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VOL. 132 | NO. 233 | Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tigers' New Basketball Facility a Palatial Recruiting Tool

By Don Wade

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When you donate $10 million toward the construction of new basketball practice facility that bears your name, you are entitled to make a joke. So former Tiger Bill Laurie, who played on the 1972-73 Memphis State team that was NCAA runner-up, went for the laugh at the recent ribbon cutting ceremony for the University of Memphis’ $21 million Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center on south campus named after Laurie and his wife, Nancy Walton Laurie.

The Hall of Traditions inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. The 7,300-square-foot space is open to the public and commemorates the history of Memphis Tigers basketball. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“Here in the South,” Laurie said, taking the microphone after athletic director Tom Bowen, “you either get a lot of big bucks for your construction or we gave you too much money, Tom.”

And yes, just about everyone laughed or smiled at Laurie’s line. They were only too happy to make the man who made this possible feel welcome and appreciated.

The new practice facility for the men’s basketball team is a potential game-changer. It’s state of the art. It’s plush. It’s what almost all schools don’t have but wish they did.

The building has roughly 62,000 square feet. To get a better grasp of that immenseness of structure, consider that would be enough space for 62 separate 1,000-square-foot apartments.

The facility does not feel like something that should even be called a facility. A “basketball center” comes closer, but the building puts out a feeling that blends upscale corporate office space, a spa and a nice hotel, what with a spacious lobby for the Hall of Traditions to showcase the program’s best players and teams.

The sense of luxury is accented by 5,000 square feet of glass, including a glass wall between the Hall of Traditions and a hallway that players will travel. Thus, once the Hall of Traditions is open to the public – there is open house Jan. 23 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. – a fan could come relive the glory of Final Four teams and favorite players such as Larry Finch, Keith Lee and Penny Hardaway, and maybe catch a glimpse of a current Tiger such as Jeremiah Martin on his way to the two-story-tall weight room, the two full-sized practice courts, or the hydrotherapy training room with a cold tub, hot tub and underwater treadmill.

The center also includes a film room with theater-style seating, multiple lounge areas and flat-screen televisions, and a thumbprint reader that will identify each player when he comes through the entrance and cue up on a nearby monitor his daily schedule; that same entrance area also includes a clock counting down to the Tigers’ next game.

The actual locker room is spacious and in a horseshoe shape similar to the Grizzlies’ locker room at FedExForum. The high-tech capabilities in the building allow players to play music from their smartphones or iPads anywhere – including in their own private shower stall.

How that will help the Tigers climb up the standings in the American Athletic Conference isn’t exactly clear, but it can’t hurt, right?

Jon Albright was a guard on Memphis teams from 1980 to 1984. Home games were played at the Mid-South Coliseum, and walking into this new practice facility back then would have been like boarding a spaceship.

The practice court inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, located on the University of Memphis’ Park Avenue campus. The $21 million, 62,000-square-foot center is the new home of the Tigers men’s basketball team. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“Different universes,” Albright said. “I mean we had two hooks with an open locker. We only had sweats and whatever tennis shoes you owned.”

Today’s Tigers have a dining area for catered meals. Their new practice court is laid with maple hardwood so as to lessen the shock to knees, hips and ankles.

“I’m not sure I ever would have left the facility even after eligibility would have been completed,” said Albright, who is doing color commentary on Tiger games carried on ESPN3 this season. “I’m not easily impressed, but I am wowed and dumbfounded at how nice this is.”

So is one of Albright’s old teammates, Andre Turner, who now is the boys’ basketball coach at Mitchell High School.

“Beyond spectacular,” he said.

University president M. David Rudd, Bowen, and coach Tubby Smith are all proud of the new Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center – and rightfully so – and Bowen noted it was entirely privately funded.

But Laurie also wanted to harken back to that first Final Four team. He praised Gene Bartow – his son Murray Bartow attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony – and said without Bartow recruiting him here, this building probably never gets built.

“In my opinion, our (’73) team built the foundation of this building,” Laurie said. “You don’t build a building to build a program. You have a program that over many years of winning (and) multiple Final Fours, and then you deserve the building.”

That said, there is no denying the practical reality of what’s going in college athletics in 2017.

“I guess it’s what basketball has evolved to,” Smith said. “It’s been an arms race for a long time and this is gonna help us in a lot of areas. But especially for our players and our offices to be in the same place.”

Currently, that is not the case with coaches’ offices in the athletics administration building and not the Larry O. Finch Center where the Tigers practice. That’s all about to change.

So, even before the first practice or dip in one of the hydrotherapy pools, guard Jeremiah Martin was taken aback.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been hearing about it, seeing videos. But it actually looks 100 times better in person.”

The hope, of course, is that potential players have the same reaction whether they’re from several hundred miles away or from right here in the city.

Asked if he believes the new practice facility could move a recruit to choose Memphis, Turner turned the question around.

“How could it not move you?” he said. “Then think of actually being from Memphis, to be a Memphis guy and come here and say, ‘We have this at home? How can I leave if they’re recruiting me? How can I leave?’”

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