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VOL. 133 | NO. 75 | Friday, April 13, 2018

One City, One Team: When a Memphis sports entity succeeds, everyone wins

By Don Wade

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On the occasion of the home opener for the reigning Pacific Coast League champion Memphis Redbirds at AutoZone Park, new Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch. Predictably, he received a standing ovation just for walking out to the pitching mound.

Wearing a University of Memphis cap and a Redbirds jersey with “Penny” on the back and bearing the number 01, he threw what looked like a change-up that catcher Carson Kelly caught on a short hop; everybody, it seems, wants to help out the new Tigers coach.

Penny Hardaway, new head coach for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team, threw out the first pitch for the Memphis Redbirds’ 2018 season home opener on Tuesday, April 10. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Then Penny shook hands with Redbirds owner Peter Freund and team president Craig Unger. He received well-wishes from Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp, who knows a thing or two about winning here.

As Penny made his way up the tunnel behind home plate, fans clamored for autographs and he stopped and signed a few. An older man told Penny to be sure and play the Pro-Am at this year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.

“Oh, for sure,” Penny said with a grin.

A young man wearing a Kolten Wong jersey handed Penny his cell phone and got him to take a selfie of the two of them and then said what all of Memphis has been saying: “Thanks, Coach!”

So, yes, at the ballpark, it was again clear that the hiring of Penny Hardaway was a home run.

It is also clear that these are good days on the Memphis sports scene. They are days that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“You have to celebrate the times that things are really good,” said Unger, holding up the PCL title as Exhibit A. “Because sometimes when it goes low, the drought can be long. Ask the Cubs. I joke, but you think about the generations and the people that never experienced (winning a World Series) like they did a couple of years ago.”

What lies ahead for the Memphis sports scene? In one word: hope.

And it’s not just Penny and the promise of Memphis basketball being restored to a place of pride. The local sports landscape is dotted with all kinds of good news.

The Grizzlies didn’t win a lot of games this season, but it was a victory when Robert Pera recently announced he will retain controlling interest in the team. No, it doesn’t guarantee the Grizzlies never leave the city; in fact, Pera owns a Seattle condo if you want to work yourself into a tizzy. But Pera’s decision would seem to provide some short-term security given that in an email to season ticket holders he said: “I am committed to Memphis as an NBA market and as home of the Grizzlies.”

Redbirds second baseman Alex Mejia hits a line drive to outfield during the home game season opener against the Omaham Storm Chasers on Tuesday night. The Redbirds beat the Chasers 7-0. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Pera is commonly referred to as an absentee owner. But his decision to retain controlling interest in the team says more than how many games he attends at FedExForum or how many interviews he grants to local media.

Remember, too, he spent to keep Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and on a free agent everyone hoped would make a difference – the blame for that free agent being a compromised Chandler Parsons lands on the basketball people, not the guy writing the checks.

So Pera saying he remains dedicated to building a successful franchise ahead of the Grizzlies getting a high lottery pick and Gasol and Conley presumably having a couple of good years left in the tank, that offers hope that next season could be a lot better than this season.

Meantime, while the city’s basketball entities try to raise their respective games, Mike Norvell has kept football going at the U of M. Four straight bowl trips for the Tigers, two under Norvell, and there is every expectation the Tigers will be good again even without wide receiver Anthony Miller and quarterback Riley Ferguson.

Tiger Lane and the Liberty Bowl are game-day destinations. Just a few short years ago, this seemed impossible. Then, for a moment, as basketball struggled it seemed like Memphis football was carrying the ball for the local sports fan.

“Other than Tiger football, we really haven’t had a lot to brag about around here lately,” Hardaway told The Daily News before throwing out that first pitch. “I’m happy that Tiger football has represented the city really well, but with everything that’s going on with my hiring, and Rob keeping the franchise here, and the World Golf Championships, now it’s all positive for our city.”

Yes, there was also big golf news this week as the PGA Tour called a press conference to make it official: Beginning in 2019, Memphis is getting a World Golf Championships event. The WGC is only one step below the Grand Slam tournaments, which means it draws an elite field. Which means for the first time, Tiger Woods might come play a tournament in Memphis.

While AutoZone Park had all the sights and sounds of baseball on opening night, including Freund raising the PCL championship flag in center field, 2019 also will feature the debut of his United Soccer League franchise playing here. The local sports market is growing after taking a hit when the pro tennis tournament left town and attendance at Tiger basketball games plummeted to a 48-year low.

Sports offers no guarantees (that’s why Las Vegas does well running the sports books), but we’ve seen what sports has meant to Memphis, especially with the support of dedicated sponsors such as FedEx and AutoZone.

It raises the city to a higher place and lifts our collective spirits. That’s why Unger long has espoused the theory that as far as the local sports market goes, “a rising tide lifts all ships.” And championships, to the extent that can be, are community property.

Hardaway agrees.

“That’s what I want to see,” Penny said. “I want to see the success from every area, from professional sports to college, everyone be successful at one time.

“That’s what our city deserves.”

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