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magazine home > archives > spring 2003 > features

Thirty years have come and gone since Memphis took college basketball's center stage. Take a look back at a magical moment in Tiger athletic history.

Meet Me in St. Louis
by Greg Russell

The 1972-73 Tiger Basketball team

1972-73 Memphis State Tigers. Front row, from left: David Kimmel, Ed DeSchepper, Bill Cook, Ed Wilson, Ed Young (assistant coach), John Tunstall, John Washington, Clarence Jones, Ted Turnipseed (student manager). Back row, from left: Bill Grogan (sports information director), Gene Bartow (head coach), Doug McKinney, Jim Liss, Jerry Teltzlaff, Ken Andrews, Wes Westfall, Larry Kenon, Wayne Yates (assistant coach), Charles Duvall, Ronnie Robinson, Billy Buford, Larry Trosper, Shannon Kennedy, Larry Finch, Bill Laurie, LeRoy Hunt (assistant coach) and Norman McCoy (assistant SID).

"The Big Red Head" still claims he didn't. Gene Bartow politely disagrees. "No doubt about it!," say Jack Eaton and Billy Buford.

Thirty years since The University of Memphis' finest moment in basketball, the argument — though in a much lighter tone — still rages on: was Bill Walton dunking and goaltending during the UCLA Bruins 1973 NCAA championship win against the Tigers?

"Big Bill was bad, but he was goaltending," says Buford, a Tiger forward during the 1972-73 season.

"There were seven or eight of his baskets that we thought were dunks (dunking was illegal then), but the referees were letting him do it," Bartow recalls.

"He had more dunks than those they took away — the officiating was terrible," adds Eaton, former "voice of the Tigers."

Walton, now a TV analyst for ESPN/ABC broadcasts of NBA games, just laughs. "I know from personal experience that when you lose a big game, yes, it is the ref's fault. Realistically, I was 25 of 26 because they did take four baskets away from me."

The dunking feud aside, the 1973 Memphis-UCLA championship game was a defining moment for Tiger athletics, not to mention one of the most exciting matches the NCAA has ever seen. A mention of that game still brings fire, intensity — and even a few tears — to the eyes of the Tigers. Led by a 5-10 guard affectionately known as "Little Tubby," the 1972-73 season was truly a magical ride.

City on the rebound

The year was 1973 and Memphis was a racially divided city still reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Subsequent riots had rocked Beale Street and other areas of downtown; race relations were at an all-time low.

"The city was still in an uproar," Buford recalls. "People were looking for something to pull Memphis together."

1973 team today
Thirty years later. Top row, from left: Wes Westfall, Ken Andrews, Gene Bartow, Larry Kenon, Clarence Jones, Ronnie Robinson, John Washington, Bill Laurie, Jerry Teltzlaff, Shannon Kennedy and Jim Liss. Bottom row, from left: Doug McKinney, Ed DeSchepper, Bill Cook, Larry Finch and Ed Young.

The team's roster that year included more blacks than any team in Tiger history. Because of this, Ronnie Robinson, the Tiger center at the time, says things might have turned out differently.

"It could have been a tough situation," Robinson says. "So many blacks starting on a Memphis State team? That had not taken place before. We weren't too sure what was going to happen."

But, as Robinson points out, sports often bring people together. Then-Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler credits the team with helping close an ugly chapter in the city's history.

"That team healed Memphis," Chandler says. "The city was one again."

Buford agrees. "We brought the city together. The financially well-off, the middle class, the lower class — everyone was there at the games."

There is no question that the team did do as much off the court as they did on it. And it started at the core.

"We were just a bunch of basketball players," says Bill Cook. "No race issues on that team. We all got along beautifully."

Larry Finch, or "Little Tubby" as he was dubbed, adds, "If countries were like our team of that year, with everyone working toward the same goal, the world would be a better place."

Margo Bryant Wilson (BBA '77) was a freshman at the University during the 1972-73 year. She says a statement she made 30 years ago still rings true: "When I was growing up, I didn't know anything about basketball. But now, everyone I know — black people, white people, purple people, green people parents and little kids — care about the Tigers."

Wilson was dead center with her estimation. Some 5,000 screaming Tiger fans met the team at the Memphis airport when the team arrived home from winning the regional. People of all ages and ethnic backgrounds crowded Memphis International to greet a team of destiny.

Season on the brink

The early part of the 1972-73 looked like anything but a banner season. The team lost three of its first five games. Expectations were high — the team had tied Louisville for the Missouri Valley Conference title the year before.

"We took a licking early," Buford says. "So many new players trying to mix in, we were looking for an identity."

Finch (21) and Kenon (35) celebrate

All eyes were on Larry Kenon (35) and Larry Finch (21) as the Tigers and a frenzied Mid-South Coliseum sellout crowd of 11,200 celebrate a victory over Wichita State en route to the Missouri Valley Conference championship.

But the "growing pains" soon passed. Bartow's additions of junior college transfers Larry Kenon, Wes Westfall and Buford, began paying dividends.

"Even though we lost some early games, we knew we were loaded," says Cook. "We had great talent — two guys on that team have their jerseys hanging in The Pyramid, and another guy would go on to play in several NBA All-Star games."

