VOL. 11 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 19, 2018
Derek Jett was coming home from a business trip on the West Coast and making a connection at the airport in Dallas. It was football season, and because it was football season (and not basketball season), he was wearing his University of Memphis cap.
PHOTO CREDIT left: The University of Memphis Athletics right: Memphis News/Houston Cofield
“You guys have a pretty good team,” a stranger said to him, a man Jett recognized as Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich.
It was just a moment, a brush with a celebrity who gave Jett’s alma mater – and by extension, him – props. Jett was proud of Mike Norvell, Anthony Miller and all the rest and so this was a moment to savor. Social psychologists long ago identified this feeling that Jett experienced as a phenomenon known as BIRGing, or Basking in Reflected Glory.
Essentially, it’s what makes the sports fan tick. After all, if there’s no possibility of emotional gain then why give your heart – not to mention your time and your money – in the first place?
The social psychologists also have a name for what Jett was doing during basketball season by not wearing his Tigers cap: CORFing, or Cutting Off Reflected Failure.
Jett, a vice president with Lavaro Technologies, isn’t much on the social psychology of it all. Rather, he has a simple explanation for why the football’s team success in recent years has felt like a bonus. And why the basketball team’s irrelevance, until the hiring of Penny Hardaway as head coach tipped off a city-wide mania, has felt like a gross injustice.
“Football, we fought our way up,” Jett said. “Memphis basketball is like barbecue. It’s an inherent right. You own it from birth.”
A WAY OF LIFE ON THE BRINK
And so it started for Jett, 54, who grew up listening to the late Jack Eaton describe all the action on the radio. He also remembers that when the Tigers played on TV, when hometown hero Larry Finch was a player, and later when Hardaway himself went from Treadwell High School to Memphis State and became an All-American, the city shut down.
“Ghost town,” Jett said. “Not a car on the street.”
In more recent times, the ghost town was inside FedExForum on game nights. Fans were dissatisfied with Josh Pastner taking the Tigers to four straight NCAA Tournaments only to return home each time without advancing to the second weekend. The Tigers failed to make the postseason in his last two years and veteran coach Tubby Smith was supposed to come in and remedy that. He didn’t.
At the point Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was introduced as the new coach this spring, U of M president M. David Rudd revealed season ticket sales had fallen to 4,115 – a 48-year-low.
Jett kept his season tickets during this time and went to most of the games. But many fans did not. They were CORFing, Cutting Off Reflected Failure.
“Friends I’m talking to aren’t talking Tiger basketball and don’t know when the games are,” Jett said. “And I have to be honest, I had to be reminded when the games were. It was painful.”
Wes Hicks, 48, and a season ticket holder for 15 years, dropped his tickets after Tubby’s first season. Hicks, who moved from Brentwood outside Nashville to attend Memphis State in 1988, soaked up the intimate this-is-our-team atmosphere at the Mid-South Coliseum, saw Elliot Perry and those ridiculous long socks, and was a goner. A Tiger fan for life.
But as owner of G2 Technology and holding several floor-seat season tickets, he had to make a business decision after the 2016-17 season.
“We couldn’t get people to go to the games,” he said. “Clients were saying stuff like `I have to cook tonight.’ From a return on investment standpoint, it was tough to justify.”
Rudd came to understand all too well.
Fortunately, Hardaway’s hiring flipped things immediately. In the two months since Hardaway was introduced at the new $20 million Laurie-Walton practice facility, Rudd says season ticket sales and donations have both doubled and a projected $5 million deficit this fiscal year for the athletic department has gone away.
“We’ve not just gotten people to come back to Tigers basketball, but brought in a whole new group that was never connected to Tiger basketball,” Rudd told The Daily News. “The passion around it reveals how disconnected the community had become here the last four or five years.”
Southwind guard Carlos Marshall (2) is defended by Memphis East guard Alex Lomax (2) in a high school championship game March 18 in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Memphis East guard Alex Lomax, center, is a Memphis Tigers signee for 2018 under coach Penny Hardaway, as is Tyler Harris, right. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
With Hardaway also having a Top-30 recruiting class for 2018 anchored by Alex Lomax of East High School, where Penny made a habit of coaching the team to state championships, and Cordova’s Tyler Harris, the hiring looks like nothing short of a rescue call.
While Smith was respected for the career he has had, including winning a national championship at Kentucky, and doing things the right way, the program faltered to the point that it and Tubby became comedic material on local sports talk radio.
Several of the hosts on ESPN 92.9 FM were calling for a change, specifically by removing Tubby and replacing him with Penny even weeks and months before it happened. Jason Smith and John Martin, co-hosts of “Jason & John,” started a bit where Smith would imitate Tubby and place a “recruiting call” to prospect Tyler Harris, played by Martin. Smith’s version of the coach was over-the-top, but also funny and hit a note of truth in portraying Tubby as hopelessly out of touch with the city and the program he was charged with running.
“The funny thing about those calls was when we started them, we thought Tubby was gonna be coach for year three,” said Jason Smith, a former Tigers basketball beat writer at The Commercial Appeal. “You give the facts. I don’t think any of us were rooting for Tubby to lose his job. But what we were doing in laying out what was happening, it became pretty obvious that he needed to.
“And we knew what kind of night-and-day change hiring Penny represented. Recruits. Ticket sales. It’s literally happening. It’s not that other coaches couldn’t do this job, but if they’d hired any coach other than Penny they wouldn’t have this kind of pop.”
What’s understood locally – Penny was the only choice – was predictably misunderstood nationally. Pat Forde, a columnist with Yahoo Sports, perhaps was as harsh as any in his criticism, calling Penny’s hiring the “ultimate hometown Hail Mary” and saying it may well prove to be “Penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Of course, all that was written before Hardaway began reeling in recruits and ticket sales and donations spiked. Hardaway, 46, went to work not like a former NBA All-Star who still has his own shoe line, but like a man getting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach his beloved alma mater.
