, but that spirit that the Tigers are Memphis kids still remains strong. So in 2008 we have a team with a hulking 24-year-old senior from the worst of West Baltimore;2 a junior All-American from the Detroit playgrounds;3 a freshman prodigy from Chicago’s South Side.4 And each time these black kids from the roughest neighborhoods come back from a road trip, or set out on one, they get hugs from little old blue-haired white women decked out in Tiger blue; these same women grew up in segregation and probably supported it. Maybe their parents hurled epithets at the Little Rock Nine. Maybe they cowered in fear at the rioting in ’68. Maybe today they clutch their purses a little when they see a black teen. But in those send-offs and greetings, they find in those kids only people whose success they pray for. At least in those moments when the Tigers are playing, the richest white suburbanite in Germantown and Cordova can have the same passion, directed to the same place, as the teenager from Orange Mound. What’s more, they can see that same passion in each other.
So when we hear the slights directed at the Tiger team–too many tattoos, too undisciplined–we hear echoes of the slights against the city–too small compared to the big cities, too “urban” for rural whites, too much crime, too much racism. And in defending the Tigers against fans and the media, maybe we’re striving to defend where we’re from too.
Memphis needed that title last night, because we needed something untainted, simple, proud. Our jewel of a Civil Rights Museum arose from the the blood of Dr. King. A basketball title is one thing that would lift the hearts of Memphians of all colors. And if basketball can make black Memphis and white Memphis, rich Memphis and poor Memphis, stand next to each other and cheer for a week or two, talk a little hoops at work, and after, then that’s worth more than another banner at UCLA, another great year at Carolina, another title at Kansas. I don’t pretend that individual fans root for Memphis out of some great need for reconciliation, racial or otherwise. The motives are as varied as the people who have them. What is important is that there is something simple for all of them to get behind and agree on.
Carolina, Kansas, and UCLA are to college basketball what New York, Chicago, and LA are to U.S. cities. They are a cut above, entrenched, and never in danger of being replaced or surpassed. Another skyscraper in New York doesn’t mean much; the same one would transform the Memphis skyline. Similarly, a Tiger title would have done some real good in a city that yearned for it. We all know those programs and those cities will keep on getting their accolades, their chances, their titles, and probably soon, probably next year for at least one of them. They have their storied past: Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, James Naismith, Phog Allen, John Wooden, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor. They have their 17 odd titles between them. It could happen again for Memphis next year, but it’s just as likely it may take another 25 years to get to a Final Four. These are rare chances. We needed this, because we don’t know when we’ll be back. We don’t know when we’ll be able to get together again like this.
So if it seems like Tiger fans care a little too much, it’s because, well, we do.