Growing up in Memphis, it’s hard not to root for the U of M — bleed Tiger Blue. There’s nothing fans in this city love more than watching their team make a deep run in the NCAA tournament – except seeing Memphians in those Memphis jerseys. Because Memphis basketball has been racking up the wins for some time now, but without the biggest high school stars from within the deep and talented pool of players this city has to offer. With one epic recruiting class, three guys who grew up playing ball in this city look to fulfill the dreams of every Tiger fan. Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Tarik Black tell Memphisport they’re ready to live that dream as they talk about the Tigers’ chance at a national championship, Memphis’ best local artist and the city’s best hot wings.
How important was it for you guys to be a part of the resurgence of this Memphis basketball program after what happened a few years ago?
Joe: I’ve been growing up watching the Tigers. My heart is in this city. I love that blue. But with the situation with the coaches and the team we had coming in, it was a good fit for me. So I couldn’t really see myself somewhere else.
Tarik: It’s great being from Memphis. You grow up watching them. I wasn’t even a basketball fan. I was in the band, but I knew who the Tigers were. To be on the court, wearing a jersey now; it’s every player’s dream come true.
Chris: I only wanted to be a Memphis Tiger ever since I was young. It was a dream that I wanted to come true and I always used to talk to my father about it before he passed away.
What was the best pitch Coach Pastner made to you during the recruiting process?
Joe: Well actually he didn’t have to do a lot. Like I said, I always wanted to play at Memphis. Even during the recruiting process I didn’t even take a visit to another school. That just speaks for itself. I just held out for a minute; for the fans, you know.
Tarik: There were so many. His pitches weren’t even to me really. They were to my mom. ‘We’re putting education first.’ That’s the best thing to tell my mom.
Chris: Just him saying that I’d be able to play in front of my mother. She’s never missed a game ever since I was little, so that was the biggest thing.
Were any of you close to signing with another team?
Joe: No. It was just the perfect situation for me. I just couldn’t see myself somewhere else.
Tarik: To be real honest with you, everybody knows I wasn’t coming here at first. I made my decision in one night. I was on a plane headed somewhere else. But, divine intervention.
Chris: I can’t lie to you. I was going to go somewhere else, but next thing you know, at home I was.
How big of a factor was it for you that the rest of this recruiting class was looking so good, especially with so much local talent?
Joe: It all boiled down to whether you want to win. I want to win and with coach getting a lot of good players at every position, it gives us a good chance to win. I just wanted to come in and help out.
Tarik: I hate those guys. That’s why I was going to leave. Once they signed I was like, “man I can’t go there.” No. I’m just playing. I love those dudes. Those are my dudes. It’s what’s comfortable.
Chris: We came from the same AAU team. We won the championship, so we might as well stick together.
You guys have seen Memphis Madness before as a fan, but can you explain how it felt as a player?
Joe: It was great. I went three or four years in a row and I watched Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Darius Washington. It was just great to see the atmosphere like that.
Tarik: I love lights. That’s my basic motto. I love light and crowds. If there aren’t lights and there isn’t a crowd then you probably won’t see the best out of me. I felt noxious beforehand. We couldn’t settle down. Wes and Will both said, “you can tell they’re freshmen.”
Chris: Before the madness, you could tell we were freshman. We were back there going crazy.
How much did it show you how important this team and this university is to this city?
Joe: I was a fan and now I’m a player and it just showed me how much support everyone affiliated with the organization is going to give you. It’s just pleasing to know that all these fans want to see you do good – at least 16,000. You’re not going to get that everywhere else.
Some players on this team have already been talking. Will Barton has said the goal for this season is to get to the national championship. Is that something you feel is a realistic goal for this team?
Joe: That’s a big quote. But if you’re a ball player and you work hard at what you do then you feel like that sometimes. I feel like we’ve got a chance to do it. It’s just a matter of us getting experience under our belts and taking the bumps in the road and then when the tournament comes around we’ll have confidence. But we’ve got a lot of players that can produce.
