In a long gray overcoat and a blue MEMPHIS POLICE ASSOCIATION baseball cap, Larry Finch picks his way through the crowd at The Pyramid in Memphis, munching peanuts, shaking hands, chatting up security guards, hugging anyone who approaches with arms outstretched. Over the last five years Finch has lost a job he loved, had his gallbladder removed and suffered a stroke that limits his speech and movement. During that span former University of Memphis president V. Lane Rawlins called him "the most important figure in Memphis sports history?" but, alas, that encomium came on Jan. 30, 1997, the day that Finch, a Memphis native and guard who led the school to the NCAA, championship game in 1973, resigned under pressure as Tigers basketball coach. Memphis is home to the blues, and Larry Finch sure does know the blues.
On the bright side, though, Finch loves hoops, and at The Pyramid these days there are sometimes as many as five games a week, featuring either Finch's old team or the NBA Grizzlies, who relocated from Vancouver after last season. "I'm still loyal to the Tigers," says Finch, who continues to undergo rehab for his stroke, "but I'm more of a Grizzlies fan these days."
So the battle for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of Memphians has been joined. Two teams, one arena, one city—the last the hub of the smallest TV market in the NBA. It's not a battle exactly, at least not according to the Chamber of Commerce level of goodwill evident in the Bluff City these days, a city haunted by the memory of franchises long departed (the Showboats of the USFL, the Rockers of the World Basketball League, the Pharaohs of the Arena Football League, the list goes on). Right now the teams, both of which play a fan-pleasing racehorse style, are co-existing in mediocrity, at least relative to their own expectations.
After an 84-66 road victory over Houston last Saturday night, the Tigers were 17-4 but hadn't lived up to several preseason prognostications. "Whoever picked us in the Top 20," said coach John Calipari, "should be drug-tested." The Grizzlies were 12-31 through Sunday but had been at least as good as advertised, considering that they'd traded their two best players (Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby) and, because of injuries, have gotten limited minutes from their two most established ones (shooting guard Michael Dickerson, stress fracture near his right groin, and center Lorenzen Wright, fractured left tibia).
The Tigers are winning the fannies-in-the-seats war, though not decisively. They play to sold-out houses at every home game—the arrival of the high-visibility Calipari last season has spiked season-ticket sales from 7,800 to 17,500 in a 20,000-capacity arena—but on some nights there are a couple of thousand no-shows. That doesn't alarm the college administrators, but it has caught their attention. "If the Grizzlies have two home games and we have two home games," says Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, "very few fans can go to four games in a row. We're in great shape revenue-wise, but we need our fans to keep showing up."
The Grizzlies, with a season-ticket base of about 9,900, are drawing 5,000 fewer per game than the Tigers, but their 14,817 fans a game at week's end put them ahead of eight other NBA teams. However, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have already filled The Pyramid, so it would be wise to check back in March, when the team is, say, 19-52 and the Golden State Warriors are in town.
So far the civic double team has been full of Southern charm, even quaint. One of the few prominent Memphians willing to go on the record with a pessimistic opinion is Mike Rose, a millionaire university booster who helps pay Calipari's $1 million salary, of which the school chips in only $135,000. "The Grizzlies have made horrible personnel decisions over the years, they're playing in the smallest NBA market, and they're going up against an established program," says Rose. "I'm glad I don't have my money invested in them."
Rose concedes, though, that the Grizzlies have come into town with the proper hat-in-hand humility. Indeed, the pros and the amateurs have traded stereotypical roles. The Grizzlies have a quiet, little-known coach (Sidney Lowe); a quiet, thoughtful general manager (Billy Knight); and a choirboy first-round draft pick (rookie Shane Battier) who moved into a modest loft near the site of the new Grizzlies arena, which is scheduled to open in 2004. Even team president Dick Versace, who as a college and NBA coach was a quote machine and wore a colossal cottontop, has closed his yap and shorn his coiffure.
The Tigers, by contrast, have a ref-baiting, clotheshorse, high-profile coach; a superstar player (freshman Dajuan Wagner) with a megaposse; a sexy and sassy dance team (which has won 10 national dance-team championships); an imperious mascot (Tom II, a Bengal tiger who arrives at The Pyramid in a cage air-cooled to 50°); and an over-the-top 2001: A Space Odyssey-Themed introduction (mandated by Elvis devotee Johnson because Presley, in his final years, began his shows with that theme). And if Wagner leaves after one season for the NBA—"I'm taking it one year at a time" is his position on the matter—the collegians are going to look like the free-agent carpetbaggers.
Comparisons are rarely perfect, of course. The Grizzlies have a tattooed, trash-talking loose cannon of a point guard named Jason Williams, and Wagner seems at times to be almost too coachable, looking over at Calipari instead of taking over the game on instinct. "Dajuan is the nicest good player I've ever been around" is the way Calipari describes him.