As I sat back in shock on a couch as Mario Chalmers drained a shot for the Kansas basketball team in the final seconds of the NCAA national championship game to send it into overtime and eventually win it, I saw a dream start to slip away. As a diehard University of Memphis fan, the Final Four run carried so much optimism. It had been “us against the world” with a bunch of underdog players playing for an underdog city whose biggest draw will always be Elvis. Yet, they surmounted the odds and rained on most people’s office pools.
For Memphis fans, it was a magical run, despite the bitter ending. The University’s basketball team has always been a unifier in a city with so many problems. Five years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, the Tigers, led by white and black players united in blue and grey brought a divided city together as it rolled on to the NCAA championship game before ultimately losing to UCLA. And then it happened again in 1985. And then finally again in 2008.
The media was quick to criticize this Memphis team as “thugs” who went to Memphis as a last option with a hustler head coach who cared less about an honorable program than how he looked in his Armani suit. Yet, the truth is so utterly different. Joey Dorsey, the enigmatic senior center whose off-court issues have been a popular subject with the media, is the first member of his family to graduate from high school and plans on graduating from college this summer, pretty good for a guy who grew up in a neighborhood that’s nickname is “Iraq” because of its high crime rate. Bet ESPN didn’t tell you that. On top of that, Coach John Calipari has had over an 80% graduation rate while at Memphis. That’s better than the overall graduation rate of some of America’s top universities.
I guess the haters will always be there. It’s easy to knock a blue-collar program from a mid-major conference. Heck, some people still doubt that Memphis deserved to be in the national championship this year. But for me, I’ll be plenty satisfied with national runner-up. They showed that they could play with the big boys despite the adversity.
Sure, they’re not perfect. But for my city, it’s a reflection of what it’s overcome and there’s not a group of athletes that we’d rather root for. Believe me, the dream is far from dead.
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