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VOL. 133 | NO. 148 | Friday, July 27, 2018

Memphis Sports Hall of Fame Will Be One-of-a-Kind

By Don Wade

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To get an idea of what the future Memphis Sports Hall of Fame might look like, you can travel Interstate 40, stop in at Bridgestone Arena on Broadway in downtown Nashville, and see the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. But you can also go just around the corner, to 421 S. Main St., and visit the Blues Hall of Fame.

The new Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, which will be housed on the third floor of AutoZone Park and has a target opening date of next spring, will not only be a blend of those two other Halls but all that is uniquely Memphis.

Where else could you expect to learn everything about former Memphis Tigers player and coach Larry Finch, who arguably should be inductee No. 1, or the playful chokehold that pro wrestling has had on this city?

Where else could you relive the legendary home run that Bo Jackson hit out of old Tim McCarver Stadium at the Fairgrounds, the night Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis packed The Pyramid, or the 6,026 rushing yards and 55 rushing touchdowns supplied by dynamic Tigers running back DeAngelo Williams?

(Photos from top left) Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams gets airborne during the 9th Annual College Football All-Stars Challenge. Memphis State head coach Larry Finch hugs player Anfernee Hardaway after he fouled out in the second half of the NCAA Midwest Regional final game. Memphis Grizzlies’ forward, Pau Gasol (16), muscles past Detroit Pistons’ center Clifford Robinson on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2001, during the first game for the Grizzlies after moving from Vancouver to Memphis. Tim McCarver (15) hunts down a foul ball during his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. McCarver played for 21 season with four different teams and was a two-time All-Star. (Associated Press File Photos)

“Every great city should have an opportunity to honor the achievements of its people – whether it’s music, art, business or sports,” said University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen, who also represents West Tennessee with the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. “This is a chance to honor the great athletes of Memphis.”

The university, of course, has its own Hall of Fame and its building was named after basketball great Penny Hardaway, former All-American for the Tigers and now in his first season as head coach. The Memphis Grizzlies don’t have a Hall of Fame yet, but with the franchise having played 23 seasons in the NBA, including the six years in Vancouver, it’s reasonable to expect there could be something, at least on a small scale, soon.

Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Kevin Kane and Memphis Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger are taking the lead on this project, which is still in its early stages. Unger says there should be around 5,000 square feet available to house the Hall of Fame in an open lobby area behind the pressbox at AutoZone Park. The Hall would be open year-round and have normal business hours.

Early estimates are that more than $1 million will need to be raised by the MCVB to get the project up and running. To get the most out of the money and space, the museum would make liberal use of technology, Kane said, which is something that has been used to great effect at the Blues Hall of Fame, which opened in 2015.

The Blues Hall of Fame, which is part of The Blues Foundation, has 10 individualized galleries with interactive touchscreen displays, along with three master databases that allow visitors to hear the music, watch videos, and read the stories of each of the more than 400 inductees.

Kane was involved in starting the Blues Hall of Fame and he said from the outset it was clear that there were hundreds of worthy inductees. That will be a major challenge facing the new Memphis Sports Hall of Fame.

Where do you begin?

Kane mentions Finch and former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and current broadcaster Tim McCarver as “no-brainers” for the first class of inductees. McCarver already is in Cooperstown as a broadcaster and starred at Christian Brothers High School.

Finch came to Memphis State from Melrose High School and led the Tigers to the 1973 NCAA title game vs. UCLA while averaging 24 points per game as a senior. Just five years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Finch was the best player on the team that started the healing process for the city. He later coached the Tigers, taking them to six NCAA Tournaments in 11 seasons.

But soon enough, the process of determining who is worthy gets more complicated.

“The hardest thing is going to be catching up,” said Bill Emendorfer, executive director of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, which was founded as a nonprofit in 1966 and now has more than 500 inductees and honorees.

Currently, Emendorfer says they can induct up to 11 people each year with two candidates from each of the state’s three regions – East, Middle and West – accounting for six inductees, and up to five others being elected at-large.

Emendorfer says it’s easy to “miss the old-timers” worthy of induction, but recently they made a shift to put a little more emphasis on potential inductees who are still living, adding, “Not to be a smart aleck, but if you’re dead you’re not gonna be any more dead next year.”

Unger was in St. Louis working for the Cardinals when they were preparing to open the team’s Hall of Fame and Museum at Ballpark Village.

“You need a mix of recent history and deeper history,” he said. “You have to strike that balance. Because recent people (who are elected) are the ones that draw.”

To that end, Unger embraces lively debate over the process of electing people to the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m a marketing guy,” Unger said. “You want people talking about it.

“That’s what makes it fun. Look at Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. The fun is the ballots and who’s left off. That’s part of the marketing, the vote.”

Kane says he likes the idea of involving longtime local sports media as the “caretakers” of the process because they will have watched many of the candidates play and coach in person and will bring institutional knowledge to the discussion.

Emendorfer says they require athletes to have been retired from their respective sports for at least three years before consideration. Among those that seem certain to be inducted into their next class: former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning and former Vols baseball star Todd Helton.

But this isn’t just about electing the stars who left a mark at their school and then in the NFL, MLB or NBA. In fact, it’s not even just about athletes and coaches.

Kane mentions the late Michael Heisley, who moved the Grizzlies here from Vancouver, as a vital part of the Memphis sports story. So, too, Redbirds founder Dean Jernigan, who had the dream of building a ballpark in Downtown Memphis. Those two stories are also connected. It became common knowledge that Heisley made a scouting trip to Memphis and the success of AutoZone Park influenced his decision to move the Grizzlies.

Nor will this just be about the teams and players from the so-called mainstream sports. For a time in the 1990s, Memphis native Andy Roberts was the best professional racquetball player on the planet. He also helped Memphis to two National Intercollegiate Championships. He already is a member of his sport’s Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

“And what about the racquetball coach at Memphis, Larry Liles?” Kane said. Liles, too, was inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

So, again, the list of candidates will be long.

The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame also has “honorees,” a separate designation from inductees. It’s a great way to recognize teams and specific accomplishments and expand the Hall’s reach.

“Like when UT-Martin won the national championship in rodeo,” Emendorfer said.

Special exhibits and artifacts are part of the plan, too. The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame has an exhibit honoring the late UT women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt; the 7,500 square-foot Hall is also home to an IndyCar as part of its tribute to motor sports.

Kane has grabbed some banners and lettering from the Mid-South Coliseum that will find a home at the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame.

“There are a lot of things out there,” said Unger, who also doesn’t exclude the possibility of a separate Memphis professional baseball or Redbirds Hall of Fame one day. “We’ve collected things here, things the Redbirds have, things that go back years we’ve found in closets. There’s some hidden jewels out there. And I know there are people that have things and we’re sort of putting out the call.”

It’s just the beginning, but Unger believes the time is also right to involve fans in the process. All the way to the point to giving them at least some voice in nominating or voting on candidates.

“My thing is to make it interactive,” he said. “You want it to be something the community is passionate about.”

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