America's pastime is baseball, but Memphis is different
For years, basketball has lurked in the shadows of baseball and football's popularity as far as major sports are concerned. Although basketball fights for attention in other parts of the country, it is a different story in Memphis. Memphians have embraced the increased popularity of basketball, and adopted the sport as one of the city's staples. Just as baseball has driven northeastern cities for years and SEC football has commanded the attention of the South, basketball has grasped the city of Memphis.
Memphis residents expect success of its basketball programs, whether it is at the high school, collegiate, or professional level.
"Back when I went there, the University was called Memphis State but the program has grown a lot since then," University of Memphis alumni Lynne Sweatt said. "When [John] Calipari coached, the whole city was mad we lost to Kansas, we wanted that championship so bad."
There are several reasons why the Tigers have had a big influence on the city of Memphis, and the city's relationship with the team shows why basketball is the favorite sport.
One indicator of the Tigers' influence on Memphis at large is the ever-present fan base at the University games, despite playing in Conference USA. Regardless of the national media, Tiger fans still show support for their team. According to a NCAA published attendance report, Memphis has ranked in the top 20 in attendance for all Division I schools in basketball since the 2006 season. Throughout those years, the Tigers have averaged about 16,000 people per home game, while only 18,000 undergraduates attend the University of Memphis today.
Because the Tigers are a team that is not given as much coverage by national media as teams in power conferences, the Tigers generate the underdog mentality.
"That's why I love them," Memphis student Derek Hopper said. "Even against some of the bigger conferences they aren't scared. They played well in the first half against Louisville and Tennessee."
Despite being one of the largest metropolitan areas in the South, Memphis is often portrayed negatively in the media because of the city's high crime rates. The Tigers provide the city and its citizens a sense of pride and something that brings the city together. Memphis plays with an underdog mentality in a conference which many view as a below average league. Because of this, losses against non-conference opponents weigh more heavily when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament committee to select the participants.
Another aspect of the Tigers' psyche that translates well to Memphians is the way the team wins their games. The team averages 10 steals per game, which leads to a quick transition game. As the opposing team turns the ball over, the Tigers pounce at the chance for a fast-break. Through the chaos they are able to establish rhythm. Memphians can identify, as the hustle of daily life creates opportunities. This is especially true in the college setting, when a student has to find time to work, save money, spend time with friends and succeed in the classroom. The balancing act of college life is hectic and mirrors the Tigers' style of play.
With great passion for the game comes great players and out of the top 100 high school recruits in the class of 2013, five are from Memphis, according to cbssports.com. Of those five, three of the recruits have committed to the Tigers. Memphis' roster is home to several Memphians, and makes it easy for fans to connect to players who share the same hometown. This connection to the players is especially real for some Tiger fans, like University of Memphis junior Frank Bradley.
"I love the atmosphere in the [FedEx] Forum, when everybody gets excited for a break-away dunk or alley oop play," Bradley said. "There's nothing like it, and I even went to high school with Joe [Jackson] and Ferrakohn [Hall]."
There is a bond between the city and its college basketball team that has created a great fan base that represents Memphis' love for basketball. The city is committed to its basketball programs, evident by the numerous locally sponsored Amateur Athletic Union teams to the costly renovations to the Tigers practice facilities. As far as the nation is concerned, the sport has a long way to go to surpass football and baseball, but for now, basketball has the heart of Memphians.
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