Tarik: If you play for a major team, you wouldn’t think anyone else was better than you. We’re the top recruiting class in the country with two top upperclassmen still left here and two more in the back woods that folks don’t even think about that are actually going to shine this year. So why would we put ourselves behind anybody? But we’re from Memphis. A lot of people aren’t used to going through some of the stuff we have.
Chris: We just know how to get after it and go win games.
Will Coleman has said he feels there is something special about this team. What do you think he means by that?
Joe: You’ll have to watch us practice on a day-to-day basis. We always go hard. You’re not going to find that on every team. We have our problems but we resolve them. Everybody gets along. We’re brothers.
Chris: Maybe because we’re all together as a team. We’ve bonded. We hang together most of the time. We’re laughing and joking all the time. We just have a good feel for each other.
Tarik: It’s our bond with each other. For eight freshmen — and it’s really nine new guys — to just come out of nowhere on a team and for us to feel like brothers already; that’s something special to me. Another thing is, off the court we’re friends. But on the court, if you watched us practice, you would think me and Will hate each other. Talking noise. Chris and Joe get into it all the time. You would think we hate each other. But then we get in the locker room and we’re friends.
Is there a team on the schedule you were looking forward to playing the most?
Joe: Yeah. Lemoyne-Owen. I wanted to get a good feel for the game. I had never played in a college game, so it was a just different thing.
Chris: I’m going with Tennessee. That’s the game I look forward to the most.
Tarik: I think I’ve got two. One of them is not even on our schedule. I just want to play them – Duke. And I want to play Tennessee.
Who is the best shooter on the team?
Joe: Honestly, it’s up and down. Some days Chris Crawford looks like the best shooter in the world; some days Carmouche. But all our shooters are consistent. I’m not trying to say nothing bad, but they’re not like Doneal Mack. They’re not inconsistent.
Chris: We’ve got consistent shooters but…
Tarik: Any day they could outshine each other.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. We’ve just got a lot of shooters. Well Doneal was a little streaky.
Joe: Yeah. Yeah. But I tell you what, these guys if you give them an inch they’re going to make it.
Who is the best athlete on the team?
Joe: Of course, you’ve got to go with DJ Stephens. I mean, I’m a good athlete but he just soars above everything in everything he does; rebound, jump shot. It’s crazy.
Chris: Got to go with DJ.
Tarik: Will can jump, too. But DJ just gets off the floor so fast. You can’t train to do what DJ does. I don’t know how he does it.
Chris: You’re still in shock even though you see it all the time.
Does it go without saying then that he’s the best dunker?
Joe: No. I’m not going to say that. I think me and Will Barton have got the most creative dunks. We’ve got a little more flair to our game. DJ’s got the bounce, but he can’t go between his legs and stuff like that.
Tarik: DJ, too. Got to go back with DJ. If I could finish I’d be up there.
Chris: We’ve got a lot of guys: DJ, Will Coleman, Will Barton, ‘Spoon. But DJ’s just automatically in there.
Obviously, Memphisport loves Yo Gotti, but if you could pick a different local artist to play at a game, who would it be?
Joe: Dude name Cannibal. He’s good.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Tarik: He’s nice. He’s nice.
If you could choose a pregame meal from any local restaurant, what would it be?
Joe: You got to go with Benihana, maybe Texas de Brazil. You know what? I’d probably have to get some bar-b-q; go downtown to Rendezvous. That’s it.
Chris: You’ve got to go with Ching’s.
Tarik: Got to. Ching’s Wings. Best wings in Memphis.
I’ve never had Ching’s Wings.
Tarik: Oh my God! And you’re from Memphis?
Chris: You’ve got to go right now and get them.
I’ll go right now.
Tarik: I’m riding with him.
Written by Jan Michael Hartelust, Photos by Chase Gustafson