D isney will never make a movie about the 1984-85 Memphis State Tigers. A basketball team that went 31-4 under coach Dana Kirk reached the Final Four, only the second team in the program’s history to do so. A team headlined by power forward Keith Lee — a first-team All-America and still the program’s all-time leading scorer — beat archrival Louisville three times on its way to the national semifinals where it played the foil in the Cinderella story of eventual national champion Villanova. Thirty years later, though, that fabled team’s legacy is an unlikely cocktail of pride and regret. Lee’s supporting cast was a quintet of locally produced players that made the team as distinctly Memphis as any before or since. Mitchell High School alum Andre Turner (then and now, the Little General) played point guard and was on his way to setting a Tiger record for assists (763) that stands to this day. Fellow junior Baskerville Holmes was a high jump champion at Westwood High School and is a fixture on history’s All-Name team. Sophomore William Bedford (Melrose) combined with Lee for a twin-tower presence down low. Freshmen Vincent Askew (Frayser) and Dwight Boyd (Kirby) received steady minutes from Kirk, filling voids left by the departed Bobby Parks and Phillip “Doom” Haynes. “There was a lot of pressure on us to succeed,” says Boyd, today director of the M Club, his alma mater’s athletic alumni association. “Number one, we were from Memphis and most of us were recruited all across the country. You go home [after games] to the community where you’re from. At that time, I represented East Memphis. But that builds character. You didn’t have to tell me to go to the gym to work on my jump shot.”
Sports Illustrated famously left one team off the cover of its 1985 Final Four preview, the one that didn’t play in the Big East Conference. As if the Tigers needed any more motivation. “We had an awesome run,” says Boyd. “We beat a good UAB team. Then we beat Boston College with Michael Adams. Then Oklahoma with Wayman Tisdale. They said we upset them, but I didn’t think it was an upset. I would have put us against anybody.”
As disappointing as the loss to Villanova seemed at the time, it was mere prelude to the sorrow associated with this team. The NCAA found Kirk guilty of several infractions — among them cash payments to some of his players — and in 1986 stripped the Tigers of the Final Four appearance. The coach later served prison time for tax evasion. (He died in 2010.) As for Kirk’s players, the years after 1985 brought as much darkness as light.
The Chicago Bulls chose Lee with the 11th pick in the 1985 NBA draft, but knee injuries ended his career just four years later. Bedford earned third-team All-America honors as a junior and was chosen by the Phoenix Suns with the sixth pick in the ’86 draft. Substance abuse, though, led to a year-long suspension and Bedford was out of the NBA before his 30th birthday (though with a championship ring from his 1989-90 season with Detroit). He served eight years in prison (2003-11) for drug possession. Turner bounced among seven NBA teams over six seasons before crossing the Atlantic to play in Spain. Askew ended up having the best pro career among his ’85 teammates, playing in 467 NBA games over 11 years, most with the Seattle Sonics. But then in 2008, at age 42, he was arrested in Florida and accused of having sex with a minor (he was given three years probation). Reserve forward Aaron Price — a classmate of Lee’s in both high school and college — was shot and killed outside his home in West Memphis in 1998, a crime that remains unsolved.
Saddest of all, perhaps, is the story of Holmes. Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, he never took the floor in the NBA. After a short playing career in Europe, Holmes returned to Memphis, finding work as a truck driver. On March 18, 1997, he shot and killed his girlfriend after an argument, then turned the gun on himself.
“You know individuals,” says Boyd, “but you don’t really know them. Baskerville was easy to get along with, always smiling.” And the vacated Final Four appearance? “I hate that,” he says. “But I still have my Final Four ring. You can’t edit history.”
The enduring link among the stars of that Final Four team: their hometown. The reclusive Lee — a native of West Memphis, all the way across the river — completed his degree studies (in 2008) and is now the head basketball coach at Raleigh-Egypt High School, Turner an assistant coach at Mitchell. Askew founded the Vincent Askew Skills Academy and wants to do for young basketball players what Tim Dulin has done in the local baseball community. Upon being released from prison in 2011, Bedford returned to Memphis and has volunteered as a mentor with Shelby County Juvenile Court. He works at a local car dealership and got married in 2014. And after 22 years with Pepsi, Boyd is back on campus, waving the U of M flag for alumni who feel as blessed as he does to have been a Tiger. He earned a master’s degree in athletic administration last December.
Legacies often come with bruises. The 1984-85 Memphis State Tigers were not a perfect basketball team, nor perfect human beings. Their highs and lows — then and since — have run to extremes. They remain, in a word, extraordinary.