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Empty Baskets
Kelli Anderson
February 10, 1997
Shooting is lousy, defense is unyielding, and scoring is way down, Memphis blues, Pacific's lucky phone call
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February 10, 1997

Empty Baskets

Shooting is lousy, defense is unyielding, and scoring is way down, Memphis blues, Pacific's lucky phone call

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When he arrived on Pacific's Stockton, Calif., campus that August, Olowokandi says, "I was living out a dream." He wasn't jarred awake until the first practice. "I had never prepared physically for something like that. It was the hardest thing I've ever done."

"He had a lot of confidence, but he thought of himself as much better than he really was," says Thomason. "We had to teach him shooting, passing, terminology. He didn't know how to get after the ball, how to be competitive. Fortunately, he's very coachable."

After extensive drills and conditioning, Olowokandi has improved dramatically on last year's 4.0 points and 3.4 rebounds a game. Says Thomason, "He's a player now." And one of the most feared walk-ons in Division I. Though Pacific still hasn't been able to free up a scholarship for him, Olowokandi, who was to return to action this week after missing six games with a sprained knee, was averaging 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. In the Tigers' season-opening loss to Fresno State he scored 26 points, and in a 73-56 win over Georgetown he had 16 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. "He has NBA potential, but there's room for improvement," says Thomason. "If he keeps working, he can become one of the best college centers in the game next year."

A Wounded Finch

When Memphis coach Larry Finch negotiated a $413,660 buyout of his contract last week and agreed to resign at the end of this season, he reached what many Memphians regarded as the inevitable conclusion to a once glorious career gone stale. In pressuring Finch into a settlement, Memphis president V. Lane Rawlins said it was "the hardest thing I've had to do as president of this university," and he called Finch "the most important figure in Memphis sports history."

A native Memphian, Finch led the Tigers to the 1973 NCAA championship game against UCLA; as an assistant he helped recruit the local talent that was the core of the '85 Final Four team; and in his 11 years as coach he took Memphis to six NCAA tournaments, including a final-eight appearance in '92. But over the past two years there has been a decline in the Tigers' fortunes. The shortcomings that led to Finch's demise included the following:

•Anemic offense. Even in a season of low scores, Memphis's lack of firepower stands out. The Tigers have scored more than 80 points only once and have been held to less than 50 four times. Though their 11-10 record includes notable wins over Michigan, Marquette and Louisville, they also suffered a very damaging 57-47 loss to in-state rival Tennessee in which Memphis scored just 10 points in the first half. Said Finch after that game, "I've never been so embarrassed in my life." But for some of those woes, Finch can only blame his own...

•Lax recruiting. Finch has not signed a top high school player from outside Memphis since he got Johnny Miller, from Jackson, Miss., for the 1993-94 season, and Miller transferred out after one season. Finch's recent harvests in his hometown have been equally grim; three of this year's top local prospects, guards Tony Harris, Robert O'Kelley and Cory Bradford, signed with Tennessee, Wake Forest and Illinois, respectively. The loss of Harris to the Vols particularly hurt but was not surprising in light of Finch's recent recruiting methods. Last March he did not personally attend the state's Class AAA championship, in which both Harris and O'Kelley played.

Many Memphians, still upset about the Tigers' loss to Drexel in the first round of the NCAAs last year, have shown their displeasure. Revenue raised by the Tiger Clubs booster group declined by $279,410 between the 1994-95 and the 1995-96 academic years, and season-ticket sales have dropped by 1,195 since last year. Attendance at the 20,000-seat Pyramid has even fallen below 5,000 a couple of times this season.

Still, after the hammer fell last Thursday, Finch evinced no bitterness. Calling the university's action "a business decision," he summed up his life and career in Memphis as "a fairy tale," saying, "How many people are fortunate to do all that in their hometown? Not many. I feel very blessed."

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