By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Editor’s Note: Journal West 10 Media is introducing a regular column from editor Thomas Sellers Jr., breaking down topics in Top 10 countdowns.
Welcome to the Best Sellers’ List. Like most U.S. Americans, I love lists and rankings of the best and worst. People love to give their opinion on subjects from best ice cream flavors to the worst songs of the 1980s.
The Best Sellers’ List is going to tackle various topics from week to week. I’ll make sure they’re timely and topical. For example, the inaugural List is coming on the heels of The University of Memphis hiring basketball great Penny Hardaway to take over the Tiger Basketball program. Penny is back and ready to restore the rich history of Memphis basketball.
He’s off to a great start with just the hires on his staff like Tony Madlock and Mike Miller. Hopefully the next 15 to 20 years will make compiling a list of the 10 best Tigers ever harder. As of today, here is my list of the Greatest Tigers of all time, including both players and coaches.
10. Gene Bartow
The mind behind the first Memphis team to hit the national scene was the late Gene Bartow. He was the Memphis State University head coach from 1970-1974 and led then Memphis State to the 1973 NCAA National Championship game and consecutive Missouri Valley Conference titles in 1971–72. He was the leaders of players like Larry Finch, Larry Kenon and Ronnie Robinson.
9. Derrick Rose
OK, before you get upset, just think about the impact Rose had during the “One-And-Done Era” for the team to which he dedicated a season. Rose suited up for 40 games in the Memphis program, winning 38 of them. Rose was the most gifted players on a team ranked No. 1 in the nation.
He was the spark plug in the Tigers’ tournament run in 2008, reaching overtime of the National Championship game. Then he went on to be the top pick of the NBA draft and the youngest MVP in NBA history. Although his time at Memphis is “unofficial,” all those NBA memories and achievements still count.
8. Lorenzen Wright
In the mid-1990s some Memphis-area prep stars were venturing to programs across the nation. But Booker T. Washington High School standout and McDonald’s All-American Lorenzen Wright decided to stay home and play for the Tigers. He was the leader of the teams with players like Cedric Henderson, Chris Garner, Mingo Johnson and Michael Wilson. That group reached a No. 3 ranking and reached the NCAA Tournament. Wright was a “double-double” machine for two seasons, averaging more than 15 points and 10 rebounds. Another trend in the mid-’90s was players leaving college early. Wright went on to be drafted No. 7 by the LA Clippers after his sophomore season. He had a very productive pro career.
7. Larry Kenon
Larry Joe Kenon ushered Memphis basketball into the modern era of pro basketball. After averaging 20.1 points and 16.7 rebounds for the 1973 national runners-up, Kenon headed into professional basketball carrying the Memphis Tiger banner. The 6’9” forward had a productive career in the ABA and the NBA with nearly 13,000 points and more than 6,700 rebounds. Kenon was smooth and athletic on the court. No. 35 brought several memories to those who saw him play in the Mid-South Coliseum.
6. Chris Douglas-Roberts
CDR! Dunk over Kevin Love! Buckets!
One of the best three-year runs in a Tiger uniform ever came from Douglas-Roberts. He was the Finch of that 2008 team. The heart and soul with a skill set opponents feared. Rose might go down as the “best” player on that National runner-up but Douglas-Roberts was the go-to player and the face of the team. He racked up the Conference USA and national awards along the way.
5. Elliot Perry
Socks! Goggles! EP!
No matter the nickname, Elliot Perry grabbed your attention either with gear or his skills. The 6-foot, 155-lb. lightning bolt electrified Tiger fans from 1987 to 1991. He closed out the Coliseum Era with speed and shooting from anywhere on the court. Perry, a Treadwell High School product, averaged 20 points in his final Memphis campaign. Then he went on to a solid NBA career and now is an ambassador for Memphis basketball from the Tigers to the Grizzlies.
