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Finch 'loved this University,' friends and family say

Remembering a legend

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.
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 title game.

“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.”

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.
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.
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.

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 you don’t.”

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 athletic assignments.

“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 stars.”

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