It wasn't exactly the same as Elvis's 50th birthday celebration on Jan. 8, but just a few miles away from the Music Gate at Graceland, Keith Lee got a haircut, Dana Kirk fixed the hole in his pants and Baskerville Holmes finally found out where his name came from. At Memphis State, the beat goes on.
As a matter of fact, were it not for one sad footnote appended to another terrific season—a shocking 60-58 loss to South Carolina back in early January—the Lee-led, Kirk-coached and Baskerville-hounded Tigers would be undefeated and riding an 18-game winning streak. Memphis State would be No. 1 on everybody's lips, and the celebrations around the commuter campus might be rivaling those all-night vigils on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
"Yeah, but if the dog didn't stop, he'd have caught the rabbit, too," says Kirk in his quaint Southernmentorspeak. What he means is that if his team had beaten the Gamecocks, it might have lost to someone else. But then again, as the late King of Rock 'n' Roll might have put it, Anyplace Is Paradise when you're 17-1. Of course, Elvis also said, "...you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine."
It is faintly ironic that while Memphis 'State and its prolific mean Lee scoring machine have caught enough rabbits through the years, the Tigers still labor in a hazy obscurity, outglamoured by Big East bigwigs, besieged on the north, south, east and west by the ACCs and Big Tens and Big Eights. In its own conference, the decade-old Metro, Memphis State must scrap for the kind of attention automatically accorded to tradition-rich Louisville. Having finished in the NCAA final 16 three straight years—one of only five schools to have done that—and as defending Metro tournament champs in possession of four returning starters, the Tigers had reason to believe they deserved a little respect this season.
But alas, even in its own community, Memphis State still has a plebeian image in some quarters. It has, for instance, been called Tiger High. It has endured the snubs of Old Memphis society, which can get down and snub when it wants to. Legend has it that the bluebloods once refused membership in the Memphis Country Club to Kemmons Wilson, the local kid who founded Holiday Inns. Wilson supposedly got inn—but only after threatening to buy the country club and burn it down.
Apocryphal or not, that tale mirrors the experience of the Tiger five, which last week torched the tough Hokies of Virginia Tech for the second time in eight days, virtually sewing up the regular-season Metro race. At last Memphis State seemed to have gained acceptance as the focal point of the city. "A hometown team," Holmes calls the Tigers, and they are that by any measure. Eleven of the 12 players are from the Memphis area. (The furriner, David Jensen of Greenville, S.C., is hardly a stranger: He was born in Memphis, and his mother and grandmother are Memphis State alumnae.) Home games are packed to the rafters of the 11,200-seat, city-and-county-owned Mid-South Coliseum, which is soon to undergo a $20 million expansion. Airport crowds have turned out 1,000 strong to meet the Tigers on their return from road trips. "Everywhere I go, all anyone wants to talk about is Memphis State basketball," says Van Weinberg, co-owner of James Davis, the clothing store that provides Kirk's wardrobe, including those lucky suit pants with the infamous hole. First it was Lou Carnesecca's pandemonium sweater, now it's Dana Kirk's pinstripe suit—a coach needs a haberdashery gimmick to get to the top these days.
Flashback: Kirk was coaching the daylights out of the Tigers in their 89-79 win over Virginia Tech on the Hokies' court on Jan. 26 when he suddenly felt daylight infiltrating his britches from behind. He'd ripped them clear through. Even Lee, who was in the process of scoring 37 points in the victory, noticed. "Coach looked like he had a tail, like a cat or something," Lee said. After an emergency patchwork job, Kirk wore his lucky pants through a home victory over Cincinnati on Jan. 28. Weinberg then made permanent repairs, and Kirk appeared as resplendent as his team in last Saturday's 91-82 repeat win over the Hokies at home. "Dana tears up the good stuff again, and I'm putting him back in leisure suits, where he came from," said Weinberg.
Actually, Kirk, 49, came from West Virginia. "I grew up one of seven kids with no dad," he says. "My mama always told me to start fast in life and get faster." And that he did, by way of head coaching positions at the University of Tampa and Virginia Commonwealth, with an assistantship under Denny Crum at Louisville in between. A hard-edged maverick sort, Kirk is the kind of guy who might pull his team off the court and take the forfeit at Florida State because he didn't like the officiating, or show up at a black-tie Memphis affair wearing corduroy. Not only might, but did. And the Tigers were leading that game with the Seminoles; Weinberg, the threads adviser, must have been on vacation for that black-tie soirée.
Still, it has taken Kirk only five years to bring Memphis State back from what he terms a "destitute" situation. The slide began after 1973 when Larry (Dr. K) Kenon and Larry (Little Tubby) Finch led the Tigers to an 87-66 slaughter by UCLA in the NCAA final. Finch, now grown up to be Very Tubby, sits beside Kirk as his assistant. During the past 3½ seasons, the Tigers are 90-21, and Kirk has become something of a local hero. In 1982 he was voted the city's "number one celebrity" in a poll conducted by the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Ah, but one paper's passion is another's poison. Because of a personal feud between Kirk and the city's other daily, the Press-Scimitar, that journal refused even to mention Kirk's name in its pages for almost a full season. Subsequently the Press-Scimitar folded, and Kirk went on to appear as a basketball coach in an honest-to-goodness feature film, New Girl, which may or may not make it to your neighborhood theater before Oscar time. Don't mess with celebrity.
Lee, the 6'10" forward whose jeri curls used to give him the appearance of a Chuck Berry sideman, was Kirk's initial trump card—a towering presence whose massive yet delicate hands enable him to catch and pass and especially shoot more skillfully than any college big man has a right to. Lee, who came from across the river—West Memphis, Ark.—then attracted Memphis schoolboy stars from the home side of the mighty Mississippi: 7-foot center William (Don't Call Me Bill) Bedford, point guard Andre Turner, freshman star-in-waiting Vincent Askew and Holmes. Actually, it's not so easy to tell Holmes, the 6'7" leaper who set a Tennessee high school high jump record (7'0"), Bedford and Lee apart anymore, now that they have matching scalp-cuts. "It [the jeri-curled do] was getting scraggly. I needed a change," Lee says of Memphis's most famous clip job since Elvis became a GI in 1958. The new look positively stunned the city, not to mention 11-month-old Keith Dewayne Lee Jr., who wouldn't smile at his daddy for the longest time. "Someone's going to kidnap you," Lee's wife, Diane, told him, indicating the haircut was all right with her. "You look even more handsome than with the curls."