March Madness and the Story of a Basketball Player Who United a City
Here we are, in the middle of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament., that time of year, which has been dubbed “March Madness”.
This time of year, I always think about a man who made a difference in my life and that of many others.
HIs name was Larry O. Finch.
You may or may not have heard of him.
The following is a post which I wrote 6 years ago, upon hearing of his death in 2011.
I am reposting this because, in this age of superficial spoiled brat professional athletes, it is a story about a man whose life was not only filled with a love of the game, but with love for his fellow man.
And, it being a Sabbath Morning, there is no better time to relate this story.
The year is 1972. A skinny, undersized asthmatic kid, new to Wooddale Junior High, is about to be annihilated in a game called Bombardment, a rather sadistic game thought up by the 9th grade P.E. coach for his personal amusement. Resembling the movie “Dodgeball” on steroids, two teams (usually the delinquents on one side and their victims on the other), would line up against both sides of the bleachers waiting for the coach’s whistle. Then the massacre would ensue.
Sure that I was about to breathe my last, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a kind voice telling me to stand beside him. I looked up to see the smiling face of Larry Finch, Senior shooting guard on the Memphis State University Tigers Basketball Team. He had just taken an Internship at my school!
Of course, that was the year that they lost the NCAA Championship to Bill Walton and the UCLA Bruins. I don’t think that anyone in the nation hollered at their television set louder that night than I did.
Over the semester, we became friends. I became a Tiger fan for life, eventually receiving my degree there in 1980 in Radio, TV, and Film. While there, I had the privilege of calling radio play-by-play for the Women’s Basketball and Men’s Baseball teams.
Larry is also the reason that I went on to play and coach basketball, a 4th grade team and a church team, respectively. My coaching record is 25 – 4.
But, I digress…
Anyway, I’m writing this story because my friend, the Memphis Legend, Coach Larry O. Finch, has passed away at the age of 60.
From the Commercial Appeal:
Finch, the University of Memphis’ winningest basketball coach with 220 victories, had been in poor health since suffering the first of multiple strokes in 2001. He was 60. He had also had a heart attack.
Finch is perhaps the most beloved figure in the history of Memphis’ basketball program, leading the 1973 team to the national championship game and coaching the Tigers from 1986 to 1997.
Larry was born in the Orange Mound section of Memphis and went on to play for Melrose High School. He and his fellow high school teammate, 6’9″ “Big Cat” Ronnie Robinson, decided to play for Coach Gene Bartow at Memphis State University.
This was during the height of racial unrest in Memphis. Larry had been advised not to go to Memphis State, but he loved his hometown and his hometown university. He and Ronnie turned out to be 2 of the finest bridge builders Memphis has ever seen. He graduated as the all-time leading scorer in school history and is presently still in second place on that list.
Larry went on to play professionally with the Memphis TAMs, the Memphis Sounds, the Baltimore Hustlers, and the Baltimore Claws.
In the 1980s, Finch was an assistant coach for Dana Kirk at Memphis State. Kirk was forced to leave Memphis State after violating NCAA regulations, and Finch was made head coach in 1986 in order to restore order to the program. Finch was head coach from 1986 until 1997.
Finch’s tenure at Memphis State/University of Memphis was successful. He posted 10 out of 11 winning seasons, and seven 20+ win seasons. He recruited and developed such players as Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway, and Lorenzen Wright. His 1991-92 team led by Hardaway and David Vaughn went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
As a player, Finch was known for his shooting prowess, and his skills remained intact throughout his coaching days; he would routinely win games of H-O-R-S-E against his players (including the great Keith Lee, among others) and against assistant coaches in long distance shooting contests after road game practices.
In the company of such renowned coaches as Gene Bartow and John Calipari, Larry Finch remains in second-place for all-time wins in University of Memphis history (behind only Calipari).
In 2002, Larry suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed and affected his speech. Later that year, at halftime of the Memphis Grizzlies’ annual Martin Luther King Day game, NBA Legend Bill Russell grabbed the handles of Larry Finch’s wheelchair and wheeled him across a spotlight-lit basketball court.
The entire arena cheered and cried at the same time.
And now, this Memphis Legend is gone.
In the early 80s, while Larry was an Assistant Coach under Dana Kirk, I was working at Memphis Cablevision. I was passing through a front office packed with customers, there to pay their bill. All of the sudden, I heard a familiar voice shouting my last name at the top of his lungs. It was Coach Finch!
He grinned that big ol’ grin at me, and hugged me until I thought my ribs would bust. Then he asked me how I was doing, eager to hear about my life, and we talked as if there was no one else in that lobby.
And now, almost 30 years later, I’m sitting here, trying to write this post with tears in my eyes.
That’s how I know.
Until He Comes,