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VOL. 124 | NO. 225 | Monday, November 16, 2009

Out of Bounds

A look inside the off-court culture of Memphis basketball

By Bill Dries

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Will Coleman dunks the ball during a warmup session for Memphis Madness at FedExForum. Thousands of fans showed up to get a sneak peek of the men's and women's Tigers basketball teams, and new men's head coach Josh Pastner. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

The August report from the NCAA calls him “student-athlete 1.” Everyone but the NCAA and the University of Memphis calls him Derrick Rose.

Rose had a “D” changed to a “C” on his Chicago high school transcript as he applied for admission to the University of Memphis in 2007.

A forensic document examiner looked over the SAT college entrance exam he may or may not have taken and passed in Detroit after failing the test several times.

As that was happening, Rose arguably was the best college point guard in America, and a freshman. He was taking the Tiger basketball team closer to a national championship than it had come in 35 years.

The April 7, 2008, game between Memphis and Kansas in San Antonio, which Kansas won 75-68 in overtime, was a pinnacle in Memphis sports history. And nothing has been the same since.

By the time the banner commemorating the historic season was raised to the rafters of FedExForum that October, Rose had gone pro. John Calipari, the coach he played for, would leave for the University of Kentucky at the end of the 2008-2009 season. And the NCAA – barring the university's appeal – would wipe every statistic from the 2007-2008 season from its record books in what the university called an unprecedented set of sanctions.

Many people on the team in the stands would probably also like to leave the ghosts of Rose and Calipari off the floor and as far away from FedExForum as possible.

But Rose and Calipari are not the first and probably won’t be the last player-coach combination to test the concept of the student-athlete. The third wheel in both combos is the home crowd.

In a city where three of four people graduate from high school and one in four graduate from college, the University of Memphis is “we.” That’s how Tiger fans, fair weather and true blue, refer to the team’s on-court cause.

Tiger basketball is the city’s dominant sports franchise. It may even be larger than that. And any phenomenon that large can’t exist without some controversy about where the boundaries are.

With sports, the boundaries might seem clear cut. There are written rules, referees, and all of the lines on the court are marked. The NCAA is the keeper of the rules for competition among the college teams. It coined the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s.

Universities across the country, including the U of M, have departments devoted to complying with the rules that define who is a student-athlete and to monitor compliance as well as academic progress.

The very essence of what makes sports a much needed escape from our everyday lives – a world that exists within a set of bright lines – doesn’t apply when we try to carry the potent inspiration and volatile hope outside the arena.

Fans seek the last few free posters after an autograph session with the Tiger basketball players at FedExForum for Memphis Madness on Oct. 16.  The arena was filled to capacity for the event. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

But, we – to borrow the term Tiger fans use for being in the same arena with the team – have repeatedly tried to apply a larger meaning to Tiger basketball. Many Tiger faithful will repeat the mantra that the basketball games are the only time, or one of the few times, Memphians come together across racial and cultural lines.

Claims to fame

There has been some push back on that notion lately.

It began just days after the April 2008 Tiger loss to Kansas in the NCAA finals.

Retired Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey wrote in an op-ed for The Commercial Appeal that the city at large was putting “the weight of a needy community” on the Tiger players.

“To all those who want to see our city united: Take the weight off the young kids and carry it yourselves,” he wrote. “Our balloon deflated so quickly Monday night because it was filled with air. That’s not much to build our hopes on. The answer isn’t in entertainment, either sports or rap.”

Bailey acknowledged the risk of being considered a “heretic” so soon after the end of the season.

Another elected official, who in recent years had taunted his political critics with the slogan, “Hate the game, don’t hate the player,” waited longer but was less subtle.

“When a community predicates unity on a winning basketball team – I love the University of Memphis basketball team,” Willie Herenton began during his last press conference as Memphis mayor July 30. “It is amazing to me that people consider a basketball team as the great unifying thing in Memphis. Every time I hear that it’s sickening.

"You know what we need to unify on? Getting all kids educated … making sure there are no barriers to employment and promotions in our corporations.”

A month later, Dr. Larry Moore, an associate professor of business law at the university’s Fogelman College of Business and Economics, took a specific run at the university for a shortage of black faculty members. He made his point in an open letter to the Shelby County delegation to the Tennessee Legislature.

“On the other side of the campus in the (Health and Sport Sciences Department), formerly known as the Physical Education Department, there is not one American-born black faculty member, and a look at the current list of graduate assistants in this department from the last academic year shows that there is not one black male graduate assistant,” Moore wrote in the August letter. “As a University whose nationwide name and reputation has been built on the substantial contribution of black male athletes, the fact that there is not one American black male in either a faculty role or graduate student position in the PE department is a disgrace.

