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