Memphis Grizzlies forward Mike Miller (13) looks for a perimeter shot against the Dallas Mavericks in 2013. Miller joined Hardaway's coaching staff. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tigers assistant coach Mike Miller, himself a former NBA player, has had as close a look at the way Penny operates as anyone. Not long after joining the staff, Miller told The Daily News: “Neither of us has picked up a golf club in a month. The hours he puts in, you get a glimpse on social media but that’s just what it is, a glimpse. It’s a non-stop job and he’s handled it like that.”
Rudd, of course, had heard the concerns like everyone else: Penny lacks college coaching experience, he won’t work that hard because he’s rich and doesn’t have to, his NBA ego will get in the way, and blah, blah, blah.
“He answered those questions for everyone in the first two months,” Rudd said. “He’s remarkably thoughtful, skillfully strategic, and competitive and driven.”
Hardaway also comes off as fearless when addressing the high expectations for himself and his program.
When he met with media to talk about his first recruiting class, he made clear he wasn’t trying to bring in the best talent just to raise the ranking of his recruiting class, but to pursue a national championship. And he said this exactly 49 seconds into his comments.
“It’s not far-fetched,” he said when pressed about being so bold as to mention a national title, “because if you watch the NCAA this year, nobody picked Loyola, nobody picked Nevada. It’s possible if you have the right team, right mindset, and right coaches pushing you. You’re supposed to shoot for the sky.”
After Tubby Smith pointed with pride to finishing fifth in the American Athletic Conference, that’s the kind of talk fans need to hear. The school president appreciates it, too.
“It’s encouraging to hear our coach talking about what’s possible at the highest level,” said Rudd. “That’s infectious for the university as a whole.”
Penny Hardaway has the NBA pedigree, success as a high school coach, recruiting skills and a deep love for the Tigers program. (The University of Memphis Athletics)
HOPES AND DREAMS RESTORED
It is not overstating things to say that Penny’s star power, once again hitched to the University of Memphis, has invigorated the entire city. And by bringing high-level recruits that Tubby never came close to getting, he doesn’t just have Memphis fans’ attention, but that of all the other college basketball coaches in the land.
James Wiseman, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, first joined Team Penny – Hardaway’s elite summer program – and then transferred from Ensworth, a private school in Nashville, to play for him at East High School. Kentucky coach John Calipari has had the inside track on Wiseman, but Hardaway has been moving up fast on the outside.
National recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Calipari is still very much in the race for Wiseman, “But it would be hard for me to see him not going to Memphis.”
Beyond that, Meyer told the Herald-Leader that nationally other coaches, including everyone from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, underestimate Penny’s traction with top recruits at their own peril.
“Dude, these kids know who he is,” Meyer said. “These kids know a guy like Penny probably better than a present-day player like Damian Lillard. They don’t sit around and watch TV … they’re on their phones. They’re looking at highlights. They’re looking at old Penny commercials. They’re looking at 2 Chainz wearing a Penny shirt during his show on ‘Viceland.’
“Penny has a presence. He’s 6-9, looks like an NBA basketball player. Him and Mike Miller walk into a room, can you imagine?”
Yes, fans such as Derek Jett and Wes Hicks can imagine. It’s why they, and the rest of the now-expanding Tiger fan base, are rife with anticipation for the basketball season months before Memphis football players have reported for fall camp.
Once the games begin, they expect to see a difference on the court. Under Pastner and Smith, there were too many times it was obvious the players gave in and lost heart.
Under Hardaway, Jett expects a return to the chip-on-the-shoulder style of play that was emblematic of the best Tiger teams from the 70s, 80s and 90s. He says the Grizzlies may have cornered Grit & Grind as a basketball war cry, but as an attitude it originated with the tough Memphis kids playing for Memphis State, so proud to have the city’s name across their chests.
“(Opponents) were going to have to fight to get anything,” Jett recalled. “We were in your face. You earned every shot. You earned every dribble. Nothing was free. It was an innate quality in the soul of a Memphis basketball player.”
Although Calipari had the Tigers in the national title game just 10 years ago, there is lingering pain there, too.
“There was this guy standing in front of me,” Hicks said, “and he turned around and looked at me – this is like when we had the nine-point lead – and he says, `We’re going to lose.’ I thought it particularly negative. I didn’t know if he could just feel it or what. It was just a weird moment. And then we missed shots. We didn’t foul at the end. You know the story.”
Everyone knows the story. Memphis led by nine points with 2:12 to go. Mario Chalmers, who would later join the Grizzlies, tied the game with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
The Tigers collapsed in overtime and Hicks and all the other Memphis fans who had traveled to San Antonio can, a decade later, still hear the echoes of Kansas fans screaming their insufferable “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant into the night, into eternity.
This turned out to be a seminal moment for Memphis basketball fans. They were standing at the peak of their glory only to have it ripped away, their coach bolt for Kentucky and take five-star recruits with him, and then they had to watch the program backslide to the point that Hicks couldn’t give away floor-seat tickets.
“I feel the city’s pain,” Penny said after his hiring. “I feel the school’s pain. And I feel I can do something about it.”
That doesn’t mean merely aiming for the top half of the AAC standings or just getting to a Sweet 16 someday.
It means getting back to the NCAAs year after year, being a consistent Top-20 program, making occasional deep tournament runs, and eventually having a chance to again play for what would be the first national championship in the program’s history.
It means challenging every shot and each dribble along the way, chip firmly on shoulder.
It means again living in a world where Derek Jett can board a plane during basketball season wearing his Tigers cap.