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Love and loss: The heart of Memphis basketball

To understand Memphis is to understand Memphis basketball. 

As you peer into the looking glass that is Tiger basketball, you see Ronnie Robinson and Larry Finch fighting to improve racial relations in a city infamous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination just a few years prior. 

You can see Robinson walking into the locker room after playing his final game as a Tiger in a historic 1973 season, shedding a tear as he expressed his goodbyes. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now,” he said. “There might be another war, like Vietnam, and I might have to go to it. But whatever becomes of me, I want you to know that I’m never going to forget what has happened to me at Memphis State. Never again could anything be so great.” 

You see Penny Hardaway walking in as a timid Memphis freshman and walking out a soon-to-be NBA star, returning to his alma mater as a coach decades later. 

You see wins — so many wins — and March Madness runs that shook the city.

"When Memphis basketball is good, it matters here more than anything," said CBS Sports radio host and UofM alumnus Gary Parrish. "I still think that when Memphis basketball is good, it still resonates more than the Grizzlies."

You also see the losses. A championship game ending in heartbreak, the momentous season stripped away by the NCAA. You see coaching changes, rule violations, losing seasons. There to see it all first-hand was Antonio Anderson, a starting power forward for the could-be 2008 championship team. 

He was right in the center of it. 

“The electricity that we set up in that city, in that year,” Anderson said, “it still trickles down to that day.” 

Antonio Anderson probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of the ’08 Tigers team. Though flashier offensive players, like Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, were the ones making the national headlines, what made Anderson stand alone were his heart and gritty play style — two things that Memphians love in their basketball stars. 

In NCAA basketball, there are the blue-blood schools, like Kentucky and Duke, who historically get top recruits and find themselves deep into the NCAA tournament. Their jerseys can be found on fans across the nation. Then, you have Memphis – a university that prides itself for being a different shade of blue. 

“Memphis is a blue-collar city,” Anderson said. “That’s why they love blue-collar guys, like myself in college. Tony Allen. Guys like that who did the dirty stuff and did whatever it took to win.” 

Going into the 2007-08 season, expectations for Tiger basketball were high. The team sported a strong recruiting class, headlined by Derrick Rose, along with veteran standouts, such as Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. Memphis had earned a number 3 ranking going into the season. 

The Tigers finished the regular season with a 38-1 record, their only loss coming from their in-state rival, the #2 ranked Tennessee Volunteers. 

“If they hadn't played poorly against Tennessee, they could’ve been the first team since ’76 Indiana to be in the national title game with zero losses,” Parish said. “They had a real shot at an undefeated national championship season. They overwhelmed pretty much everybody they played.

Excitement began to bubble through the city, as the Memphis Tigers prepared for their March Madness run. Of course, woven between the proud smiles and Tiger Blue was a sense of uncertainty. The Tigers had made the NCAA tournament the previous two seasons, but lost in the Elite Eight both times. 

But this team was different. 

“It was insane. The city was in uproar, the campus was in uproar. Games would sell out. Bars on Beale, bars on campus – it was just in an absolute uproar,” Anderson said. “You see, the energy in the city was electric. Every game, it just seemed like there were more and more people, and it just got louder and louder. It was just something, like, you can’t relive again but you wish you could. It was an amazing experience.” 

While the players were steering the ship, the whole city was riding the waves. 

“Nobody else in the freaking world can experience this,” UofM Freshman Garron Williams told the Daily Helmsman in March of 2008. “This is completely turning Memphis around. The feeling this team brings — it even brings my family closer together. We are living the dream.” 

The thing about dreams is you have to wake up at some point. Sometimes, you wake up and completely forget the whole thing existed — but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That doesn’t invalidate how you felt in that moment. 

Everybody remembers where they were during the 2008 national championship game. Everybody remembers the blown lead, the missed free throws, the shot that forced overtime. 

“They were so close to seeing the dream become a reality,” said the commentator as the 2008 national championship game clock ticked its last moments. 

Moments later, he boldly exclaims that Kansas had taken the title. 