"The University … seems to be saying to young black males, that, 'While we want you in our athletic programs, we don’t think enough of you to give you a job in education after you graduate.'”

The university insisted its faculty diversity is not the issue Moore believes it is.

Tigers players Doneal Mack, left, Pierre Henderson-Niles and others wait to be introduced to fans during Memphis Madness. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Forty years ago the basketball program was not considered that friendly to black players. Larry Finch was a star basketball player at Melrose High School whose decision to sign with what was then Memphis State University was not a popular one in a city where racial segregation was no longer the law but was still very much the practice.

Parts of Finch’s story come from another era. He often told of playing sick to get out of going to junior high school one day and then going to basketball practice after school. As he played, he told of feeling a presence behind him on the hardwood floor just before turning around to find his mother had him by the arm and was taking him home without a word being said to or by anyone in the gym.

But there’s another part of Finch’s story that is easily relatable to college basketball today. He, too, had advisers and connections – people who had his ear and whose advice he took as a teenager from Orange Mound.

The Melrose basketball program of coach Verties Sails existed in a golden era, with Finch one of several players being watched closely by college recruiters. Finch’s selection of Memphis was pivotal to the university’s rise as a basketball force to be reckoned with.

Dubious honors

Rose encountered a different presence at the University of Memphis, with few if any Memphis roots. In the basketball business, that presence is called “World Wide Wes.” His real name is William Wesley, a mortgage broker by profession. Wesley is not an agent but he is credited with being the connection who favored Calipari with Dajuan Wagner, who, like Rose, played one season as a Tiger and then went pro, and Tyreke Evans, who did the same cycle post-Rose. His view is what might be called global and a product of a four-year-old NBA age limit on players that has a much longer history.

Finch joined the Tigers in 1970, four years before Moses Malone went to play for the Utah Stars, of the old American Basketball Association (ABA), straight out of high school. A year after Malone, Darrell Dawkins was drafted out of high school by the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.

After Dawkins, 20 years would pass before another player made the leap from high school to the NBA, which by then had expanded to take in most of the old ABA, with the notable exception of the Memphis franchise. Several players after Dawkins were enrolled in college but never played college ball.

But when the Minnesota Timberwolves picked Kevin Garnett in 1995 and Kobe Bryant came to the NBA from high school the next year, it began a new era for amateur and professional basketball.

The NBA changed the rules in 2005, citing a lack of maturity by the high schoolers and a concern that many couldn’t handle the off-court pressures of going pro.

Pro players must now be 19 years old in the calendar year of the draft in which they are picked. The players must be at least one year removed from high school.

Julius Erving, once known as "Dr. J," admitted during a recent appearance that being an athlete – even a famous one – doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Rose didn’t come to the University of Memphis for an education, according to his critics and critics of the college basketball system. He came for a year of college basketball and to make the leap from there to the pros, they say. Rose said he was on the fence about going pro probably until the postseason games, referred to as March Madness, began in 2008.

The route Rose took to the NBA was not a novel path. But it is a journey through a world that, to some, stands in stark contrast to the concept of the student-athlete. Scouts, would-be agents and handlers were watching him in Chicago at least as early as the eighth grade. Had he faltered at any point beyond that, they would have moved on to some other kid whose future with them depended not on his ability to get a formal education, but to play basketball.

John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University system, deals with many of the issues of college athletics in play at the University of Memphis. In addition to being a higher education leader, he teaches a class on the history of intercollegiate sports in America.

From those dual vantage points, Lombardi told The Memphis News, a high school athlete and his supporters aren’t that different than students with no athletic ability.

“Parents and students play the system to get admitted to colleges of their choice and high school athletes do the same,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is the institution’s responsibility to see that the rules of engagement are appropriately enforced and that the process of recruiting student athletes is done according to agreed upon rules.”

Rose’s brief time at the University of Memphis was a matter of timing, on and off the court. And time was on his side – barely. (See timeline on Page 19.)

Two weeks before Rose made his debut as a Tiger, in October 2007, the inspector general of the Chicago Board of Education told U of M officials the school system was investigating an allegation that a high school teammate of Rose’s took the SAT for him in Detroit. Rose was asked about the allegation by the university and denied it. From Chicago the allegation went to Educational Testing Services (ETS), the company charged with guarding the integrity of the SAT. And ETS then told the NCAA.

