This Tiger great led then-Memphis State to the 1973 NCAA title game and helped unite
a city torn apart by racial tension.
By Greg Russell
UCLA legend Bill Walton has many memories of the 1973 NCAA championship game: his
44 points, a 21 of 22 shooting performance, the Bruins’ seventh straight title. But
that’s not all.
“One of my favorite things, I always remember Larry (Finch) helping me off the court,”
says Walton during an interview with The University of Memphis Magazine a few years ago. “I love Larry. He is a great person. I think that gesture said so
much about him as a man.”
Finch, who passed away April 2, 2011, helped Walton to the sidelines after he sprained
an ankle during the Bruins’ 87-66 win over the Tigers. Finch later said that moment
was what he remembered most about the contest.
Finch, though, had spent the prior three years lifting up something much larger.
|Vickie and future husband Larry (second and third from left) enjoy dinner on a Mississippi
River ride in the early 1970s.
When Finch enrolled at the U of M, Memphis was still a racially divided city. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated at a downtown Memphis hotel in 1968.
Subsequent riots rocked Beale Street and other nearby areas. But along with Tiger
head coach Gene Bartow, Ronnie Robinson, Billy Buford, Bill Cook, Wes Westfall, Clarence
Jones and others, the city united behind a team that made a historic run to the NCAA
“If countries were like our team of that year, with everyone working toward the same
goal, the world would be a better place,” Finch would later say.
“The city was still in an uproar,” Buford says. “People were looking for something
to pull Memphis together.”
“We were just a bunch of basketball players. No race issues on that team. We all got
along beautifully,” says Tiger guard Bill Cook, who was the first true freshman to
play in an NCAA championship game.
“That team healed Memphis,” former Mayor Wyeth Chandler would say a few years later.
“The city was one again.”
On the court, Finch was an All-American his senior season before playing in the American
Basketball Association for a short time. He is the Tigers’ winningest coach.
“I’m asked a lot about who was the greatest player I ever coached, and I always have
the same answer: Larry Finch,” says Bartow. “Larry helped provide the roots for this
city’s wonderful basketball tradition. His contributions to Memphis were immense.
He will be missed.”
Added teammate Larry Kenon, “He was the purest shooter I ever saw.” Kenon played
in the NBA for 11 years after the ’73 run to the NCAA championship game.
|Finch flashes a million dollar smile while decked out in the style of the day. Bottom,
Finch flashes a peace sign with hanging out with teammates in the early ’70s.
One Tiger great, Elliot Perry, says playing under Finch from 1987-91 “helped shape
me as a basketball player, but more importantly into the person that I am today.”
In everyday life, Finch, as most Tiger fans would find out, was as warmhearted as
they come; he had a way of drawing people in. Just ask Phyliss Massey (BS ’69), who
was as close to a personal photographer as Finch had.
“I remember picking Larry and Ronnie (Robinson) up in August of 1970. It was one of
those hot August days and they both had these wool suits on — they were flashy, but
it was the ’70s you have to remember. Larry’s suit was blue and he was wearing multi-colored
boots. Ronnie had a black wool suit on.”
Massey, who was working in the U of M’s Photo Services division, had been asked to
photograph Finch and Robinson in different settings for a brochure the Tiger athletic
department was putting out about the upcoming season.
“We drove all over Orange Mound, to his family’s house, down Park Avenue to a sundry
store, a shoeshine shop, a Harlem House (restaurant). Larry knew every single person
by name and every single person knew who Larry was.
“Everybody loved Larry. If he had an appointment with someone on campus, you could
just about count on him being late. He would stop and talk to everyone as he made
his way across campus. And he would remember things about people. He’d always ask
me, ‘How’s your grandmother? Are you waxing your car? You know it will oxidize if
Massey photographed most Tigers’ home games during Finch’s 1970-73 playing career.
“He made me and so many others feel so important,” she says. “He started asking me
to come over and photograph his family. I was as much on call for Larry as I was for
“Larry was like a shooting star, a comet that exploded. Larry and Ronnie, Ronnie and
Larry — you always said their names in the same sentence. They were our Hollywood