U of M Athletics
The winter of 1984-85 included a very special basketball season, and not just in Memphis, Tennessee, where Keith Lee’s Memphis State Tigers put a region on their back and reached the NCAA tournament’s Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky. While the Tigers were running roughshod over the Metro Conference, I rode the bench as a sophomore guard for the Northfield Marauders, all the way to the Vermont Division III state semifinals. A high school team in New England would finish 19-3 the same season a college team in Memphis went 31-4, each finishing one game shy of playing for a championship. Hoops heartbreak from the Green Mountain State to the Bluff City.
I wrote a pair of pieces recently (one for this month’s issue of Memphis, the other for the Memphis Flyer) on the 1984-85 Tigers, this month being the 30th anniversary of their memorable March. The work involved visits with three of the key players from that remarkable team: Andre Turner, Vincent Askew, and Dwight Boyd. And the visits involved processing heartbreak that today runs deeper than a season-ending loss on the hardwood. In 1986 the NCAA vacated the Tigers’ Final Four appearance, the result of impropriety involving the team’s coach, Dana Kirk. (What a strange term for revising history: “vacated.”) Worse, two members of the team — Baskerville Holmes and Aaron Price — died violently, Holmes committing suicide after killing his girlfriend in 1997. Lee’s partner in the post, William Bedford, spent eight years in prison for drug possession.
The interviews were each touching and emotional, at times awkward. And they took me back to my 16th winter in ways I didn’t anticipate when I started the research. I wrote a feature in the March 2003 issue of Memphis on the 1972-73 Tigers, the team Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson led to the Final Four and a title tilt with mighty UCLA. But I was 4 years old that March with no distinct memories of the team or time. It was purely historical research, built upon interviews with Robinson, Gene Bartow, John Wooden, and others who remembered March 1973 quite well.
In talking with Turner, Askew, and Boyd, one question brought the same, slight grin and shake of the head: Does it feel like 30 years have passed? “No way,” was the answer, whatever the phrasing. Thirty years? Not even close.
These were players I remembered watching from afar, back when cable television meant 13 channels where I lived. They were players I convinced my teammates and friends to watch. Our point guard — a classmate of mine — was a North Carolina fan and devoted to Kenny Smith. But he loved the way Andre Turner commanded the floor. Our center was familiar with Patrick Ewing (then with Georgetown, now in the Hall of Fame). But he recognized the great Keith Lee, a power forward who did what most centers wished they could. Those Tigers were Memphians and belonged to Memphis (they still do). But they also invigorated a few basketball players — and one son of a Memphian — in a snowy Vermont valley nowhere near the Mid-South Coliseum.
Speaking of snow, about two feet of the fluffy stuff fell on March 4, 1985, my 16th birthday and the date of our semifinal at the Barre Auditorium. We took the floor against Williamstown (a hamlet on the other side of a small mountain from my hometown) and were upset by a team we’d beaten twice in the regular season. Those were painful tears. Twenty-six days later, after Villanova upset the Tigers in the national semifinals, Memphians knew precisely the pain. Some can feel it to this day.
Thirty years ago today, I sat in my family’s living room — in central Vermont — and watched the Tigers beat UAB (a team in green on St. Patrick’s Day) on my dad’s birthday, with my grandmother (Dad’s mom) on a nearby couch. She was visiting from Memphis, making the cross-regional basketball connection about as personal as one family could on a single late-winter Sunday. My own basketball season was over and, that afternoon at least, my hope was that a national championship for Memphis State in early April would balance the emotional tides.
Didn’t happen. My grandmother and father are no longer here to reflect on the winter of 1984-85. But Andre Turner is. So are Vincent Askew and Dwight Boyd. And that’s some consolation. Thirty years? No way.