The NCAA hired a forensic document examiner to look over the SAT test Rose may or may not have taken. The examiner concluded Rose “probably did not write the questioned hand printing or cursive writing.” But no definitive conclusion was reached about whether Rose took the test or had someone take it for him.

“This is not sufficient evidence for the Institution to conclude that (Rose) knowingly engaged in fraudulent conduct related to the exam,” read the University of Memphis statement to the NCAA.

But by the end of the season, the Education Testing Center came to the conclusion Rose didn’t take the test and threw out his passing score. Three weeks earlier, Rose had announced he was going pro. NCAA investigators were on the Memphis campus asking questions two weeks after Rose became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Some Memphis fans took offense when Rose was introduced during the first Chicago Bulls-Memphis Grizzlies game as being from Chicago. Rose pointed out that he is from Chicago and had lived in Memphis for a year – unaware that any stay in Memphis lasting longer than a month by someone famous qualifies them for hometown status in some versions of Memphis culture. Memphians have claimed Thomas Edison, Mark Twain’s brother, Jefferson Davis and Bo Jackson, just to name a few.

In May, the Chicago Sun Times reported Rose’s transcript from Simeon Career Academy High School in Chicago was changed from the time it left the school to the time it arrived in Memphis. A letter grade of “D” had been changed to a “C” in June 2007.

Whoever did it used a password of a school system employee who was out of town during the grade change. Rose was one of four Simeon High basketball players who got the temporary grade change after graduation, according to a 2008 report by the Chicago Public Schools inspector general.

University of Memphis officials at the highest levels protested they didn’t know, had no verifiable information once they heard reports and shouldn’t be held accountable, at least in the way the NCAA ruled. Their attitude was that the school had no “strict liability” for what happened.

“We did our due diligence,” University of Memphis President Shirley Raines said flatly at the August press conference. “The student was cleared by the NCAA eligibility center twice – routinely before the season, and again after we reported a high school grade change, which did not affect his eligibility. Most importantly, the SAT test was not invalidated until after the team’s season was over, nearly a full year after he took the exam.”

Athletic Director R.C. Johnson termed the punishment “extreme, given that some of the charges were more administrative in nature and certainly were not deliberate violations.”

It wasn’t that NCAA committee members didn’t buy it; they said it didn’t matter whether the school knew or not.

An unidentified committee member made the point in an exchange with Sheri Lipman, the U of M's lawyer.

Committee member: “If you have a test score that is invalidated, you didn’t have the scores to be admitted to begin with. Where am I wrong?”

Lipman: “At the time he was admitted on the score that was provided at that time, is that your question? Was he eligible, in looking backwards, whether he was eligible or not?”

Committee member: “Yes. He didn’t have the score.”

Lipman: “We have acknowledged that.”

Committee member: “You have acknowledged that he was ineligible.”

Lipman: “Yes, and we have to address that, based on the after-the-fact information.”

Committee member: “It doesn’t matter.”

Lipman argued that the university “proceeded appropriately based on the information that it had at the time in allowing him to play.”

“It is not about what they did or didn’t do,” the committee member replied. “I am only saying they had some information that there could have been a problem, and they proceeded after the fact. If nothing had happened, if you had no information and ETS cancelled his score at a later date, he didn’t have an admissible entry qualification.”

Lipman: “The university was not aware at the time that he was ineligible.”

Committee member: “I didn’t suggest that they were. … I am not saying they cheated. I am saying this young man was not eligible to participate.”

'Vestige of slavery'

“The system does more to serve the needs of the universities and the NBA as a farm system than it does the students — as if they were — at their colleges.”

– U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen

Two days before the exchange, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, an ardent Tiger fan, took to the floor of the House to call for an end to the ban on 18-year-olds going pro. Cohen’s House speech came on the eve of the NBA championship series.

“This is part of a hypocritical system we have which doesn’t allow these people to choose their profession when they come out of high school,” Cohen said. “And it makes the term ‘student-athlete’ an oxymoron. The system does more to serve the needs of the universities and the NBA as a farm system than it does the students – as if they were – at their colleges.”

Cohen called the rule “a vestige of slavery” in a New York Times interview.

He followed up with a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players’ Association Executive Director G. William Hunter.

“I also believe that it has played an important role in several recent scandals involving college students who were prevented from entering the NBA upon high school graduation,” Cohen wrote.

He later cited Rose as an example: “A ‘one-and-done’ system has developed whereby athletes attend college only for the mandatory year and then join the NBA as soon as they are eligible. This system does far more to serve the financial interests of the universities at which the students play than the educational interests of the students themselves.”

