Memphis thumbs its nose at convention

SAN ANTONIO — John Calipari mentioned to his basketball team one day last week that a fellow named Jesse was going to stop by practice.

"We have an academic adviser named Jesse," Memphis junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "So we all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, no, who didn’t go to class?’

"Then Jesse Jackson walked in. He didn’t even talk basketball to us. It was great."

It’s atypical, and that’s Calipari. That’s Memphis. That’s the team that tonight could win its first national championship by beating Kansas at the Alamodome.

The standalone program against the storied one.

Everything about Memphis at this Final Four has been different. The offense it runs. The city it represents. The underappreciated label its players so ardently insist doesn’t bother them and yet obviously believe exists, even though it doesn’t. The coach who is one line short of a lounge act.

"(Calipari) can sell," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I mean, he can sell. He’s probably selling right now to somebody."

Memphis winning wouldn’t just change views of how best to build a champion, but it at least temporarily could alter the course of a deprived community. Maybe for just a day or a week or a month. Even so, it would be a pretty dynamic sales pitch all the way around.

Think about it: The Tigers are proof you can stand 40 minutes from a title by recruiting incredible athletes and allowing them to play without the fear of their skills being handcuffed by some stringent system or their minds being put to sleep by Ben Howland’s timeouts.

Think about it (II): This team is five points from being 39-0, from being discussed as one of the greatest in college history with a group of players who never are handed scouting reports and never shown more than 15 or so minutes of film on any opponent.

"If you’re holding onto 10 ropes, you have to give up three because (players) need freedom to make choices," Calipari said. "You have to count on them being unselfish and accepting roles that are less than what they want. You have to count on them to make decisions on the run and to understand it’s good for them to feel unleashed.

"I just want them to play."

The town of Memphis just wants something great to come of this.

Sections of it define the nation’s poverty crisis at its most tragic level, having twice been ranked its unhealthiest city.

So out there in the middle of the Bible belt, a pious place, a benevolent place, an often broken and desperate place, basketball’s importance has grown unmatched to the point many would consider a win tonight life’s ultimate moment. In dismally poor neighborhoods, they are able to stick out their chests and crack more smiles when talking about the Tigers. It’s a way to escape the hardship.

"With what is happening to our team right now, it shows kids in Memphis there is hope," Calipari said. "There is opportunity. There is chance. Memphis is one of those cities that needs something like this."

The city is flawed, like his players, who he gives second — and often — third chances.

Look. He’s not chasing the same names as Stanford. How many programs are? Calipari likes to say the backgrounds and cultures from where most of his players emerge are in the dugout, not third base. They do dumb things. They mess up. They have been known to act like knuckleheads and at times have become more familiar with law enforcement procedure than one would aspire.

But these are warts no one around the Memphis program, much less the head coach, tries to conceal. You can’t recruit risk and proclaim perfection, but you can try to improve lives.

It took a sturdy backbone for Calipari to agree Jackson could visit the Tigers last week, even in a city defined by its unending effort to better civil rights, in the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated four decades ago.

"(Jackson) came and was fabulous," Calipari said. "I’ve never seen my players in awe of anybody like they were of Jesse Jackson. Is he divisive? … For my team, my staff, it was powerful. Some may not see it that way, but I thought it was important for (the players)."

A win for Memphis tonight would mean an NCAA champion that marches to a different melody than past ones led by a coach who is as mainstream as fencing in America.

The standalone program is 40 minutes from glory. So much for a conventional final.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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