Larry Finch's name is synonymous with Tiger basketball — who can forget that magical ride to the 1973 NCAA championship game that thrust the Tiger affectionately known as “Little Tubby” into the national spotlight? His 220 wins (1986-1997) are still the most by any Tiger coach, and, despite his failing health, Finch remains a big fan of Tiger basketball.
Finch recently spoke with The University of Memphis Magazine, giving his thoughts on the past, the present and the future of Tiger basketball.
Phyliss Massey/U of M Photo Services
Larry, Coach John Calipari says that Tiger basketball would not be at the level it is now without you as a player and a coach. Tiger fans feel the same way. Can you tell me what Tiger basketball has meant to your life?
Tiger basketball, it's been my life.
What was your proudest moment as a Tiger player?
Playing in the 1973 NCAA Final Four game against Bill Walton.
What about as coach?
For being recognized as the winningest coach at Memphis State, now the University of Memphis.
You coached some great players, like Elliot Perry, Anfernee Hardaway and Lorenzen Wright. Did you have one particular team you liked best?
I enjoyed all of them. I loved all my boys.
What rivalry did you enjoy most and why?
Louisville. They were always competitive, every game. And I enjoyed coaching against Denny Crum most. He and Louisville were always tough.
You said that your proudest moment as a player was being in the 1973 NCAA championship game. It was tied at the half — did you feel like the Tigers would win at that point?
I feel like that if we had gotten ahead [after the half], we could have won, but we never did. We got behind and couldn't catch up.
What was the difference in that game?
Bill Walton! That guy was tough!
Because you helped improve race relations in the early 1970s, and for what you did on the court, former Congressman Harold Byrd says that you are one of the 10 most important citizens in this city's history. How do you feel about that?
I feel very good. Ronnie Robinson, my friend and teammate, we became household names.
What do you see in the future for Tiger basketball?
Cal is doing a good job. He is a very good coach and a good person.
Do you have any messages that you would like to tell Tiger fans?
I miss Ronnie Robinson. He was always there. He would go get that ball! I would like to say also that it is important to continue supporting the team. And to the team, “just keep on winning.”
Coach Cal weighs in on Finch
Photo by Mark Stansbury
University of Memphis basketball has flourished as of late under coach John Calipari. A dramatic run to the Elite Eight and a ranking as high as No. 7 this season have placed the Tigers in the national spotlight the past two years. But coach Cal is quick to not forget the past, particularly when the name Larry Finch is associated with it.
“I would have to say if there is one name synonymous with Memphis basketball, it is Larry Finch,” says coach Calipari. “When you go around this city and ask anyone to name one person associated with Memphis basketball, I could guarantee you that between 95 and 100 percent would say Larry. That says a lot there.
“I have said on many occasions that Memphis basketball was going on long before we got here and will go on long after we are gone,” says Calipari. “And Larry is and will be the one Tiger that fans not only will remember fondly, but also will pass on to their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren for what he did for the basketball program, the University and the city. With respect to others who have done wonderful things for Memphis, Larry is quite possibly the best ambassador the city and the University have ever had. What Larry did in 1973 was incredible, and I'm not just talking about the NCAA title game. Larry and that team brought this city together and helped it move forward when Memphis needed it.”
Calipari said that because of Finch's impact on the city and the University, the U of M nominated him to the National Association of Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, located in Kansas City.
“We will try as much as we can to get Larry the honor he truly deserves,” Calipari says.
Donations to help offset Finch's medical costs can be sent to: Friends of Larry Finch, c/o John Prince, Bancorp South, 7800 Winchester , Memphis , TN 38125 . Special thanks to U of M Assistant to the President Mark Stansbury, U of M basketball media representative Lamar Chance and to Randy Wade, close friend of Larry's and deputy director in Congressman Steve Cohen's Memphis office, for assisting with this article.