It was the closest Memphis had ever been — has ever been — to winning it all. Tears were shed throughout the city, curse words were muttered. The “electricity” that many described began to dissipate, dimming the spell that had been cast over the city for months. 

When Antonio Anderson talks about that moment now, over a decade later, there is a calmness in his voice. 

“You know, it's all we had,” he said. “We gave it all we had. At the end of the day, I don’t view it any different now. It sucks that we lost, it still burns a bit. But I think knowing that we gave it our all, that we left everything on the floor. You know, you can live with that.” 

Sure, they lost the championship game, but they still took the basketball program into uncharted waters. Once the confetti was swept away and the lights began to fade, and another sports news story captured the headlines, the run was something to celebrate. 

What the deflated players – shuffling off of the court and into the locker room — and frustrated fans with their heads buried in their hands – didn’t know was that, miles away, an investigation was taking place that would soon erase everything that they had accomplished along the way. 

On August 20, 2009, the NCAA announced that the entire 2007-2008 Memphis basketball season was to be vacated after allegations of illegal activity were discovered during the season. 

The allegation receiving the most attention was that former star point guard and first pick in the 2008 NBA draft, Derrick Rose, had a stand-in take his ACT test so he would be eligible to play college basketball. 

Tiger Head Coach John Calipari also allowed Rose’s brother to use the university’s private jet several times without pay. 

The thing is, Derrick Rose and John Calipari were just fine. 

Rose went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA, getting paid millions while pursuing his dream. Sure, it was difficult seeing all of your hard work be invalidated, but he did blatantly break a rule. 

John Calipari betrayed the city when he left to be the new head coach at the University of Kentucky, after having his second Final Four appearance forfeited. That, alone, is enough to leave Memphians feeling as though he jumped ship. But, to add insult to injury, Calipari took future NBA standouts DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall with him to Kentucky. 

“Trust me, Derrick Rose is not the first person to get a standardized test score in a way that runs counter to the way you’re supposed to do it,” Parrish said. “But the larger point that I thought was unfair was that they cleared him to play. And then, when they deem him ineligible, and Memphis had played an ineligible player the whole season, they had to vacate the whole thing. I actually think that Memphis did get screwed, and I don't think it tarnishes that team in any real way.” 

The narrative that the NCAA has it out for Memphis is nothing new. In recent years, the NCAA came after Memphis when Penny Hardaway landed future No. 2 NBA draft pick James Wiseman. This time, the allegation wasn’t a stand-in for a standardized test, but for Hardaway’s assistance moving Wiseman and his mother to Memphis while he was a high school coach. 

The decision, in similar fashion to Rose’s eligibility, followed the NCAA clearing Wiseman to play multiple times prior to the season. This time, when the NCAA declared Wiseman ineligible, Hardaway and the Tigers fought the allegations and played him. But, like Rose, it was another battle with college sports’ governing body that the Tigers lost – and former players have noticed it. 

“The NCAA had it out for Memphis, they always have it out for Memphis,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t make the NCAA a bunch of money if Memphis wins the national championship [or does well]. But if Kansas wins the championship, it looks better. When they see programs coming up and trying to build something, it scares them.” 

If you turn to the history books, the 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers basketball season never happened — Kansas simply won the national title. All of the blood, sweat and tears were washed into oblivion by the storm that followed. 

“In Memphis, or outside of Memphis, when people think of the 2007-2008 season, you can’t tell that story without Tiger basketball,” Parrish said. “I think the only thing that the Derrick Rose part of it did was put Memphis in a position where they can’t hang a banner inside FedExForum. But outside of that, that team is still remembered as one of the more fun and dominant basketball teams in the modern era.” 

Most teams chase rings or banners to etch their legacy in eternity, and Memphis isn’t an exception. But most teams and fans try to forget vacated seasons. This is where the Tigers stand apart. 

“The true Memphis Tiger fans know that that season counted,” Anderson said. “To those who don’t believe it or look at it a different way, I think they should really take a seat and look back and understand we were all young men. We were all young kids who were trying to make a living through basketball at some point in our lives. We did nothing wrong. We played our games, just like everyone else.”

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