Basketball uniting town divided
Tigers bringing joy to racially-troubled Memphis
By Teresa M. Walker
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In a town commemorating the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. today, basketball and a Memphis team filled with 13 young black men are a cause for celebration.
Blue, Tiger blue, is everywhere.
"We’re bringing a lot of people together with us winning, with how we’re winning and getting to the Final Four," said senior Joey Dorsey as his team prepares for its third Final Four appearance.
"We’re bringing joy," junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said of the 37-1 team.
Memphis is the school where students selected the colors of blue and gray in the early 1900s to show people could come together. And Memphis is also the town where King’s death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, remains a vivid memory and race still a prickly topic.
It’s also a town where the biggest national headlines often come from the latest crime.
Until these Tigers, which is why fans around town dressed up in blue Thursday.
Reading up on King
To help these young men born in the 1980s understand the importance of this week and this team’s accomplishments, coach John Calipari had copies of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech for his Tigers to read after practice Wednesday, along with a King biography.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in the parking lot that day 40 years ago when King was killed by an assassin’s bullet, happened to be in town for the anniversary and asked to meet with the Tigers for a personal history lesson.
Dorsey didn’t need a copy of King’s speech. He had to memorize and deliver the speech in 2004 to graduate from Laurinburg Prep as the first member of his family to graduate high school. The meaning of this anniversary and the Tigers’ accomplishments have not been lost on him.
"A big deal, big deal," Dorsey said. "I’ve been thinking about this moment for a long time."
Calipari looks at all the history involved with this team and this town and called it amazing.
"And I think that means we’re supposed to win it, too," he said.
A win Saturday in San Antonio against UCLA (35-3) will set a record for most wins in a season. Win the national championship, and blue-collar Memphis will have 105 wins over the past three seasons — a better stretch than any school has ever had. Better than Kentucky, UCLA, Duke, any of college basketball’s bluebloods.
"To us, we’re not the party crasher," Douglas-Roberts said. "I’m pretty sure to the world we are. We are little ol’ Memphis. We always thought of ourselves as a big school. We’re a basketball powerhouse now. When everybody leaves, five years from now, Memphis will still be a basketball powerhouse. Now you can mention us in the same breath as those."
It’s that swagger and confidence that has endeared this team to all of Memphis. Fans are talking Tigers whether picking up their dry cleaning or working out in the gym, and some businesses are preparing to close up to watch Saturday.
"The city is going pretty crazy," junior Antonio Anderson said. "Every car that drives by has the flags going. It feels good. It’s awesome we’re bringing something like this to the city. They’re embracing us with open arms, and we’re loving it."