My favorite University of Memphis basketball game, year after year, is Senior Night. Doesn't matter who the opponent might be or what chance the Tigers might have in the upcoming NCAA tournament. It reminds me why I remain an idealist when it comes to college basketball, and why I prefer the Tiger brand to that of their professional cotenants at FedExForum.
The distinctions between a Memphis Tiger game and a Grizzlies contest are blurring with every passing year, and every new bombastic pregame introduction one game-day staff creates to outdo the other. But beyond the cheaper tickets, shorter games, and fewer timeouts, college basketball retains an energy -- a passion, even -- among its players and fans that cannot be matched in the NBA.
Off the court, four support teams make the atmosphere of a Tiger game heart-pumpingly vibrant. The Blue Crew (a section of U of M students that sits next to the pep band), the nationally renowned dance team, the acrobatic cheerleading squad (as athletic as most of the players you'll see on the court), and the Mighty Sound of the South itself, filling the arena with neotraditional hits like "Crazy Train" and "Eye of the Tiger." These squads are, in modern parlance, "game-day promotions." But they're also U of M students , who are promoting a team and game they love. Nary a dollar sign in their motivation.
Tiger basketball has an advantage among local fans that's almost unfair to mention: history. (No chance of this franchise moving anytime soon.) Going back to Win Wilfong in the Fifties, the great Larry Finch years in the early Seventies, and even the scandal-tainted Keith Lee era of the Eighties (admit it, those were great teams), Memphis has had a love-affair with its flagship college team.
Scandals or otherwise, you have yet to see a millionaire suiting up for the Memphis Tigers. But each year, you will see a small number of players walking to center court -- with their families and flowers -- to say goodbye to their devoted fans on Senior Night. Enough to keep me hooked.
As I write this, the Memphis Grizzlies have the NBA's worst record, so perhaps this isn't the best time to make a case for the local pro franchise. And yet, when asked to make an argument for the Grizzlies over their FedExForum counterparts, it was easy, because the real contest isn't between these two teams but between the games they play: it's a matter of pro hoops versus the semi-pro version we insist on calling "college." There are many reasons for basketball fans to focus their attention on the real pro game, but there are three big ones:
1. Quality of play: On the NBA stage you see the best players in the world compete against each other. Even on a struggling team dazzling skills are on display: No Tiger will shoot the ball with the textbook stroke and deep range of Mike Miller. No one will play the post with the ambidextrous touch and deft passing (at over 7-feet!) of Pau Gasol. No one will combine length and electric athleticism like Griz rookie Rudy Gay. And even more amazing specimens of basketball talent routinely wear opposing colors. But even that doesn't do justice to the difference in the total games. Watch enough NBA, and the college game starts to look a lot like your nephew's church league.
2. Quality of competition: Every NBA franchise plays by the same rules. College basketball, by contrast, is a bizarre competitive world where massive structural advantages or disadvantages separate teams. The U of M has such a huge set of advantages over most of its opponents (Austin Peay?, Middle Tennessee State?) that the bulk of the school's schedule amounts to exhibition play. In the pro game, you don't have to pay off inferior opponents to come to your building and lose.
3. Lack of hypocrisy: The NBA is what it is: Professional entertainment. The college game -- at least at the level the University of Memphis plays it -- is professional entertainment that pretends to be amateur competition. And it asks its fans to participate in the illusion, to become morally complicit in the big lie.
-- Chris Herrington