Something special happened yesterday at FedExForum. When the Memphis Tigers seemed all but dead against a powerful Louisville Cardinal team, Coach Josh Pastner told his team in the huddle that they were going to win the game. They had come back and won in dramatic fashion against LSU, Oklahoma State, and Gonzaga, and they were going to do the same thing against Louisville.
This seems like a typical speech any coach would deliver to a team in a moment like that, and most times it probably wouldn’t work. Logic would lead everyone to believe that the Tigers would not come back and would suffer a heartbreaking but expected loss against Louisville. But after Pastner’s speech, Michael Dixon, Jr. and Geron Johnson, with the help of over 18,000 Tiger fans, took the team on their back and then went out and won the game. It was a moment that everyone in attendance will remember for the rest of his or her life. It was a moment people will talk about anytime the Tigers play Louisville in the future. Sure people will remember Darius Washington, Jr.’s missed free throws, but they will also remember the 15-1 run that ended the game on March 1, 2014 and gave the Tigers’ their first season sweep of Louisville since 1996-97.
When I said earlier that something special happened at FedExForum, I really meant it was special, and it was special for a lot of people.
First and foremost it was a special game for the aforementioned Michael Dixon, Jr. and Geron Johnson. These guys were out of basketball. Nobody wanted them. But two cases of young men that made bad decisions were looked at by Coach Pastner as two chances for redemption. Coach stuck his neck out for these guys so they could get one more chance. He stays on them closer than most parents do their kids. He wants to make sure they succeed, both on and off the court. And these young men want to make sure they pay him back for taking such a risk by bringing them to Memphis. Yesterday, after up and down seasons, both Dixon and Johnson cemented their status as Memphis Tiger greats. When you lead your team to victory over Louisville, you deserve to be in the conversation of Tiger greats. This city is glad they’re Tigers.
Second, it was a special game for Pastner. After notching his first bad-loss of the year on Thursday at Houston, many people expected the Tigers to spiral out of control, lose the last three games of the season and be an easy out in the AAC and NCAA tournaments. Pastner silenced those critics by leading his team to the biggest win of his young career. Beating the reigning National Champion twice in a year, beating Pitino twice in a year, beating a top-10 team at home? Those are things Pastner can hang his hat on. People might criticize him and his coaching ability, but it’s hard to argue that most people were really happy for him yesterday.
Finally, and on a personal and candid note, the game was mighty special for me. I’ve grown up in Memphis and cheered these Tigers through good, bad, and ugly times. I know I’m supposed to be impartial when I write about the Tigers, and that’s easy when they beat Rutgers and Temple and UCF, but it’s hard not to be a fan when the Tigers come out and beat Louisville the way they did yesterday.
Early in the game I tweeted that, “Old lady Tiger fans are the best Tiger fans,” and that’s true. Those little old ladies that sit in the crowd and get riled up about Memphis basketball remember the days of Larry Finch coaching against Denny Crum, back when Louisville/Memphis was one of the hottest rivalries in the sport. And seeing those old ladies cheering yesterday can’t help but remind me of my late grandmothers, both avid Tiger fans. The types of fans that would drive to Louisville for games in the 1980s and write on their windshields, “Crum’s a bum.” The types of fans that would go to games at the Mid-South Coliseum and listen to the radio broadcast through giant headphones. The types of fans that would take me to meet the team every season. I love that the same types of ladies as my grandmothers got so much enjoyment out of beating Louisville yesterday. It makes the win that much more special.
It was also special game for me because this past October I lost my dad, the guy who made me a Tiger fan. In his eulogy, I talked about how his love for basketball and the Tigers is very much alive in me. I said that I hoped the Tigers would have a special season this year to honor him in some distant, small way. I don’t think Memphis is going to go on a magical Final Four run or win the Championship, but I do know that beating Louisvlle twice in one season is mighty special and would have made my dad happy. He and both my grandmothers were watching yesterday, and I know they loved every minute of that game.
There’s a lot of season left. And there are hopes of a deep NCAA tourney run. But Saturday’s win over Louisville is something nobody will ever be able to take away from the team, the coach, or the city. Let’s bask in that for a little while. Let’s, in the words of Coach Pastner, “hug a win.”