"Kenon had the single best season that any Tiger ever had," says Eaton. "He averaged 21 points and 16 rebounds. He was simply awesome. We had a really good team and he made it a great team."

Kenon, who played professionally for 11 years, says Finch was the key. "He was the purest shooter I ever saw. He was the team leader."

Bartow says the combination of Finch, Kenon and Robinson, plus good play from Bill Laurie, Clarence Jones, Westfall, Buford and Cook, made for an "awfully good team."

The Tigers capped the season by winning 22 of their last 24 games as they roared into the title game. They captured the Missouri Valley Conference crown, and Bartow was named National Coach of the Year.

"We had some dog in us," Buford says. "We wanted people to know when they came to our house, they were in for a whoopin'. That attitude spread over into our fans."

Memphis stormed through the NCAA tourney, knocking off South Carolina and Kansas State in the Midwest Regional in Houston before upsetting fourth-ranked Providence in the semifinals. Kenon scored 28 points and grabbed 22 rebounds, Robinson had 24 points and 16 boards and Finch added 21 as the Tigers grabbed national headlines after a 98-85 win over the Friars. A wild post-game celebration included then-Gov. Winfield Dunn and singer Isaac Hayes.

The Big Dance

What awaited the Tigers was UCLA.

"You want to play the best, and UCLA is the best," Laurie, the Tiger point guard, said at the time.

Thousands of Tiger fans traveled to St. Louis for the championship game — many without tickets.

"I was founder of the Rebounders Club and president of the Alumni Association from 1970-71, and for days I could not find a ticket," Tennessee state senator Curtis Person (BS '56) recalls. "I eventually did, but it was not easy."

"You couldn't go anywhere or turn on the TV without the final games being talked about," says Ken Andrews, a reserve on the team. "The atmosphere around town and around the campus was awesome."

Kenon (35) shoots over Walton (32)
Larry Kenon scores two of his 20 points with this jump shot over Bill Walton in the title game. Walton would play professionally for Portland and Boston while Kenon was part of the Dr. J and Mr. K show for the New York Nets of the ABA and NBA.

The Tigers' task was daunting. The Bruin teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s are regarded as the most dominating squads in NCAA history. UCLA had won 74 straight games and six straight NCAA titles coming into the Tiger tilt. In seven seasons, UCLA's record was 207-5.

"We knew we were going to have to be at the top of our game against Memphis because they were such a terrific team — we knew we had our hands full," Walton says. "And Gene Bartow was such an outstanding coach."

In the championship game, Walton's dominance proved too much for the Tigers to overcome. Walton's brilliant 21 of 22 shooting performance is still the best individual shooting performance in any NCAA tournament game.

Foul trouble as much as anything else proved to be the undoing of the team. Kenon picked up three early fouls, and Robinson was sent to the bench with his fourth foul early in the second half.

Still, the Tigers closed the first half on an 8-2 run to knot the contest at 39-39.

"In the locker room at the half, we thought we would win the game," Robinson says. "We were more confident than before the game started."

The Tigers scored the first basket of the second half to take a 41-39 lead, and only trailed 49-47 with 13:50 left.

"It then started slipping away," says Robinson.

"Walton went berserk," Buford remembers.

And, as quickly as the Tigers were in the game, they were out. Walton hit all 10 of his shots in the second half, and the fouls took their toll.

Finch led Memphis with 29 points followed by Kenon's 20, but the Tigers' 21 total rebounds were their lowest total in 16 years.

"The 87-66 final score was misleading — it didn't indicate the toughness of the game," then-Bruin head coach John Wooden says.

"A call here and a call there, and the outcome would have been different," Buford recalls.

Walton's teammate, Greg Lee, says the Tigers were the best team UCLA faced during his three years. Walton agrees.

"I think the Tigers were the victims that night of a very determined team that was making up for a very poor performance we had in the championship game the previous year," Walton says.

Still No. 1

Coaches and players on the 1972-73 season have scattered, but the memory of that magical season still collectively binds the team.

Wes Westfall today

Wes Westfall greets Tiger fans at The Pyramid during the 2003 reunion of the 1972-73 team.

Bartow works for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies; Clarence Jones coaches basketball at Trezevant High School; Laurie owns the St. Louis Blues hockey team; Buford works for the Warren County Drug Court in Bowling Green, Ky.; and Kenon works at a car dealership in San Antonio.

"That game was the highlight of my sports career," Cook says. "You don't realize the significance of things when you are so young." Now a program administrator with the Shelby County Conservation Board, Cook was the first freshman to ever play in an NCAA championship game. Prior to 1973, freshmen could only play on junior varsity squads.

Finch, who retired as the Tigers' winningest coach in 1997, says he most remembers helping Walton off the court late in the championship game after the All-American sprained an ankle.

"That season changed my life," says Robinson, who is a disciplinarian for a west Tennessee school system. "That final game sent chills through me. All these years later it still does, just talking about it. I can remember the night before the game having butterflies. I remember saying to myself, ‘This is my moment to be No. 1.'"

Though the Tigers lost the final game, 30 years later, they remain No. 1 in the hearts of Tiger fans.

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