“If you make a decision to start a professional athletic career, you're one of a very small precentage of people on the planet, and lots of times it just gets exaggerated because it hits the media. But in reality, I don't even think it shows up on the radar in terms of importance to society.”

– Julius Erving
Legendary basketball player and Freedom Award winner

Stern said later that he remained in favor of the age limit. He also favors making the age limit 20 when bargaining with the players union begins next year. Asked specifically about the financial value of college athletes to the schools they play for, Lombardi told The Memphis News the ticket sales a star athlete can generate aren’t a windfall.

“First, almost all college athletic programs lose money, so no student-athlete is contributing positively to the bottom line,” he said. “Some may be helping the institution lose less money, of course.”

But Lomardi said the value, in terms other than dollars, of student-athletes is a factor schools should consider.

“It’s the same value as any other student with talent, whether in writing or theater or fine arts or music or student government. The only difference is that we pay far more attention to what these student-athletes do than what other students do,” he said. “In a student body of 28,000, there might be 500 student-athletes. Not a huge deal, really, except for a few stellar moments on TV periodically. We tend to overemphasize the impact of these student-athletes on the lives of the rest of the students.

“Normally, the student-athlete pays an immediate price if they are caught,” Lombardi continued. “And the institution must also pay a price if it’s caught failing to adequately manage its enterprise to enforce the rules of play that it has agreed to abide by.”

But Rose was becoming Rookie of the Year in the NBA by the time the NCAA acted. He repeatedly refused to talk with its investigators. Calipari had left for the University of Kentucky but was still fielding questions about what he knew and when he knew it.

In September, Calipari was on the Mike Francesca radio show on The Fan radio network and was asked directly if he had any knowledge about the chicanery involving Rose.

“No, but here’s my point in all this,” he began. “No question those are black marks and I’m really disappointed, I wish that rules were changed. They were changed five years later with the Camby stuff. The rules were changed so those games wouldn’t have been vacated five years later.”

Camby was Marcus Camby, who played for Calipari at the University of Massachusetts in 1996. UMass went to the Final Four that year, but it was wiped from the NCAA books too because Camby accepted $28,000 from two sports agents.

Lombardi said the changing college rules are a “record of how hard it is to clearly explain and implement our values surrounding the concept of the student-athlete.”

“Universities know that the concept of 'student-athlete’ is absolutely critical to the popularity and success of the enterprise, and so they work very hard to sustain the reality of a student who is an athlete and an athlete who is a student,” he told The Memphis News. “Given all the pressures of competition, the miracle is how well the institutions do on this dimension.”

What really matters

In the sanctuary of Temple of Deliverance Church of God In Christ last month, an audience of high school students from across the city got a crash course in Doctor J and the colorful world of ABA pro ball.

Basketball Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving was in town to accept the annual Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. The video shown before his acceptance speech was a montage of his playing days.

And there were a few chuckles at the sight of a younger version of the now graying Erving sporting a large Afro and wearing short shorts. The red, white and blue basketball was also there in slow motion.

But the laughter suddenly choked off as the montage ventured into a series of dunks by Erving. There were even a few gasps.

When it was his turn to speak, a much older Erving recounted the story of a college basketball player named Magic Johnson, who once called him to ask his advice on turning pro. The two had never met.

“For him and his situation, I really told him it was an individual decision. You shouldn’t just follow what somebody else has done,” Erving said. “You have to look at your own personal circumstances – what your level of commitment and desire is in terms of going through one door, because you will probably be closing another door as you enter another door.”

Although it was 40 years ago, Erving’s story contains elements of the journey Derrick Rose and other obviously talented basketball players have taken.

Erving’s high school basketball coach, Ray Wilson, had introduced Erving to the coach he would play for at UMass.

When Erving chose UMass as his college, Wilson came along as an assistant coach for the college team the next year. Erving went pro in 1971 after his junior year in college.

Even then, in the early 1970s, Erving was under what might seem to an outsider to be a lot of pressure.

But Erving views it differently from his perspective as a figure at the center of such a decision and then as a mentor to several superstars who went pro – with and without a degree at the time.

“It’s not a life or death decision. It’s an opportunity versus non-opportunity decision. There are probably more decisions that young men have to make regarding life or death that I would think weigh in a little heavier,” Erving told The Memphis News. “If you make a decision to start a professional athletic career, you’re one of a very small percentage of people on the planet, and lots of times it just gets exaggerated because it hits the media.

“But in reality, I don’t even think it shows up on the radar in terms of importance to society.”

PROPERTY SALES 21 82 6,474
MORTGAGES 7 53 4,088
BUILDING PERMITS 240 353 15,714
BANKRUPTCIES 38 58 3,328