4. Keith Lee
During an era of giants in college basketball, the Memphis State Tigers had one of the best in the nation. The 6’10” Keith Lee was the face of the Tigers, Metro Conference and premiere college basketball from 1981 to 1985. He guided Dana Kirk’s Tigers to a No. 1 ranking and to the 1985 Final Four. The four-time Associated Press All-American was Metro Conference Player of the Year in 1982 and 1985 and was named to 29 All-American teams. Although his pro career wasn’t stellar, Lee left his mark at Memphis as the all-time leading scorer with 2,408 points (18.8) and all-time leading rebounder with 1,336.
3. John Calipari
This might be the most controversial pick on my list. But I am man enough to admit to the public and the world I miss John Calipari. I miss winning at a record pace and having the Memphis name mentioned on recruiting sites among America’s top 100. In 2006 and 2008, Memphis earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In 2008, Calipari’s Tigers advanced to the national championship game. That Memphis team won 38 games, the most regular-season wins in NCAA history.
The NCAA is telling me all that doesn’t count. So here is a persuasive list of names to argue my case for Calipari being No. 3 on this list: Antonio Burks, Chris Massey, Dajuan Wagner, Rodney Carney, Tyreke Evans, Darius Washington, Shane Williams, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Jeremy Hunt …
2. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
He is the reason for this list being composed at this very moment. The Memphis basketball icon is all the talk across the 901. From averaging 36.6 points at Treadwell High School to having two of the best years of Memphis Tiger hoops, Penny had secured his legend already in the Bluff City. But he went on to add to his legacy with the NBA, reaching the Finals in 1995. Penny was an All-NBA player, multiple-time All-Star and member of the 1996 gold medal-winning USA basketball team.
Hardaway has had a cultural impact outside of Memphis with Little Penny, his Nike Shoe and even starring in the movie “Blue Chips.”
Back home, Hardaway has been leaving his mark through coaching with Lester Middle School and East High School. Coach Penny has tasted championship success on both levels. Now he is eyeing similar results with his college alma mater. He’s off to a great start. And if he reaches the success of past coaches such as Bartow, Calipari and Kirk, Penny might be worth one in the future.
1. Larry Finch
As of today, there is no doubt who the greatest Tiger ever is. If you separated the list for coaches, Finch has an argument for No. 1 with the most official wins in program history with 220. And the 1991 Elite Eight appearance and 1995 run to the Sweet Sixteen help.
As a player, Finch had the numbers with nearly 2,000 career points in three seasons. He dropped 24 a night his senior year, scoring 721 points.
Putting all the numbers away, Finch is No. 1 on this list for two reasons. His decision after graduating from Melrose High School to attend his hometown college eventually united a city after turbulent times. It was 50 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sending the city into a racial tornado. The 1973 Memphis State Tiger team went a long way into bonding whites and black in the city, as residents of Memphis has something to cheer for and be proud of nationally. Finch was the heart and soul, the leader of that team on the court.
The second reason Finch is No. 1 on this list is that he kept the Memphis Tigers … Memphis. He recruited the best Tiger basketball player ever in Penny Hardaway. As an assistant under Kirk, he fought to get players like Andre Turner, Vincent Askew, William Bedford and Baskerville Holmes in the Blue and Gray to shine right next to Keith Lee.
When Finch took over the program, Memphis shone nationally with Tigers like Anthony Douglas, Billy Smith, Ernest Smith, Perry, Wright and more. We can toss in Nashville’s David Vaughn, Finch’s nephew, too.
Finch guided the program to a level that gave Calipari a history to recruit. He took on UCLA as a player and took down Louisville and Cincinnati as a coach. He did his job on the court, whether in the Tiger uniform or in a suit with that rolled-up paper in his hand.
The late, great Finch is No. 1 because he put Memphis first – each and every day he was a Tiger. He defines what it means to be a Tiger.
Coach Hardaway, you have a tall challenge in front of you to be No. 1. But the city is rooting for you.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is editor of The Millington Star and the sports editor for Journal West 10 Media. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.