Originally published in MemphiSport May/June 2007.
Larry Finch has been a Memphis icon for more than 40 years, starting as a star high school player and eventually becoming one of the most influential coaches that the University of Memphis basketball program has ever seen. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002, his friends and former players wanted to find a way to repay the coach who had devoted so much of his life to them, so they established an annual golf and basketball tournament, as well as the Larry Finch Foundation, in an effort to keep his legacy alive. In a tribute to Finch, who has maintained his sense of humor despite the physical challenges of his stroke, we reflect on the career of a man who made Memphis his life.
Finch set out on the road to basketball stardom at Melrose High School, where he started with the Golden Wildcats varsity team as a freshman. Coach Verties Sails, the current head coach at Southwest Tennessee Community College and assistant coach of Finch at Melrose, says that Finch was one of the greatest players ever to come from a Memphis high school. At 6’2” tall and 185 pounds, Finch was well built and versatile enough to play in the low post against smaller guards or on the perimeter shooting lights out. He was a natural scorer and averaged more than 28 points per game, but he was conscientious about getting his teammates involved in the flow of the game as well. Finch knew he could score 40 points or more on any given night, but he was a smart player and realized that scoring alone was not the most effective way to better the team. When the situation called for either points or a pressure defense to stop an opponent from scoring, Finch was the go-to guy, delivering consistently in clutch situations.
One of Memphis’ most anticipated high school basketball games was the 1969 city championship game between Melrose and the Overton Rebels (now Wolverines). The Rebels featured the city’s leading scorer Johnny Neumann with 35.6 average points per game. Finch was the second leading scorer in the city with a 28.6 scoring average. Finch and Neumann were friends and Finch even tried to convince Neumann to play ball at Memphis so they could play together.
The game was played at the Mid-South Coliseum in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 people; another 4,000 fans had been turned away due to capacity. Finch scored 14 points in the first quarter and forced Overton’s coach to call four of his five timeouts in the first quarter in an effort to cool off the sizzling Finch. Neumann broken his hand in the first quarter, but he knew he had to continue playing for the sake of the team. Melrose went on to win the game 76-65, and Finch finished with 21 points.
To no surprise, the All-American was recruited by every major college in the country. Although he could’ve had his choice, Finch decided to become a Memphis State Tiger because he wanted his mother to be able to see him play regularly and he wanted to keep playing in his hometown. The decision to go to Memphis State might seem like an obvious one on the surface, but in 1969, Memphis was filled with racial tension after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as the struggle for civil rights raged on. Memphis State was not exactly beckoning inner city kids to attend college, nor did the basketball program command the attention of the premier basketball players in the area. Despite warnings from friends and associates that Memphis State was not the right place for him, Finch decided to attend anyway.
In his first year, freshmen were not allowed to play on any varsity team, according to NCAA rules. After the transitional first year was finished, Finch joined the Tigers as a sophomore under “Clean Gene” Bartow and scored 24 points in his first game against the University of California at Davis. Finch went finished the year with an average of 18 points per game, closing his first official season with an 18-8 record. By Finch’s final year as a Tiger, he had led them to the national championship game, which they lost in a close match to the UCLA Bruins. He finished his college career as the leading scorer in Tiger history.
In 1973, Finch was drafted by NBA to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Finch knew the Lakers were a successful franchise with a fantastic reputation among players and fans. However, the lure to play in Tinseltown could not pull him away from Memphis. He played instead for the Memphis Tams during the 1973-74 season and switched the following season to the ABA’s Memphis Sounds.
In Finch’s first year as a Tam, Finch played again with former teammate Ronnie Robinson and reunited with former cross-town rival Johnny Neumann. With a trio like this, the Tams should have been a successful team, but they finished the year with a 24-60 record; Finch played in 68 games and only averaged 6.8 points per game. The second season in the ABA was a little better, with Finch averaging 10.5 points per game and the team finishing 27-57. Ultimately, the financial instability of the ABA was too much to bear, and the Sounds ceased operations in 1975.
Finch was called upon to restore the roar at Memphis State with less than 30 days to prepare for the 1986 season. He signed a two-year contract as an assistant coach, but when head coach Dana Kirk was fired shortly thereafter, he immediately took the reins. Finch was widely known as a great recruiter, even without having previous head coaching experience, and he was responsible for obtaining most of the star players on the roster for the Metro Conference, which was one of the best basketball conferences in the country.
In Finch’s first season as coach at Memphis, the Tigers’ roster was filled with local talent, including Marvin Alexander, Vincent Askew, Dwight Boyd, Rodney Douglass, Sylvester Gray, Kenneth Moody and John Wilfong. With so many players from the Memphis area, Finch was nicknamed the “gas tank recruiter,” because he could create a high-quality team on one tank of gas.
Finch enjoyed great success as head coach of the Tigers and continue to lure very rich Memphis basketball talent to Memphis State. The Tigers’ most prized recruit was Anfernee Hardaway, who, along with David Vaughn, led the 91-92 Tigers to the Elite Eight in one of Finch’s most successful seasons. Finch’s tenure came to an end in 1997 after a National Invitation Tournament loss to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He finished his career with the most wins in Memphis State history, 10 out of 11 winning seasons and more than 200 career wins.
Finch was more than just a coach to his players—for many, he served as a father figure as well. When he took over the Tiger program, the men’s graduation rate was one of the lowest in the country, but it improved under Finch’s watch, because he made sure his players were attending class and completing their assignments. Although the public witnessed the tough side of Finch when they heard his unmistakable voice boom loud enough to be heard over the arena’s sound system, there was another side of Finch that the public never saw. It was the side that challenged his players to a game of HORSE after practice for a two-piece chicken dinner. Or the side that often helped others out of a bad situation, even if it meant doing something detrimental to himself in the process.
When Finch suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002, it was heartbreaking to his friends and former players, like Kenneth Moody, who was moved to assist Finch in some way. Between the golf and basketball tournaments and the Larry Finch Foundation, they have found a way to keep his legacy alive. After years of Finch bringing Memphians together to watch his players on the court, now Memphians have been given a chance to give back to the coach who stayed loyal to the city for his entire career.
Written by Terry Davis, Photos courtesy of the University of Memphis