VOL. 133 | NO. 70 | Friday, April 6, 2018
The Press Box
Under Hardaway, Memphis Again Can Have Hometown Heroes
By Don Wade
Headline from the future: “Alex Lomax Leads Memphis Tigers into the Sweet 16.”
A certainty? Of course not. But it’s a possibility because Lomax has committed to Penny Hardaway and the University of Memphis. You know, as opposed to staying with his earlier choice of Gregg Marshall and Wichita State.
When East High School’s Lomax recently announced the decision formally (meaning on social media), he spoke of coming to Memphis to be “part of a great tradition.” He might well have said he was coming here as a first-responder, to lead the charge of rescuing the great tradition of talented local players staying home to wear the blue and gray.
This didn’t happen under Tubby Smith for several reasons. One of them being that local recruits were starting to slip away under his predecessor, Josh Pastner. Smith had neither the skill set, the staff, nor the required sense of urgency to do anything about it.
Tubby was a recruiting-stopper.
But now the recruiting ball is rolling again. Penny’s tenure as coach at East plus his time coaching an elite summer program puts him in position to restock with much homegrown talent.
A lot of Memphis players left the city in recent years. You could put up a giant map of the United States to track this truth and it would be dotted with pins showing where could-have-been Tigers and former Tigers landed.
Here’s transfer Nick King (East) just up the road at Middle Tennessee State, by way of Alabama, becoming Conference USA Player of the Year as a senior. Way down at Florida, there’s Gator Chris Chiozza (White Station) as a share-the-wealth point guard.
Go to the other end of the map, up in Spokane, Washington, and there’s Johnathan Williams (Southwind), who after transferring from Missouri merely led Gonzaga in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
Or how about Bolton’s Jaylen Fisher? When he chose TCU, he became the highest-ranked prospect (34th in the country, according to ESPN) to ever play for the Horned Frogs. As a sophomore, he was handing out more than five assists per game when a knee injury derailed his season.
And Markel Crawford (Melrose) jumped over the state line to finish his career at Ole Miss, a move that once would have been viewed as treason but was merely considered inevitable amid the mass exodus after Tubby’s first year. Next season, Dedric and K.J. Lawson (Hamilton) will play for Bill Self at Kansas.
So, let’s be clear: The criticism aimed at Tubby for not getting the local talent (he didn’t sign one Memphis player) wasn’t about some misguided citywide commitment to hoops nepotism.
Remember this line from Penny on the day his hiring became official? “My team was 99 percent Memphis when I played here, so I definitely want to have a fence around the city and get the top talent out of the city.”
Unless you’re John Calipari, it’s the only way.
When Hardaway (Treadwell, by the way) stayed home to play at Memphis State, he was furthering a tradition. From Ronnie Robinson and Larry Finch (Melrose) to Elliott Perry (Treadwell) and Andre Turner (Mitchell), to Antonio Burks (Booker T. Washington), great players have stayed home and made the program nationally relevant.
Now, Alex Lomax is staying home. Which reminds of something else Penny said on Day One: Coming back to coach at Memphis feels like a family reunion.
The last couple of years, the local hoops family wasn’t made to feel welcome. But that’s over.
The welcome mat is again out, spread in front of that gleaming $20 million-plus practice facility on the south campus, just around the corner and right in the neighborhood.
Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.